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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hawaii union, social activist Ah Quon McElrath dies at 92

 •  She taught us to take risks, take care of others

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

For some, labor leader Ah Quon McElrath embodied the grit and determination of those who built Hawai'i.


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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ah Quon McElrath lobbied at the Legislature for numerous causes. Last year, she testified in favor of the “Death with Dignity” bill.


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Ah Quon McElrath, who helped shape the history of labor and social justice in Hawai'i, died Thursday at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center. She was 92.

The diminutive McElrath — known to most as simply "AQ" — helped organize the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Hawai'i in the 1930s, and dedicated her life to community service, education and improving the welfare of the working class and poor.

"She was a lifelong champion of the underdog and an eloquent, irrepressible and forceful spokesperson for labor, human rights and progressive causes," said Bill Puette, director of University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu's Center for Labor Education & Research.

"She never hesitated to challenge the male-dominated leadership of the unions and force them to look beyond salary issues and to go after standard-of-living improvements like occupational safety, ethnic equality, healthcare and education."

ILWU International President Robert McEllrath yesterday called her death "a loss to workers everywhere."

"AQ was part of the early generation of ILWU leaders who fought hard for working families on the docks, in the fields, in factories and hotels," he said in a statement.

ILWU Local 142 President Fred Galdones described McElrath as "the conscience of the ILWU and our moral compass."

"She was passionately committed to helping working people, and the first to speak out for the less fortunate in our community," he said in a statement.

Gov. Linda Lingle said McElrath was "the voice of working men and women in Hawai'i and across the country" for seven decades. "The people of our state owe her a debt of gratitude for her tireless efforts to improve the lives of Hawai'i's residents," Lingle said in a statement.

Kippen de Alba Chu, chairman of the 50th Anniversary of Statehood Commission and executive director of 'Iolani Palace, said McElrath was the embodiment of the grit and determination of people who helped build Hawai'i.

"She was a fiercely passionate woman whose positive energy and enthusiasm always propelled us forward, especially during times when difficult and controversial issues were discussed," de Alba Chu said in a prepared statement.

The union reported it is establishing a fund in McElrath's name "to honor her commitment to member education and the importance of collective action in a democratic society."

In keeping with her wishes, services will be private, but the ILWU will hold a celebration of life to honor McElrath in late February.

McElrath is survived by daughter Gail Long; son Brett McElrath; a brother, Ah Nee Leong; a sister, Mabel Abili; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

She was born Dec. 15, 1915, in Iwilei to Chinese immigrants. She went to work in the Libby, McNeil & Libby pineapple cannery at age 13, and graduated from McKinley High School in 1934. Four years later, she earned bachelor's degrees in sociology and anthropology from UH-Manoa.


McElrath worked alongside legendary union leaders Jack Hall and Bob McElrath, whom she married in 1941. In 1954, she became the state's first and only union social worker, explaining retirement and medical benefits to members and offering counseling in more personal matters.

"She was one of the most outstanding social workers I have ever met. She was very effective in speaking the language of plantation workers," said Ed Beechert, a former UH professor and author of "Working in Hawaii: A Labor History."

Beechert, who first met McElrath in 1963, said union audiences would listen in "rapt silence" and then explode with applause when she was done speaking. The activist also appeared at Beechert's sociology classes at UH.

"She was a big hit. She was able to speak to the academic world as well as the plantation world," he said.

McElrath retired from the ILWU in 1981, but remained an activist for numerous causes throughout her life. She was a fixture at the Legislature, where she lobbied for a wide range of issues including women's rights, healthcare, education, unemployment and disability benefits, gun control and physician-assisted suicide.

In 1999, McElrath joined a handful of other community activists to form Save Our Star-Bulletin, a group that fought to save the daily newspaper after it was sold by Gannett Co. Inc., current owner of The Honolulu Advertiser.

"She was not motivated by righteous anger but by a true love for children, for working people, for her neighbors and for all she came into contact with," said lifelong friend Claire Shimabukuro, executive director of Hawaii Meals on Wheels.

In 1995, McElrath was appointed to the UH Board of Regents by Gov. Ben Cayetano, serving until 2003.

UH President David McClain yesterday described her as a dedicated advocate for education, which she called a "window to the world."

"Though small in stature, she was a feisty and resounding voice for students and faculty while serving on the board," he said in a statement.

McElrath was among those credited with creating the Ethnic Studies Program at UH-Manoa, and in 2005, the UH Foundation established the Ah Quon McElrath Fund for Social Change and Justice to support conferences, publications and internships for the program.

Among the many honors bestowed on her was the UH Founders Alumni Association Lifetime Achievement Award, for McElrath's leadership in advocating social change in education and improving social conditions throughout Hawai'i. She was named a recipient of the 2004 Ho'oulu Award for leadership from the Hawai'i Institute for Public Affairs, and was designated a Living Treasure of Hawai'i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.


Although McElrath was a larger-than-life character, friends yesterday recalled her kindness, generosity and sense of humor.

Former lieutenant governor Jean King was a UH student in 1946 distributing union fliers door-to-door when she became acquainted with McElrath.

"She believed in true justice, and for her, to believe was to act, which she did in multiple arenas," King said. "Her friends got to experience her other skills as well. AQ was a wicked poker player, and because the games were potluck at my place, we also got to know what a superb cook she was."

Shimabukuro said McElrath was a voracious reader who was quick to pass around books and magazines for friends to digest. Shakespeare was among her favorites, and McElrath also was a music lover who learned to appreciate the classics by listening to old 78 rpm records as a child.

"She felt music was not only for the rich and well-heeled and intellectual, but something everyone should enjoy," Shimabukuro said.

The arts provided a balance to McElrath's work. Shimabukuro said she once queried her friend on how she managed "to stay the course" after so many years of tireless work under sometimes hostile conditions. McElrath replied: "By finding the beautiful things in life. I never miss a Sunday performance of the symphony because it feeds my soul."

Shimabukuro said that aside from being a community advocate, McElrath "was also a benefactor."

During a recent visit to McElrath's home, Shimabukuro said, she was handed an envelope with a donation for the Meals on Wheels program. McElrath then asked if Shimabukuro would mail a stack of other envelopes for her.

Shimabukuro said she counted 28 envelopes addressed to various charities benefiting the arts, children, political causes and other programs.

McElrath's friends were the beneficiaries of homemade mango chutney, lilikoi jam and clothing, and simple acts of kindness.

"She loved the beautiful things in life, and what I mean by 'beautiful things' is that she would bring an armful of flowers and lay them across the dashboard just so the car could smell like pua kenikeni as we drove to strategy meetings," Shimabukuro said.

Her own failing health did not stop McElrath from continuing to worry about the welfare of others, she said.

"Despite her illness, she would call to ask how my mother was doing, to talk about her love of literature, the value of music. She was someone who did what she did based on the fact that she truly, truly cared about everyone in society," Shimabukuro said.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.