A Fitting Way To Honor Sen. Inouye

In spring 1975, UH professor Paul Hooper and I drove to Kailua to interview Gov. John A. Burns for the “John A. Burns Oral History Project.” Burns had battled cancer during his third term, and he was losing. As we plugged in our tape recorder, his life was numbered in months, then weeks.

During the sessions we had with Burns on his role in building the modern Democratic Party, visitors dropped in, friends called and his eldest son arrived for a final visit.

The Legislature was in session at the time, and budget hawks in Burns’s own Democratic majority threatened to cut funding for the incubating but already costly medical school. One day, while we were interviewing the governor, a phone call came in. Paul and I paused our tape and left the room.

When we were allowed back in, Burns told us that one of “his boys” at the Legislature had called to say that there was talk of naming the new stadium after him. Although a sports fan, Burns declined. “Told ’em I’d be more honored if they named the medical school after me,” winking his eyebrows to express his wileyness.

John A. Burns School of Medicine it would be. And for a generation at least following his death later that spring, Burns’s name protected it from Capitol budget cutters. Democrats knew the “old man’s” wishes, and their loyalty protected his medical school.

Forty years later, John A. Burns School of Medicine stands proud on its own, its graduates providing medical care across the state and the Pacific, and its faculty researchers promising medical breakthroughs that could go far beyond our Islands.

Few, if any, of the young people who fill our Capitol offices today know anything about Burns or the vision of the Democrats of his generation that Hawaii become a meeting place for the Pacific region: of Asian and American cultures, scholarship, technology, art and architecture.

But in one of his last acts, he and the Legislature’s Democrats branded the university’s medical school in pursuit of that vision.

In the aftermath of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s death, another Legislature, still dominated by Democrats, considers naming a host of things after him: the Big Island’s Saddle Road, military facilities and streets.

Perhaps all should have Inouye emblazoned across their facades. Heaven knows we littered the Hawaii landscape far beyond the medical school with Burns’s name, why not with Inouye’s? He’s deserving.

But littering in death is frankly not in the spirit of either man. Silence, measured words, and humility marked the style of both.

Their vision, however, was another thing. Burns’s name protected the University’s medical school through a rough fiscal patch. Inouye’s should be used to help the East-West Center for Cultural Interchange through another.

Inouye gave the East-West Center cover from its inception through the economic recession in which we are currently mired. At times EWC seemed to lose its way, but Sen. Inouye never wavered in his commitment to it. He’d certainly continue to extend that cover for the Daniel K. Inouye East-West Center for Cultural Interchange.

Let’s go further: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. It would remind all who passed through its portals of him, but more important, of our multi-ethnic origins. And a decaying airport, named after a man known for his ability to work across the aisle, would attract federal dollars.

DKI would understand that.