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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 25, 2003

Mission honors 6 as 'treasures'

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

 •  Living Treasures Banquet

6:15 p.m. Feb. 7

Hawai'i Convention Center

$47, includes dinner


The first chairman of the State Foundation on Culture & the Arts, a musician, a feather-lei maker, two former school administrators and a pioneer in the field of mediation have been chosen as this year's Living Treasures.

For more than a quarter century, Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i selects recipients each year, "celebrating the beautiful and best in human spirit and human endeavor," said Bishop Chikai Yosemori.

The mission doesn't limit the choice to its members, though two are among this year's honorees: Albert Miyasato, one of its past presidents, and Dr. Margaret Oda, who served on its board and is chairing a committee to develop the first Buddhist high school in the nation. Both were superintendents for the state Department of Education.

"This isn't about just one religion," said Ko Miyataki, a member of the selection committee. "The larger picture is that each one has made a commitment to our community. Honpa Hongwanji has taken the lead in honoring individuals in all religious and ethnic sectors. It's like Buddhism in action."

According to Scott Stone, author of "Living Treasures of Hawai'i," honorees "are driven not by a need to be recognized, but by a need to be useful. They seem to share the idea that if they have the ability to make a contribution, then they have a responsibility to do so."

Mary Lou Kekuewa

Mary Lou Kekuewa

Age: 77

Feather lei artist and teacher

Mary Lou Kekuewa has been teaching and practicing the art of feather lei "since I can't remember when," the 77-year-old said from her Kapahulu shop, Na Lima Mili Hulu No'eau — more commonly known as "Aunty Mary Lou's."

"People remember it that way because they remember mama," explained her daughter, Paulette Kahalepuna. "She personifies the art in that she embraces every student — literally, they hug — because that's part of the values."

Unlike a master chef who may withhold a key ingredient from a recipe, Kekuewa refuses to hold anything back, Kahalepuna said: "Sharing of artistry was how she was taught."

Her mother is most comfortable when her fingers are busy. A good thing since each creation takes patience. A lei can take 20 to 80 hours to complete; a kahili can take months to years. In 1986, she completed the feather cape, Ahu'ula O Mailelani, one of the few completed in modern times using traditional methods, a 13-year endeavor.

"It gives you a real sense of calming, in that values are instilled in us in quietness," she said.

There's an edge to it, too, as Kahalepuna knows. One time, getting her car fixed, Kekuewa upbraided the automotive shop: "It's taking you so long to finish, I had time to finish this lei!"

"I'm sure the fellow didn't see the humor in it," her daughter said.

Masaru 'Pundy' Yokouchi

Masaru 'Pundy' Yokouchi

Age: 77

The first chairman of the State Foundation on Culture & the Arts; helped to create the Maui Arts & Cultural Center

Masaru "Pundy" Yokouchi remembers the feeling that washed over him in waves when Gov. John A. Burns appointed him the first chairman of the State Foundation on Culture & the Arts.

"It was the most frightening experience of my life," said Yokouchi, 77. "I had no idea about the arts myself."

With good people to guide him, he not only started the foundation and a program setting aside 1 percent of public money for art (more than 30 states followed suit), but helped stimulate a renaissance in Hawaiian arts through SFCA support.

"Those days, it's funny, art groups were suspicious (of the 1 percent program)," he said. "They thought politicians wanted to take over the arts."

They asked "Who's this guy? A political appointee?" But it turned out to be an advantage.

"Because I was so empty-headed, they trusted me," he said. "They thought, 'This guy's too stupid to intervene!' "

He also helped fuel the drive to create a little something for his hometown of Maui. The Maui Arts & Cultural Center, which has become a big draw for fans, have some acts choosing to bypass O'ahu venues to only play on Maui.

Because Yokouchi has benefited so much from learning about the arts himself, he said he has difficulty accepting accolades: "I feel like the man who was invited to attend this wonderful, sumptuous dinner with wonderful wines and desserts, who then after dinner proceeded to wrap up all the silverware and take it home."

Albert Miyasato

Albert Miyasato

Age: 77

Lifelong educator, interpreter and former aide to Gov. George Ariyoshi; working to save the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

Lifelong educator and former aide to Gov. George Ariyoshi, Miyasato was around when the Honpa Hongwanji created the Living Treasures program.

