A man of change John A. Burns
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
KAILUA — Fifty years after statehood, it's hard to imagine Hawai'i as anything except a multi-ethnic example of democracy.
Only the oldest of its residents can still recall an era when U.S. presidents appointed territorial governors, big businesses ran the Islands and the rights of minorities were easily squashed.
But that fading generation can also recall the man who changed much of that: John A. Burns.
An imposing politician who was dubbed "Stone Face" and "the Old Man," the gruff Burns helped the Democratic party rise to power in Hawai'i in 1954, then played a pivotal role in the drive to statehood in 1959. During his three terms as governor, Burns led a people's revolution against social, political and racial elitists.
This week, as part of Hawai'i's celebration of 50 years of statehood, a one-hour documentary about Burns will air on KHON. "John A. Burns: The Man and His Times" reintroduces the late governor to a new generation.
Produced and hosted by Emme Tomimbang, it was first broadcast in 2000 to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. The encore presentation Wednesday features a new introduction by the governor's youngest son — and Tomimbang's husband — retired state appeals Judge James Burns.
It's a story of a relatively simple man who cared little for the trappings of power. Burns was a public servant with a mission, his son said.
"It wasn't about himself," James Burns said of his father, who died in 1975 at the age of 66. "He never did aspire to be what he became. He just had a vision of Hawai'i being a democracy and offering opportunity to everybody, which wasn't true when I was growing up and when he was growing up."
The documentary offers a sweeping vision of Burns, including his youth in Kalihi without a father, his time as a Honolulu police detective, Burns' early failures in politics and the broad changes he forged for Hawai'i as a delegate to Congress and later as governor.
Tomimbang got the idea for a documentary in 1997 after she started organizing the thousands of photographs in the family's private collection. She jokes now that she has become the family librarian.
A veteran broadcaster with 30 years of media experience, Tomimbang knew what she wanted — images that would help illustrate not only Burns, but the Hawai'i where he was raised.
"He had a pretty tough life," she said. "He wasn't a pure, perfect person. He had his own issues and his own struggles living in Kalihi in a poor family and raised by a single mom. When you think about these things in his life, you realize what made him so sensitive to the people's needs."
His struggles produced a very different kind of haole than the businessmen who ran the Islands, Tomimbang said.
"He was a man of the street, and I think in those times for a haole guy to be like that, to be so into the local people, it was quite unusual and I think that is what made him so different," she said. "He had such a mindset and passion and a heart for things that matter to local people."
HIS GOAL: STATEHOOD
Burns loved his career as a police officer, but he left the force in the 1940s for politics. It was a long road to success, though, and Burns did not win an election until the people sent him to Congress as their territorial delegate in 1956.
"I think what's important about statehood and what the importance of his role is, is that Burns was constantly preaching the concept of equality," said Dan Boylan, a history professor at the University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu. Boylan helped write the documentary and also co-authored a book by the same name with historian T. Michael Holmes.
"Hawai'i would never be equal and its people never be equal in the eyes of the rest of the nation unless you had statehood," Boylan said.
His sole purpose for going to Washington was to achieve statehood, and Burns ushered through a bill with the help of two southern politicians who would become good friends: House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.
"I think he was precisely the right man to go to Washington when he did when it came to statehood," Boylan said. "He was the right guy to be there to shepherd it through."
Tomimbang plans to release a commemorative DVD of the documentary and would like to get copies into schools. It's part of an ongoing effort to reach people who know Burns only as a name on a building, she said. Ever since it first aired, she and her husband have shown the documentary to new students at the University of Hawai'i's John A. Burns School of Medicine.
It's a moving experience for her husband, now 71, and the young students, Tomimbang said.
"He looks alarmingly so much like his dad," she said. "It's like the governor coming back."
The son does look like the old man, although thinner and older than his father, who died of colon cancer in the same family home in Kailua that James and Emme now share with a lovable, slobbering Rottweiler named Rufus.
The senior Burns offers a lesson for the ages, his son said.
"I think everybody has got to understand where we came from to understand where we are and where we should be going," he said. "And the fact that one individual can accomplish change."
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.