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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Robert Cushing, ex-UH leader

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Cushing: Chair of UH Board of Regents during Vietnam War

Robert L. Cushing, who served on the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents during a turbulent time of campus unrest during the Vietnam War, died Thursday at his home in Gig Harbor, Wash. He was 87.

Although Cushing directed the Pineapple Research Institute of Hawai'i, the Hawai'i Sugar Planters' Association Experiment Station and taught at several universities, including Cornell, his name became well-known during the years of anti-war protest and upheaval at UH in the late 1960s.

As chairman of the regents from 1968-69, Cushing was faced with the resignation of then UH president Thomas Hamilton in the uproar over the Oliver Lee crisis. (Lee was a controversial professor who was refused tenure for what critics said were his pro-communist political views.)

It was Cushing who led the search for Hamilton's eventual successor, diplomat Harlan Cleveland.

"What he discovered was no matter how publicly acrimonious various people were about their positions," said his daughter, Susan Chamberlin, "once he got them in a room together and sat down with them, he found they could be civil to one another and work things out. He had a gift for getting people to communicate and compromise.

"He told me once that he learned from a professor of his that you should never say the first thing that came into your mind. One trick for doing that was he used to smoke a pipe. So when someone charged into his office saying 'What are we doing about such-and-such?' he'd make a big thing of taking the pipe, knocking out the ashes, refilling it and lighting it and then saying, "Well, here's what I think...'"

Cushing was born on a farm near Ord, Neb. and likened his own early days to the early days of other Hawai'i immigrants who grew up on plantations. He came to Hawai'i with his family in 1947 after teaching at the University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota and Cornell University from 1938-1947.

But his reputation in Hawai'i was made as an agricultural scientist, and his career spanned the post-war growth of pineapple and sugar production in Hawai'i, with his retirement coming on the cusp of their decline.

With a master's degree in science from the University of Nebraska, College of Agriculture in 1938 — with a focus on plant breeding and genetics — he joined the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. for two years, before briefly returning to Cornell. By 1951, he had come back to the Islands as assistant director of the Pineapple Research Institute. A year later, he took over as director, serving from 1952-1963.

That year, Cushing was appointed director of the Experiment Station of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association, serving until his retirement in 1979. Under his tenure a new experiment station building was designed and built in 'Aiea, dedicated in 1974, and named in his honor. Cushing applied his knowledge of genetics and plant breeding to the work of the experiment station, supporting the use of genetics in developing agents to fight disease.

"HSPA worked with top geneticists," remembers Helen Berg, Cushing's long-time administrative assistant, now retired. "He was in direct contact with all the plantation managers and made trips all over, staying on top of everything all the time. His memory was unbelievable. He only had to read something once."

Berg contends Cushing's management skills were part of the reason the sugar industry lasted as long as it did in Hawai'i. Robert H. Hughes, a former president of HSPA, disputes that, saying the decline really began several years after he left. But prices plummeted in 1977, and Cushing was forced to make layoffs and cut back expenses at the Experiment Station.

"He had to make tough decisions," said Hughes, "and he did them with grace."

Cushing was a member of more than a dozen community groups and boards, among them the Hawaiian Historical Society, Social Science Association, Hawaiian Academy of Science, and the Hawaiian Botanical Society.

He left Hawai'i in 1994 to be closer to his children on the Mainland. His wife, Enid G. Cushing, died in 1990.

He is survived by a sister, Marian Carlin of Corvallis, Ore.; three children, Susan C. Chamberlin of Richmond, Calif., John A. of Seoul, South Korea, and James R., of Gig Harbor, Wash; and two grandsons. Arrangements are being handled by Bleitz Funeral Home in Seattle.

The family suggests contributions in his memory may be made to the Hawaiian Historical Society.