When he tried to tell his nominator that he didn't deserve the honor, he was told: "Sorry, Al. That's not for you to decide."

A glance at Miyasato's resume proves his nominator right. His career began as a teacher, then principal and administrator (including acting and deputy superintendent of education in the mid-1970s), and as chief interpreter for the commander in chief of Pacific Command at Camp Smith from 1985 to 1996. He also worked as interpreter-translator for the U.S. Army in postwar Japan and spent 3 1/2 years as an education consultant in Saudi Arabia.

As head of the Hawaii United Okinawan Association and various other ethnic and cultural groups, his reach has been far and wide. All this from a guy who got his GED at age 21 because he had been in Japan when war broke out. It was not uncommon for families in prewar Hawai'i to send their children to Japan to study.

Today, he's still making headlines and adding to his resume. As a member of the Committee to Save the Center, he is soliciting contributions for the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, which just this month, after a whirlwind campaign, was able to emerge from a nearly crushing debt.

Ted Tsukiyama

Ted Tsukiyama

Age: 82

One of the premier arbitrator-mediators in the state and 442nd Veterans Club historian

To track down Ted Tsukiyama, 82, you start at his office. That makes sense for the pioneer in the field of mediation and one of the premier arbitrator-mediators in the state.

"Being an attorney, I don't think the court judicial system (is optimum) for many types of disputes, when parties have available something that's quicker, less formal and less costly," said the member of the Supreme Court Bar Examining Committee and member of the Supreme Court Mediation Panel since 1995.

Tsukiyama's off-hours contributions include serving as historian for the 442nd Veterans Club. He helps to track down the stories, "particularly the part that nisei soldiers played in the wartime," he said, "and the ultimate determination of the issue of loyalty of the Japanese American."

"I just want to preserve that history for future generations, to know what the nisei did and contributed during World War II," Tsukiyama said, "to further the acceptance of this Japanese-American minority into the mainstream America."

His goal: to gather as many World War II veteran interviews as possible. "Everyone's war experience is different," he said. Another aim is to try to preserve the oral histories electronically and to digitize the documentation, so that it can be available on the Web.

Beatrice 'Beebe' Freitas

Beatrice 'Beebe' Freitas

Age: 64

Respected musician and accompanist; associate artistic director of Hawaii Opera Theatre

Beebe Freitas remembers that the best day of her life was when her mother took her, then age 3, to her first piano lesson.

It opened up her universe.

"I feel so awed that I have been given the opportunity to participate in this great world of music," she said. "There's no luckier person in the world than I. Every day is a brand-new adventure."

In the 61 years since that lesson, when she made the teacher chuckle at how well she knew her right hand from her left, Freitas has pounded out an impressive resume.

"It probably looks more elegant on the page," said Freitas, who besides playing piano and harpsichord with the Honolulu Symphony, plays organ for Punahou School and several churches.

" ... Some people are fluent in many languages, I try to be as fluent in as many styles and instruments as I can understand."

Speaking of fluency, she's learning Russian as part of an upcoming performance of the Hawaii Opera Theatre, where she serves as associate artistic director.

Among her "Wow!" memories: At age 20, she was an accompanist for the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting.

"I thought, 'Things don't get much better than this.' "

Margaret Oda

Margaret Oda

Age: 77

Former school district superintendent and the driving force behind the establishment of the middle-school concept

Thank educator Margaret Oda for Hawai'i middle schools being treated as middle schools rather than mini-high schools.

It took years, but her greatest accomplishment looked like a non-starter. She had presented the idea of a middle school more in keeping with the needs of children that age during her first posting as Honolulu district superintendent in the '70s but couldn't get the buy-in she needed.

When she returned to the post a second time in the '80s, she got it off the ground. Today, all Hawai'i districts have adopted the model.

"I was so passionate about improving the middle-school program, then the weakest link in the K-12 program," she said.

And at 77, when most might be content to rest on laurels, she's helping the Honpa Hongwanji get its new high school up and running. A principal, Pieper Toyama from Hilo, has been hired, and the school plans to open classes to freshmen this fall, adding a grade level each year after that.