Learning Aloha On The Big Island
Wednesday - August 01, 2007
Hideo “Lefty” Kuniyoshi died last week. He was 86 years old, and he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a number of years.
Never heard of him, did you? That would please Lefty. Lefty never sought the limelight. He loved politics and worked in Hawaii County government for most of his life, but he never ran for political office.
That’s a shame, because Lefty had it all: brains, charm, generosity, integrity, loyalty - and a smile that could light up a room.
Born and reared on the Big Island, Lefty’s father ran a jewelry store on Front Street in Hilo. The eldest son in a family of seven children, Lefty moved to Oahu in 1939, intent on earning a business degree at the University of Hawaii.
It would take him more than 10 years. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused the first interruption in his education. Like several thousand fellow Hawaii Japanese, Lefty volunteered for the Varsity Victory Volunteers, then the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. As a member of K Company, he fought the Germans on the Italian peninsula and helped in the rescue of the “lost” Texas battalion in France. The furious fighting there, he once told me, “made a philosopher out of me.”
Lefty had just returned to Hawaii and his university studies, when the 1946 tsunami swept Hilo’s Front Street - and Kuniyoshi’s Jewelry - into Hilo Bay. So Lefty went home to help his dad rebuild the family business.
Post-war Hilo’s business community had learned little from the 442nd’s battle for equality in Europe.
“Doc Hill was the Republican Territorial senator from Hilo and the head of the Hilo Chamber of Commerce,” Lefty told me several years ago. “I expected him to recruit us for membership in the Chamber. The invitation never came.”
The Kuniyoshis moved the family store mauka a block, reopened, and Lefty returned to Oahu and the university.
Lefty finally completed his degree in 1950. At the university he had met Clarissa Saiki, a Kauai girl seven years his junior who was studying to be a high school social studies teacher. They married in 1951.
Like so many World War II veterans, Lefty simultaneously made a career, started a family, and helped launch a political and social revolution in Hawaii. (And - it should be noted - helped move the family business mauka yet again, when the 1960 tsunami destroyed downtown Hilo.)
Lefty joined the vast majority of his fellow 442nd veterans and marched into Hawaii’s Democratic Party. In the early 1950s, he became the secretary of the Hawaii County Democrats, when the party was so small its records could “be kept in a shoe-box.” In alliance with Hawaii’s burgeoning labor unions, the veterans seized control of the Territorial Legislature in 1954, the congressional delegateship in 1956, the governorship in 1962, and three-fourths of the state’s congressional delegation by 1966.
His party affiliation helped Lefty become executive secretary of the Hawaii County Board of Supervisors in 1957. In 1967, he became executive director of the Hawaii County Department of Liquor Control.
I first met Lefty in September 1966. He gave me a ride. My friend Cuyler Shaw and I were carless United States Peace Corps volunteers standing beside the rode near Hakalau School, where we were training. We carried our rolled-up towels and bathing suits under arms, hoping someone would take mercy on us and give us a ride to Hapuna County Park.
Lefty and his wife, I believe persuaded by their 13- and 10-year-old daughters, did the merciful thing. They stopped, picked us up, and took us to the Mauna Kea Beach Club. There we frolicked in the ocean with the Kuniyoshi girls. Lefty bought us lunch; beers too; and he drove us home that night.
Through the entire day, Lefty never cracked a smile. Not once. He gave us his super Samurai stare. Neither the best of my Irish blarney nor, my buddy’s East Coast smoothness could crack it.
But the following weekend, same spot beside the highway, Lefty and his girls picked us up again. I don’t think he cracked a smile that day either, but somewhere that day - between Hakalau and Hapuna - Lefty decided we were all right.
Over the next three months, Lefty and his women took us to the beach, celebrated birthdays with us, invited us for Thanksgiving, took us horseback riding and fed us repeatedly. They opened their home and their hearts to us; and for the past 41 years, they’ve remained open.
Lefty, this nisei World War II veteran, gave me my first lesson in the meaning of aloha. That’s a wonderful lesson to learn anytime, from anybody; but when you’re a 23-year-old haole boy from the Midwest grappling to find your way - believe me - a teacher like Lefty Kuniyoshi is as good as it gets.
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