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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Ben Tamashiro, 'Harry' in Bankoh ads, dead at 86

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ben Hiroshi Tamashiro, who with his wife, Gloria, starred in the memorable series of homespun "Harry and Myra" commercials that touched the heart of a community, has died at the age of 86.

Ben Tamashiro, and his wife, Gloria, became famous as "Harry and Myra," their characters in a series of Bankoh ads that ran in the 1990s.

Advertiser library photo • October 1994

Tamashiro became so well-known as his Bank of Hawaii TV alter ego that people on the street would hail him as Harry — and he would answer.

"I guess it tickled him," said his daughter, Brenda Imoto of Honolulu. "They were being themselves," she said. "Most of the lines were scripted but I'm pretty sure they had some of their own lines in there."

But Tamashiro also was a World War II veteran and member of the 100th Infantry Battalion, a tireless volunteer for worthy causes and a talented writer whose words grace a national monument to Japanese-American soldiers.

He was born in Hanapepe, Kaua'i, in 1917 and died Friday at The Queen's Medical Center.

It was as "Harry and Myra" that the husband-and-wife team of Ben and Gloria Tamashiro became known in Hawai'i and beyond.

The couple appeared in about 60 spots for Bankoh during the 1990s to help the company explain new electronic bank services in human terms. The first ad aired on the 6 o'clock news on New Year's Day 1986, but the major campaign ran between 1990 and 1996.

"Ben's personality in real life was exactly like you saw in the TV ads," said Alton Kuioka, vice chairman of Bank of Hawaii.

Kuioka said the Tamashiros were "immensely successful in connecting with our local customers."

"They epitomized the idea of putting yourself in your customer's slippers," he said. "And Harry's Market (their fictional TV mom and pop store) became an icon for small business in Hawai'i."

In 1993, when the Tamashiros were invited along on a University of Hawai'i football trip as boosters for the team during a big game with Brigham Young University, they were virtually mobbed on a side trip to Las Vegas, remembers Bankoh vice president Sharlene Bliss.

"Going up the escalators, in the parking garage, people were yelling, 'Hi, Harry and Myra!' and they wanted to take pictures with them," Bliss said. "They seemed to be the Hawai'i ambassadors over there."

More than a pitchman

Even the Tamashiro children were stunned by their parents' celebrity, which arrived rather suddenly after a friend suggested they try out for the Bankoh commercial after spotting them in a Kumu Kahua play they had done as a favor to another friend.

"We didn't realize the enormity of it," Imoto said. "Sometimes we commented to them, 'Gee, it's not like before where we could just drop in unexpectedly.' Many times we'd have to arrange our schedules around theirs."

But there was more to Ben Tamashiro than his popular public image. After he retired as an administrative officer with the federal civil service at Schofield Barracks, he kept busy with the Manoa Valley Church. He was a volunteer driver with their Meals on Wheels program for 17 years; was one of those who handled all the recycling efforts for the church, loading the cans into his own car; and helped install more than 450 emergency call systems for home-bound seniors.

A member of the 100th Infantry Battalion who served in Italy during World War II, Tamashiro carried the scars of two serious injuries, one to his leg, and one to his right arm. The latter sent him home and impaired the use of his right hand for the rest of his life.

Decades later, he would pen the moving words for a World War II memorial erected in Los Angeles to honor Japanese-American servicemen. After a nationwide search failed to elicit an appropriate inscription, his former commanding officer — Col. Young Oak Kim, who was in charge of the project — wrote to Tamashiro, according to his daughter. The words Tamashiro sent back were the ones chosen — with a single change. Instead of "internment camps" as he had written, the inscription was changed to "concentration camps."

His words live on

Though he didn't want any credit, Tamashiro's name is inscribed in the stone "Go For Broke" monument in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles, under this inscription:

"Rising to the defense of their country, by the thousands they came — these young Japanese-American soldiers from Hawai'i, the states, America's concentration camps — to fight in Europe and the Pacific during World War II. Looked upon with suspicion, set apart and deprived of their constitutional rights, they nevertheless remained steadfast and served with indomitable spirit and uncommon valor, for theirs was a fight to prove loyalty. This legacy will serve as a sobering reminder that never again shall any group be denied liberty and the rights of citizenship."

Tamashiro is survived by his wife, Gloria B.K. Tamashiro; five daughters, Regina Tamashiro of Honolulu, Brenda Imoto of Honolulu, Vanessa Miller of Japan, Jenny Hazama of Mililani and Celia Tamashiro of Honolulu; sister, Kay Akiyama of Hanapepe; and seven grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Manoa Valley Church. Services at 5 p.m.; arrangements by Moanalua Mortuary.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.