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Your BYU–Hawaii Legacy

Aloha mai Kakou,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Mahalo to both Keoni and Rebekah for their kind remarks and introductions.

I am proud to be a member of the BYUH administration, faculty, and alumni. By way of introduction, it is traditional protocol in Hawaii to honor and recognize your kupuna and genealogy. I am proud to be the son of Dr. James Murray Walker Jr. and Carol Umi-ae-moku Helekunihi, and to also be co-raised by my stepmom, Judy Walker. No Keaukaha mai au ma ka moku o Hilo, ma ka mokupuni o Hawaii. I was born in Hilo, Hawaii, and raised in Keaukaha on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Although I wasn’t baptized until I was 16, my family pioneer heritage stretches back to my great grandparents, Abraham and Minerva Fernandez, who joined the church in 1895 in Honolulu. Two years prior, Abraham was ousted from his position as Privy Counselor to Queen Liliuokalani in the coup of 1893. During this tumultuous time, one of his daughters, Adelaide, became seriously ill. Shortly after Peter Kealaka‘i Honua gave Adelaide a priesthood blessing, her health was restored and my family became interested in learning more about the church and joined shortly after that. In 1895, the queen was woefully forced into house arrest in an upper room in the ‘Iolani Palace. Few were allowed to visit her. My grandmother, Abraham’s wife, Minerva, was one of them. During these visits, she talked about her newfound faith. After years of missionary work with her, Abraham baptized Queen Liliuokalani in the Hamohamo River near her home in Waikiki in 1906. They were leaders of the church in Hawaii from that point. While Abraham was the first counselor to President Samuel E. Wooley, my grandmother was the relief society president over the island for many years. Although Abraham passed away in 1915, Minerva was still alive and well in 1921 when David O. McKay first envisioned this university.

How many of you have heard of David O. McKay’s vision and subsequent dedication of this school? I am sure many, if not most of you, are familiar with the basic themes of that story. For example, how in 1921-just over 100 years ago--he visited Hawaii and was touched deeply by the spirit while attending a morning flag raising ceremony at the church’s elementary school in Laie. However, did you know that he wasn’t commissioned to come here and scout a location for a future church university in Hawaii? It was not on his agenda. But after that experience, it became one of his central missions.

In 1921, David O. McKay was a young apostle on an assignment to tour missions outside the United States. He was a tall man, with puffy hair and a large personality that filled any room he entered. Hawaii was merely a stopping place on his international tour. While on the island, he came out to visit Laie, most likely to see the new temple, dedicated only 15 months prior. By the way, there were only five operating temples at that time. The fact that temple number five was in Hawaii, in the small village of Laie, in the middle of a sugar cane field, is mind-boggling especially if you consider that temple number four was the Salt Lake Temple.

On February 7, Elder McKay recorded in his journal that after eating a delicious breakfast at Temple President Waddoups house,

“Presidents Hugh Cannon and Smith and I went over to the school which is conducted under the direction of the mission and witnessed the most impressive and inspiring site. 127 little children ranging from seven or eight years to 14 or 15 formed in order on the lawn, and then march to the flag pole and participated in the flag raising ceremony.”

Elder McKay mentioned specific students by name and nationality in his 1921 journal entry. Hawaiian William Ka’a’a, American Thomas Wadduops, and Japanese student Otokochi Matsumoto.

While attending this morning exercise, Elder McKay was jarred by a spiritual experience that profoundly stuck with him for the next 34 years. When he looked at that “motley group of youngsters” all thrown into a so-called melting pot, Elder McKay explained, “My bosom swelled with emotion and tears came to my eyes and I felt like bowing in prayer and Thanksgiving.”

In 1955 he recounted this 1921 experience.

In addition to feeling a great sense of pride in the opportunities provided by American ideals of equality, McKay also celebrated the divine concept of unity amidst diversity, particularly through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was also determined and inspired to build an institution of higher learning in Hawaii, a college for the saints in Hawaii and the Pacific. But, as a young Apostle with limited administrative authority to bring this vision to fruition, Elder McKay had to wait a few years, 34 years to be precise.

Have you ever put a dream on hold? If so, for how long? How meaningful does a dream have to be to remain fresh in the queue for 34 years?

Not only do I marvel at the stamina of McKay’s desire to build this institution of higher education, but I am also convinced that this profound experience of seeing unity and diversity in the gospel at an elementary school in Laie in 1921 opened his eyes to the future of the church, an international one.

Many historians recognize David O. McKay as the prophet who ushered the church into its international phase. Under his leadership, the church grew exponentially, particularly internationally. He also emphasized a shift from a notion of gathering Zion in a single place to uniting with decentralized stakes of Zion, stretched throughout the world. Did his experience in Laie in 1921 shape that trajectory? To me, the story of BYU–Hawaii’s origin is inextricably linked to the expansion of the church internationally.

As a historian, I am also compelled to consider the broader historical context of the time period. In 1921, much of American society was separated by legalized racial segregation. Although Utah didn’t officially have segregated schools, they nonetheless had some racially discriminatory laws, laws that prohibited interracial marriages at that time. Many American schools were segregated by race in 1921. In fact, it wasn’t until 1954, the same year President McKay announced the Church College of Hawaii, a racially integrated school in Laie, that segregated schools in America were deemed unconstitutional through the famous court case Brown vs. Board of Education.

In many ways, David O. McKay was ahead of his time and forward in this thinking by establishing a racially integrated diverse college at this time.

