Sunday, October 4, 2009

Oktoberfest & Meeting Helene Hale

Disclaimer: This post is not about food... but it is worth reading

Last night was the Hilo Women's Club's Oktoberfest. I won 2 tickets because of a contest on Twitter to tweet about the event. I am sure my followers on Twitter were tired of my relentless tweets on the subject. Nonetheless it was a fun evening for a very good cause and along with seeing some neighbors and meeting some new friends I just happened to be sitting across from an Icon of Hawaiian Political History, Helene Hale. As she was introduced to me as the first woman "Mayor" of Hawaii, I wondered if I heard correctly and later found out that I did. It was then I realized I was sitting across from someone very special. If you are here simply for some fun Oktoberfest pictures scroll down to the end of the blog, but I implore you to read on about Helene Hale as she was the best thing about my Oktoberfest experience! If you read this article with interest, be sure to click the many hyperlinks along the way.

My table mate at last night's Oktoberfest, 91 year old Helene Hale

For those of you who don't live in Hawaii, county politics on the island of Hawaii are more like state politics in most mainland states (except for the very large ones.) The Mayor is the head of the entire county and in this case it is the entire island of Hawaii. We do not have city governments, though Hilo is the second largest city in the state of Hawaii. We only have county and state officials, so being the head of the governing board of the largest island in Hawaii is a pretty big deal. Back in the days of Helene's reign we did not even have an official Mayoral position, but we did have the equivalent; Chairman & CEO of the Big Island Board of Supervisors and she was the first woman to hold that post. Not since the reign of Queen Liliu'okalani had a woman governed the Big Island of Hawaii. She also was the first African-American elected to office in Hawaii, though in actuality she is actually of mixed races of African American, American Indian "and a few other nationalities" as she described in her April 1963 cover article in Ebony Magazine. Side Bar: Interestingly, when I worked in Chicago as Director of Public Relations for East West University, I shared an office wall with the president of Johnson Publications, the company that publishes Ebony. EWU is on Michigan Avenue next door to Johnson Publications.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Ms. Hale was teaching at San Diego State College in 1945 when she met Poet Laureate Don Blanding. Through his poetry about Kona she fell in love with Hawaii and decided to relocate her family there. She was planning on being a stay at home mother and housewife in Kona but found that she and her husband could not acquire a teacher's cottage at Konawaena High School on the West Coast of Hawaii Island unless both of them contracted to teach there. And so went the dream of staying at home with her two young children and a new dream began of making Hawaii a better place. While teaching at Konawaena she was turned in to the Un-American Activities Committee because of her liberal democratic position in a generally Republican conservative state. While charges were eventually dismissed, the School Superintendent Ernie DeSilva told her, "Keep your mouth shut and get along."

"You don't tell that to Helen Hale!" she remembers. She turned in her resignation the following day and took on a less lucrative job of selling children's books door to door. She had no clue then as she traveled to Sugar Plantation Camps speaking to housewives that she was actually gaining training for her eventual role as a key politician in Hawaii.

In 1954 ( the year of my own birth, which seems so long ago) she ran for and won a seat of the Big Island County Council after spending a relentless term of 18 hour days going door to door to promote her candidacy. She was the only democrat elected to the County Board of Supervisors and she won by a mere 212 votes. She promised a wholesale purge of unnecessary County Brass. I wish she were in office today!

In 2004 Ms. Hale's son Jasper who suffered from Schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder died and she has spent her remaining years championing mental health issues in Hawaii and the Nation. Here is a link to an article she wrote about Losing her son and gaining a call to help mentally ill. It is a heart rendering account of a mother who found herself helpless to save her son from the voices that eventually ended his life. It is the voice of reason for continuing stem cell research, but most of all it is a very said punctuation to an otherwise wonderful life. No parent should have to bury their child, least not from a disease that can be treated.

She has also been a supporter of Senior issues such as death-with-dignity laws, jury service exclusion for seniors over 80 and retesting senior drivers over the age of 70. Interestingly, she must still be able to pass the test at 91, because when she was ready to leave the Oktoberfest she got up said goodbyes and drove herself home.

Over the years she served on and off on the County Council, being unseated a few times and establishing businesses, but never giving up on improving Hawaii. In 2000 at the age of 82 she ran for office again, this time to fill the seat of State Representative Bob Herkes. She was widowed for a second time and said she had "nothing better to do". She represented Puna and her campaign slogan, cleverly chosen by Hawaii County COuncil Woman Emily Naeole was "Recycle Helene Hale!" She served there as the Chairwoman of the House Committee on International Affairs where she publicly voiced an opinion in 2003 against entering a war with Iraq without UN backing (THAT'S MY GIRL!) and trying to encouraged the Aloha spirit in urging negotiations over invading Iraq.

She was ridiculed by Republicans ad others for "Offering Aloha to Saddam." In retrospect with thousands of American Soldiers dead and even more maimed, her fears seem much more grounded. Knowing what we know about the false pretenses the war was based on and the economic devistation that this war has caused us, I have even more admiration for this woman of Hawaii.

Ms. Hale had a stroke in 2006 and continued through her legislative term but decided to retire from political office as soon as a suitable replacement could be found.

With accolades for her many years of service and her fight to build a gym for Pahoa High School, she was recently honored at the ground breaking for the Helene Hale Gymnasium at Pahoa High school. Here is video from that event. Her legacy will live on there and throughout much of Hawaii.

OK... so here are some pictures from the Oktoberfest! I would have had more, but my camera's screen burned out midway through my photo shoot. Anyone have suggestions on what I should buy as a replacement?

OK... this is a plant, not a real Hilo Women's Club Member OOMPA!

Beverly Heikes, President of Hilo Women's Club and her son dancing "The Chicken Dance"

Wes finishing his second brat!

Beverly Heikes , President Hilo Women's Club
My neighbor Virginia and her son Joe. Should we cut her off???

Chicken Dance!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for giving us this perspective on the Hilo community and on Hawaiian history. The story of Ms. Hale is inspiring. - Chuck A.

Anonymous said...

What a story...I heard an interview with her on the radio last year but didn't know about her son.She is an amozing woman.
On the Don Blanding poetry read Baby Street..amazing that this was published in the 20's.
Aloha ,Hula Honey