A proud liberal, she fought for her beliefs in public and behind the scenes.
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Jean King left this world and left her mark, although today under-appreciated in a society where the news about a leader inevitably trumps the values they stand for. Attending Jean’s memorial service three days after Christmas, I was comforted knowing that those close to her remembered her richly for all the remarkable things she was.
Jean did a lot of good in public service. Most notably she fought hard and victoriously for the state’s Sunshine Law, shoreline protection and the bottle bill. And in 1978, as a proud liberal, she became our first female lieutenant governor.
Jean navigated through her life at a time when there were few models or mentors for local women with the brains and guts to tackle politics, and more importantly, real political change. Indeed Jean King did not shine so much at pure politics as she did at being a remarkable Hawaii humanitarian. Her brilliance was in her beliefs and the mixture of local grace and determination that has characterized island achievement throughout our modern history. She was Scottish-Japanese by ancestry, knew Hawaii’s history and culture from the inside out, and believed with her whole heart in the principle that if you do it to one of mine, you do it to me.
She was beautiful and tough. She was sanguine about shaping a better world for those most in need. She was unforgiving to those who got in the way of what was right and who should have known better.
So I find myself remembering when I was a staff member to Lieutenant Governor King, driving her on several nights to Hale Mohalu in Pearl City around 1980 to visit the residents there. For decades, patients who suffered from Hansen’s disease had lived in those old military barracks when they were on Oahu. When we visited, they were using kerosene stoves because the state had turned off the power. I drove Jean in my old beat-up Datsun because she didn’t want a state government car out there. Those meetings were secret.
Jean would talk with the group’s leaders, including Bernard Punikaia. The topic was stopping the state from its plans to evict the patients and tear down Hale Mohalu. Jean was trying to convince her own administration to hold off on the eviction and on the demolition of the old barracks until the patients no longer needed the facility. The argument was fundamental, based on prior injustices and past tragedies. I can remember Bernard humorously suggesting that Hale Mohalu would naturally last about as long as the last Hansen’s patients, and then they could tear it down because there would never be any more patients to use it.
Jean repeatedly made her case with the state’s administration. She had one compassionate ear, from a gentleman and dedicated bureaucrat named Sus Ono. Somehow Hale Mohalu stayed open for the residents.
But in 1983, about a year after Jean King left office, the patients were forcibly evicted and the structures were subsequently torn down. Their guardian was gone; the die had long been cast; only Jean’s will had delayed the roll.
I find myself now wondering why Lieutenant Governor King chose me as her driver on those nights. I didn’t live far from her, so maybe it was a matter of convenience. Maybe, I flatter myself, she took me because she thought I might learn something of value.
Thirty years later, the particulars matter less than the shared sense of humanity that Jean King lived by and fought for her whole life. One of Jean’s favorite sayings was “ad astra per aspera” — “through hardships to the stars.” I think now of Jean, steadfastly, unflinchingly so.
About the Author:Chuck Freedman is a 40 year resident of Hawai`i and was on Lt. Governor King’s staff from 1979 to 1982.
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