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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dye, Suwa: Isle visionaries

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bob Dye with sons Steve, left, and Tom Dye. He had five children.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Wong

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Bob Dye

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An illegitimate child put up for adoption in Depression-era Cleveland, Bob Dye spent his life as an author, educator, historian, journalist and behind-the-scenes political force fascinated by the forces of history and animated by a desire to uphold the principles of a working democracy.

Dye died Friday following a long illness. He was 81.

Dye served as a key aide to former Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi and former Hawai'i congressman Cec Heftel, both of whom also died last week.

Dye authored "Merchant Prince of the Sandalwood Mountains: Afong and the Chinese in Hawai'i," about Hawai'i's first Chinese millionaire, and the recently published novel "Humble Honest Men," which has been nominated for a Po'okela Award.

He also wrote numerous newspaper and magazine articles and columns and edited the "Hawai'i Chronicles" series.

Yesterday, friends and family members remembered Dye as a person of high intellect and high principle who endeared himself to others with his sense of humor and his ability to recognize and appreciate other perspectives.

Longtime friend Jerry Burris described Dye as "a renaissance man and determined Irishman, who was a writer, politician, social worker, professor and journalist."

Fasi, the former mayor of Honolulu, died late Wednesday in Hawai'i, a day before Heftel died in San Diego.

Bob and I "were talking about Fasi on Thursday," said Burris. "He said for all of his shenanigans, he was one of the best mayors any town could have. He spoke kindly of him, basically."


Burris said the two were unaware of Heftel's death at the time they were talking, but that Dye would have probably spoken kindly of Heftel as well. Dye was a gentleman, Burris said.

"Emphasis on the 'gentle' part of that," he said.

Dye worked as director of broadcasting at Western Michigan University, overseeing what is believed to have been the first college TV station in the country, before moving to Hawai'i with his first wife, Harriet, and their two children, Tom and Stephen, in 1966.

Dye accepted a position as an American studies professor at the University of Hawai'i and was one of three faculty members from his department to participate in the famous Bachman Hall sit-in of 1968.

"He and his colleagues felt the situation was an opportunity for the students to learn about civil disobedience," Tom Dye said. "It was an opportunity for a civics lessons. He also wanted to make sure that their emotions didn't carry them away."

Bob Dye was among several protesters arrested for their participation in the demonstration.

"He was holding a flower in his mug shot," Tom Dye said, proudly. "I really admired him for his willingness to take a hit for a principle — a good principle."

Bob Dye left the university shortly after and took a position as Fasi's liaison to the Model Cities program, which he built into a dynamic force for change in fighting poverty along O'ahu's Leeward coast.

Tom Dye, then in his teens, remembers joining his father on extended visits to communities in Waimanälo, Wai'anae and Hau'ula.

"He was really committed to the democratic policies of the time," Dye said of his father. "He really admired the way Frank Fasi fought for the little guy. It was what motivated him."

Bob Dye eventually became Fasi's top aide. During his years with Fasi, Dye became a master at grant-writing, landing a wealth of federal dollars for city programs through the 1970s and into the 1980s.

But the mayor also considered him a troubleshooter and Dye was often dispatched to defuse potentially difficult situations.

Joe Magaldi, who was head of the city Department of Transportation Services, worked with Dye in the 1970s when the two conducted audits of various city departments.

"He was first-class, and he took no nonsense," Magaldi said. "When we did reports and recommendations, he was very thorough. We went inside and outside (the departments). Then we would sit down with (Fasi) and the directors.

"As I recall, Uncle Frank fired some of those directors," Magaldi said.

"Bob trusted me and I trusted him — that was how we worked," Magaldi said. "He was a dedicated guy."


Bob Sandla, who served as an administrative assistant to Fasi, remembers Dye as "a very bright guy with a great sense of humor," qualities that made him a good complement to the at-times acerbic Fasi.

One of Dye's "duties" was to participate in the round-table gatherings of local newspapermen at the old Columbia Inn on Kapi'olani. There, Dye would use his humor and affability to communicate the mayor's point of view, Tom Dye said.

Dye's work for the mayor also enriched his personal life. When Fasi wanted to create a ballet company in Hawai'i, Dye was tasked with making it happen.

In hiring for the company, Dye, who had by then been divorced for a few years, arranged an interview with Tessa Magoon, a Hawai'i ballerina who had been dancing in Europe.

They fell in love, married, and raised three children, Ahia, Hi'ilei and Kekapala.

Dye ran for mayor in 1984 but lost in the primary. As Tom Dye explained, the bid was more of a strategic attempt to weaken the re-election bid of Eileen Anderson, who had upset Fasi for the position in 1980.

Bob Dye retired from politics soon after and devoted his life to pursuing his interests in history and journalism.

Tom Dye said his father's interest in family lineage and history was as much personal as it was academic or professional.

Bob Dye grew up an only child in an adoptive home and, for most of his life, did not know anything of his birth family.

It wasn't until he had retired from politics in the 1980s and started to pursue his interest in historical research that Dye searched out and connected with two half brothers and their families. They remained in contact until his passing.

Dye would devote exhaustive effort to "Merchant Prince of the Sandalwood Mountains," which drew critical praise for its meticulous research into the life of Chun Afong, an ancestor of his wife, Tessa.

The humorous "Humble Honest Men" draws heavily from Dye's personal history in its fictional account of a hapa-haole Hawai'i native who travels to Ireland to explore his Irish roots.

In real life, Dye owned a home in Kinsale, Ireland.

Dye left behind several unfinished projects, including a book tracing King Kaläkaua's extensive world travels.

"His illness sapped him of the energy to complete his projects, but he was happy to get the novel done," Tom Dye said.

Bob Dye died at his Kailua home in the company of his sons Tom, Stephen and Kekapala and his companion Sheila McCarthy.

He is also survived by Ahia and Hi'ilei, his other two children with his late wife, Tessa; and three grandchildren. Tessa died in 2002. Services for Dye are pending.