My Interview With Sen. Inouye

The doors open and he slowly exits the office. His pace is slow but he walks with a purpose. Staff members are a few steps behind, quietly reading their smart phones, knowing their boss knows the way.

“Good morning Sen. Inouye,” says a young staffer, racing off to his next meeting. “Good morning, young man,” he responds with his deep, stern voice. “Have a good day.”

His presence commands respect, but he is quick to show respect first.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye embodied Hawaii’s aloha spirit, and we all benefitted from his lifetime of service. American hero? Of course he was a hero.

“Am I a hero?” he said with a broad smile when asked that question. “No. I’m not a hero. I’m just proud to serve the people of Hawaii.”

His humble response was supported by his actions.

In April of 2010, I asked Sen. Inouye if he’d be willing to share his story with Hawaii’s residents in a sit-down, talk-story interview. I had a personal agenda. I wanted the next generation to know that he was more than just the soldier who lost an arm during World War II. I wanted my children to learn about this great man and understand what he meant to Hawaii and our country.

Sen. Inouye agreed, and I’m forever grateful for the time he gave us.

“Look around this room. I deliberately decorated this room with art from Hawaii,” he said of the room for invited guests. “You don’t see certificates or photos of colleagues. I don’t want visitors to come into this office and feel intimidated. I keep my personal stuff in my little private room, including my medals. I don’t want to put them out here because they won’t be understood. Those medals remind me of something, but not that I’m a hero. No, I’m not.”

We were invited into the “little private room” that was filled with medals and family photos. I knew I was surrounded by history and many memories, but there was one framed item that stole my attention.

“I thought you’d see that,” he chuckled. “That’s the first letter I wrote to my mom when I went to war. ”

The Senate Appropriations Committee chairman continued, “I know I’ve been criticized for my earmarks over the years,” said the self-described king of pork. “But I’ll never apologize for serving the people of Hawaii and helping fund important projects back home.”

One important project that was scrutinized was the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hokule’a. It was Inouye who had the vision to see beyond the critics.

“You can criticize me and ask, a million dollars to build a canoe?” said Inouye. “In the process of building the canoe, young students from Kamehameha learned other things about their ancestors. I’ve had hundreds of kids come up to me, telling me, you know I took part in this and I learned that my ancestors crossed the Pacific 700 years before Columbus. Now that’s more important than a million bucks. Self-pride, that’s what counts!”

These were the last words he shared with me in April 2010: “I have told my staff, I have told my family, when the time comes when you question my sanity, or question my ability to do things physically or mentally, I don’t want you to hesitate; do everything to get me out of here, because I want to make certain the people of Hawaii get the best representation possible, and I mean that!”

Aloha ‘oe, Senator. Mahalo nui loa for all that you did for Hawaii and the nation.