Second in Two-Part Series
Hawaii Herald, 1/1/1987
By Ben Tamashiro
In our last issue, former educator and legislator Robert S. Taira related his experiences as a lieutenant in World War II.
When Robert S. Taira left for war, the question uppermost in his mother’s mind was, “Why should I lose another son?” But throughout the war, through the thousands of rounds of mortar fire that Taira had directed at the enemy during the course of the war, the only wound he received was a small injury to his hand, received during the battle to rescue the “Lost Battalion.” “All it required was a trip to the first aid station, and I was back in action,” he recalled.
But four decades later, Taira encountered danger of another kind. A year ago he underwent an operation for cancer of the colon, a procedure that he understood to require a hospital stay of about a week to 10 days. But, due to complications brought on by an infection, he had to undergo a second operation in the same area. That put him flat out of action for five weeks.
Teed off because he couldn’t get satisfactory answers as to how such infections could even occur in a modern hospital, Taira received only commiserations in response. He could not help but to develop negative feelings toward hospitals. “A long stay like that, something happens to you. Whenever I go by hospitals, I have a fear … a fear of hospitals, of surgeons.”
Taira had earlier gone through the agony of losing five brothers. Both parents passed away after the war. Then, two years ago, he lost his wife, Kuulei. He was in no mood to die; it was not that he had lost his courage, but simply felt that dying because of an infection contracted in a modern hospital seemed uncalled for.
“You see, my ambition if I survived the war was to go back to teaching and raising a family. During the war, Kuulei was on Hawaii teaching. But I wanted to teach in Honolulu, and so I started out at Farrington. But the act of leaving the Islands …well, horizons began to open up. And so I left teaching for better job opportunities. Instead of thinking of myself as a teacher, I began to think of something bigger. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed teaching. I enjoy teaching. But funny how things work out. Now, instead of being a retired school teacher, I’m a retired something else.”
That “something else” included some time in the federal civil service. From there, Taira moved into the business community, becoming a vice president in charge of personnel administration and on the board of directors of City Mill Company. During this period he also ventured into a number of business enterprises. Next came some of the most productive years of his life, 16 years in the state legislature representing the Pauoa-Nuuanu district.
“Unlike today’s single member district, it was a large district then. There were four of us-Dave McClung, Howard Miyake, T.C. Yim and myself. Howard was already in the legislature and I said to myself, if he can do it, I can do it, too.
“Why politics? I’ve always had a basic interest in government and community affairs. But previously, I couldn’t afford it. You don’t make money in politics. Both the Democrats and Republicans are always looking for people who would be appealing to voters. I had a lot of close friends who were members of the Democratic Party. They encouraged me, said that I had good relationships with people, that I could reach people. So I talked it over with Kuulei and my two young boys, Neal and Dennis, and they said they would support me so I wouldn’t be frustrated for the rest of my life.”
Taira first ran for state representative in 1962. After eight years in the House, Taira ran for the Senate, was elected and spent another eight years there before retiring in 1978. He then became the chief labor negotiator for the state.
Taira served as chairman of the House Education Committee for two years, during which time, with the support of Gov. John Burns, he straightforwardly tackled the problem of low pay for Hawaii school teachers. He established communication with school districts in Wisconsin, Oregon and Los Angeles, then organized a tour of these districts with other legislators. Through his efforts, teachers’ salaries were upgraded by many times more than he had received when he taught at Farrington.
In the Senate, while Taira chaired the committee on public utilities, he succeeded in getting the Public Utilities Commission established on a fulltime basis. The commission is charged with the responsibility of monitoring the utility companies on behalf of the public. Taira felt that it could not fulfill its mandate on a part-time basis. But the legislative accomplishment that is closest to his heart is the annual conference of student leaders from high schools across the state. “I was in Hilo one day during the time that I was chairman of the House Education Committee. A bunch of kids told me they were going to have a conference with representatives from different schools. All schools? No, just a few. Purpose? to ‘talk story’ about how to improve schools. And how do you pay for the conference? Oh, washing cars, selling chocolate bars, huli huli chicken, and the like.
“I thought the conference idea was good, so I asked the students what would they think if the state picked up the idea and provided the funds, but with all schools participating. They thought that was great.
“You see, the urge to get together to discuss important problems was already there among the students. As they endure these problems, we encourage them to pull their ideas together at a single conference. Instead of communications going only from top-down, the students have a chance to submit their ideas up the line to the Board of Education, the superintendent, the legislature. After all, school is for kids, not for teachers or administrators. These conferences are still taking place each year.”
Since the death of his wife, Taira visits her grave in the National Cemetery at Punchbowl about three times a week. “You know, by the way, I walk to the edge of Punchbowl, and I can see my house. When she was alive, I never used to think about cleaning house, cooking, and the like. Now that she’s not here, I’m made aware of all these things. I miss her, somebody to scold, to pick on, to praise. I tell all my friends to be good to the wife while she’s still alive.
“She understood my idiosyncracies and moods like a psychologist. Once in a while she used to grumble that I’m not showing that I love her; that I’m like samurai, always leaving her several steps behind me. But when she wants something out of me she’d be all sweetness. “She was like a buffer between me and the two boys. As father, I prefer to be strict, but she used to say that there is more than one way to treat them. Me, I grew up in the same way as the boys, but I forgot those things.”
Taira has rebounded well from surgery. He is still an active board member with Liberty Bank, and attends all of its meetings. He even took a recent trip to Las Vegas to test himself. He returned feeling refreshed, like new.
All his life, Taira’s preferred to wait for no one. “But, lots of times when I’d find myself walking way ahead of Kuulei, she, with her sense of humor, would call out, ‘Hey, Tokyo! Wait for me!” But that’s the way Bob Taira prefers to do things, always moving ahead.