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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 28, 2003

American Samoa Gov. Tauese Sunia, 61

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Tauese Pita Fiti Sunia, governor of American Samoa, died Wednesday night while traveling from Apia to Honolulu. He was expected to undergo treatment at Straub Clinic & Hospital.

The death of American Samoa Gov. Tauese Pita Sunia en route to Hawai'i Wednesday night is a major loss to Hawai'i's Samoan community and the state at large, friends of the late governor said here yesterday.

Many of the state's estimated 40,000 residents of Samoan ancestry are expected to honor the popular political, religious and educational leader at a funeral here at 3 p.m. Sunday at Central Union Church.

Sunia, 61, died Wednesday night aboard Polynesian Airlines Flight PH362 from Apia while en route to Straub Clinic & Hospital here for treatment of abdominal pains.

Lt. Gov. Togiola Tulafona, named acting governor upon Sunia's death, said the cause of death was unclear, but that it was not the illness for which Sunia was coming to Hawai'i for treatment.

"Tauese is the brave heart of American Samoa, a humble man who loved his people," Togiola said in a tearful announcement on state-run television about 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Sunia is survived by his wife, 10 children and many grandchildren. His remains will be returned to American Samoa on Monday.

Mayor Jeremy Harris said Honolulu's citizens "extend their condolences to the people of American Samoa. We grieve with them.

"The governor was a man of principle who placed his people first."

Former Honolulu City Council member Mufi Hannemann, a leader in the Samoan community here, said: "Gov. Sunia was a tremendous leader, and his death is a loss not only for the people of American Samoa, but a loss for Hawai'i. ... We have lost a key ally and support among our Pacific Island cousins."

Characterizing Sunia as "the consummate political leader," Hannemann said the governor could give a solemn speech, preach a sermon, or sing, or dance, as the occasion required.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association, said Sunia "served the people of his territory with dedication and passion" and was "a strong voice for all American territories."

The governor had been accompanied by his wife, Fagaoali'i, on the flight to Honolulu.

Gov. Sunia was elected in 1996 and narrowly re-elected in 2000 with 50.7 percent of the vote, after serving as lieutenant governor under former Gov. A.P. Lutali from 1993 to 1996.

He also served a two-year term in the American Samoa House of Representatives in the capital of Pago Pago and was a former director of the territory's Department of Education.

Sunia was born in Fagatogo. He earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science from Kearny State Teachers' College in Nebraska, a master's degree from the University of Hawai'i and an honorary doctorate from Golden Gate University.

Considered American Samoa's "education governor," Sunia spent many years as a teacher, educational television instructor, administrator, American Samoa Community College vice president and territorial director of education.

As governor, he worked to ensure that every school had a computer room with Internet access, Locke said. He had students measured against national rather than local educational standards, raising the level and quality of education.

He also practiced law and served as president of the American Samoa Bar Association from 1991 to 1992.

He had been a deacon of the Congregational Christian Church in American Samoa since 1971, and had been serving as chairman of the church since 1996, overseeing all of its affairs for Samoa, Hawai'i, the U.S. Mainland and New Zealand.