Issue 9.6: December/January 2007

School of a Lifetime

story by Paul Wood
photos by Chris McDonough

 

The arcade of triumphal arches rises—roofless, silent and monumental by Maui standards—in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cane fields and withdrawn more than a mile from anything you’ll find on a map. The North Shore tradewinds of Hamakua Poko gust through its empty ten-foot-high windows. This, the main building of the original Maui High School, constructed in 1921, is now an eloquent shell, robbed by time of its doors, its floors and—this is the astonishing thing—of its community, which once clustered thickly around its walls. Gone are the houses, the camps, the vegetable gardens and laundry lines. Gone are the paths along which the students would run home for lunch every day. Gone are the trains and tracks that carried students to school from Wailuku, Kahului, Pu‘unënë and Ha‘ikü. In the dizzyingly short period of fifty years, this school’s entire world vanished.

That’s the tragedy of success.

Maui High School’s beautifully democratic mission was to educate the children of the camps—kids whose parents had come from afar to labor in sugar and pineapple fields. The teachers did such a fine job that the kids rocketed right out of there and never looked back.

They became lawyers, judges, doctors, military officers, successful entrepreneurs and political leaders. Maui mayor Alan Arakawa is an alumnus; likewise two of Maui’s most colorful and influential other mayors, Elmer Cravalho and Hannibal Tavares. One of its grads changed American history—U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink. The alma mater served so well as an accelerator of progress that it made itself obsolete.

The camps themselves became obsolete during the social turbulence between World War II and statehood. The people of “H’poko” abandoned the district, most of them moving to modern housing tracts in Kahului. Old Maui High School closed in 1972 just as a new Maui High opened smack-dab in the middle of Central Maui’s post-plantation “Dream City.” Although the county and the state continued to use the remote H’poko site for limited purposes, the school buildings—especially the noble administration building, which was designed by C.W. Dickey, the most respected architect in Hawai‘i’s history—slid into ruin.

Until about two years ago.

That’s when Jan Dapitan went out to look at the place. Jan is head of Community Work Day (CWD), a nonprofit organization dedicated to beautifying the environment. By organizing some 5,000 volunteers, CWD manages hundreds of effective projects, including county-wide cleanups (five per year), “Compuswaps” that collect and dispose of tons of bum computer components and the rescue and reuse of numerous old buildings. When Jan visited the H’poko site, she says, “I was astonished at the condition. The Dickey building was encased in a tree and buried in the jungle, not even visible from the road.” She targeted the campus as a “hot spot” for her CWD volunteers. She also began talking with community members who shared her concerns for the school and its history. One of these, Barbara Long, made a smart move. She put together a low-cost newsletter and mailed it to all the alumni. Instantly the envelopes started flooding in—donations in amounts that ranged from $5 to $10,000. Jan and Barbara, not OMH grads themselves, quickly realized the force that they had tapped, the wellspring of loyalty and love felt by the school’s alumni, who had migrated all across the island, the state and the country.

Says Barbara Long, who is now president of the Friends of Old Maui High School (www.oldmauihigh.org), “That school was a breeding ground for movers and shakers. The kids got such a good education, it’s just amazing.”

In order to understand the emotional symbolism of this project, you probably have to shed some contemporary assumptions—that high school is grimly practical and mandatory, a kind of low-security prison for teenagers, certainly not a neoclassical edifice rising like a cathedral amidst the villages of immigrants, certainly not a beacon of hope.


 

 

Maui’s first public high school (in the contemporary sense), this campus was built to deal with a sudden and unprecedented social problem. The island was flooded with new immigrant laborers, and these people, of course, were having children. When the school opened, for example, Maui had 20,000 citizens of Japanese origin (40 percent of the total population), all of whom had arrived within the previous two decades. It also had 2,500 recently immigrated Okinawans. Koreans had started coming just ten years before the school opened. The Filipinos, just four years before.

These people were the inventors of Hawaiian Creole English, or pidgin. Their children would clearly qualify as “disadvantaged” by today’s standards. (In fact, during the 1940s the school closed every Friday so the students could work for the sugar company, cutting grass for twenty-five cents an hour.) For them, school was a place where their children could form a common culture, learn a common language and achieve the privileges of citizenship in a brave new world on the fringe of America. More important, it was a place for them to learn how to escape the drudgery of indentured servitude.

“We were eager to go to school in those days,” says Spencer Shiraishi, class of ’45. “My father had school only to the second grade. My mother, not at all. Amazing. They couldn’t help us one bit with our homework.”

Frank Domingo, a 1947 graduate, says, “My father made us promise that we would finish high school, and we did.” Frank’s father was a college-educated Filipino who chose contract labor in Hawai‘i in order to create opportunity for his sixteen children. Those children are now highly accomplished and widely dispersed U.S. citizens who have excelled particularly in the military—a sibling total of more than 100 years of patriotic service, says Frank. “Our parents instilled this in us—with double whacks.”

“I used to walk a mile to school,” says retired schoolteacher Ruth Mukai, who graduated with Frank’s class.

Frank: “You walked to school because you wanted to go to school.”

Ruth agrees. “It came from the parents. They were so anxious for their children not to be field workers like them.” Her father had come from Japan at age eight, son of a plantation carpenter and a sack seamstress. He worked his way to the position of Pa‘ia station manager for the railroad, partly on the strength of his skill with one-finger typing. “We had no telephone, no TV. One radio with one knob. Hi ho, Silver!”

The best emblem of Old Maui High’s success is Ruth’s cousin Patsy Takemoto, class of ’44. Like Frank, Patsy grew up in H’poko Camp, a culturally diversified village located within running distance of the high school. By all reports, she was quite a firecracker from the moment she stepped on campus—straight A’s, all the clubs and organizations. She defeated classmate Elmer Cravalho in their race for student body president. Ruth remembers,

“She made the announcements every morning. And when you went to the game, she’d be yelling her head off.”

Frank smiles when he recalls, “The smallest one, yelling and cheering.”

The ’44 yearbook calls Patsy “a real credit to our school.” Indeed she proved to be, repeatedly—especially when, by her married name, Patsy Mink, she became the first Japanese-American woman to be elected to the Territorial House of Representatives, the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, a 1972 candidate for U.S. president (running on an anti-war platform) and the author of that historic legislation known as Title IX, a.k.a. The Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, which created new opportunities for American women in fields such as medicine and law.

In her memoir Patsy gave credit to the high school and its principal Malcolm Clower, who played “a very significant role in my self-confidence. … It made no difference to him that I was a girl student. I think it was a mark of exceptional ability on his part to rise above the normal stereotypes of the day.”

When you look through the yearbooks of this period and see the enthusiasm and confidence in the faces of the students, and you hear the buoyant stories of the now-aging alumni, you begin to think that the school’s faculty, most of them quite haole and schoolmarm-looking, had adopted a benevolent mission to give these children of mixed-culture laborers the inner certainty that they were as smart and capable as any human beings on the planet.

Frank Domingo: “The teachers were concerned about your welfare. They taught you the respect of each other. No matter what nationality, everybody respected each other. We had to be close to each other.”

The alumni’s goal is not merely to preserve the Dickey walls, but to restore the structure to community use, put history to work for the future. It’s going to be a stretch. The 1921 building was constructed for just $66,000; a comparable structure today would cost 100 times that amount. Nor has anyone made a firm plan for the uses and design of the restored facility. Perhaps some of that will become clearer when the alumni gather in September 2007 for a massive all-school reunion.

No matter what, though, they do know what they’re going to call it. Can’t be Maui High anymore. Instead, it will be The Patsy T. Mink Center. HH