Not long after becoming President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President McKay announced his plan to establish the Church College in Hawaii. In 1954, he selected Reuben D. Law, the Dean of Education at BYU in Provo, to be the first president of the future Church College of Hawaii. Law organized and brought a committee to Hawaii to assess and plan the beginnings of this college. Shortly thereafter, President Law ambitiously confirmed to President McKay that classes could start in September of 1956, less than two years away. To president Law’s surprise, David O. McKay instead insisted they begin classes in September 1955, less than one year away.

President Law needed the right help to execute a Prophet’s ambitious charge.

One of his first hires was a native Hawaiian woman named Ethel Helani Whitford Almodova. Her role as the Director of registrars and admissions was critical because the school needed students fast!

In 1954 Ethel was a recent graduate from BYU in Provo and only 23 years old. However, president Law offered her a full-time faculty position to run registrars and admissions for the future La‘ie college.

Born and raised on Maui and a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, Ethel attended BYU in Provo from 1950 to 1954. While there, she lived with roommates from Hawaii, danced hula with the BYU Hawaiian club, and earned a bachelor’s degree in education.

She was one of five children and the first in her family to graduate from college. One of her brothers, Kala Whitford, was father to the late Joe Whitford, husband to our current head of registrars Daryl Whitford. Joe taught History classes here at BYU–Hawaii in the 2000s.

Ethel found friendship with fellow classmates from Hawaii, enjoyed interacting with others and sharing her culture when possible. Although her experiences in Provo were mostly positive, she experienced the uncertainty of racial segregation firsthand while on a trip to Washington D.C. I mention this experience to help contextualize the time period but to also accentuate the value of a multi-cultural college in Laie for native islanders like Ethel. She explained,

“The August before my senior year, I took two weeks off from my job in the Registrar's Office and caught the train (the California Zephyr) in Provo and rode for two days and two nights to finally arrive in Alexandria, Virginia. I changed trains in Chicago and Washington D.C. Upon alighting from the train in Alexandria, there were signs that read, "Whites Only" and "Blacks Only." That was a shocker and I deliberated just for a second and walked through the door that was labeled Whites Only! No-one stopped me so I walked on outside, hailed a cab, and went to Naomi's apartment.”

It took courage for Ethel to leave her small island and pursue education in a foreign land. Upon completion of her bachelors’ degree, she was excited to return home. She graduated on June 4, 1954. She explained that no one from home came for her graduation, but they sent leis and their congratulations. However, she was consoled by the fact that there were several from Hawaii who graduated at that time. She spent the rest of the summer working in the Registrar’s Office and then left the middle of August for home.

Although her new job in Hawaii was exciting, David O. McKay’s ambitious mandate to start classes seven months after plunging a shovel in the ground at the dedication in February 1955 did make things challenging for Ethel’s first two months on the job. Since new student admission and enrollment needed to take place well before classes started, Ethel had to find an entire student body for the college in about two months. How could she recruit so many students in so little time to a college that only existed in concept? She got straight to it.

“On several occasions, Birdie and I flew to the neighbor islands to recruit students for school. We flew to the Big Island and landed in Kamuela where Sister Thelma Lindsey met us and took us to her home in Waimea. This was in July and we nearly froze. It was so cold there. From Waimea we went to Hilo and spent time there with the Saints. We stayed at the Mission Home. Then we were off to Puna and Kona before we flew back to Oahu. We were gone for several days. Another weekend we went to Maui, returned, and then were gone to Kauai... During our trips, we recruited several students and they joined us in Laie when the college commenced in September.”

In a short amount of time, Ethel successfully recruited over 150 students from the Hawaiian islands. These Students were so anxious and blessed to enroll in a college that was affordable, close by, and most importantly tailored specifically for them by a Prophet of God.

The College began with an opening assembly in the chapel of the Laie First Ward because that was the largest facility they had to accommodate everyone.

“True to prophetic vision, the college was now a reality and the official opening an important event in history. We were pioneers and it was exciting to be involved with The Church College. The faculty and staff were very compatible and the students were wonderful. We had 153 students that first historic year and it has continued to grow.”

There were only 20 full-time faculty hired to work at CCH in 1955. Some of those pictured here, like Joseph Spurrier, Wiley Swap, and Jerry Loveland, are names that many are still familiar with today. What also intrigues me is that 25% of the first faculty hires in 1955 were women.

Elizabeth Price taught English and Spanish, Gen Bowman taught home economics, Dr. Billie Hollingshead was a professor of education and psychology, and Lois Swap taught physical education.

In 1956, the university started offering Samoan and Hawaiian language classes, taught respectively by Feagaima’alii and Clinton Kanahele. This is significant since the territorial government did not allow the Hawaiian language in public schools at this time. The fact that we taught native languages here 20 years before the so-called Hawaiian renaissance reflects the way we valued culture in our formative years.

Ethel was mindful that our students were tremendously blessed by this institution. She explained how one student, Glen Auna, was so excited to be admitted to this school that he arrived two weeks early, and they didn’t know what to do with him.

Portable buildings were used as dorms and classrooms while the campus was being built by service missionaries until 1958. The girl's dormitory was up on the hill near the temple, and the boys were housed a couple of miles away at Kokololio, or Kekela Beach Park.

Ethel’s favorite student success story is Eleanore Kaloi, who Ethel recruited from Hilo, Hawaii. After graduating from CCH, Eleanore began teaching, worked her way up in administration, earned a Doctorate Degree from BYU in Provo, and became a principal in Delta, Utah. Ethel explained that Eleanore was the first to attend college from her family. She did not have the means to attend another university and would have never accomplished all she did without CCH.

Ethel eventually married David Almodova, raised a family, left admissions at CCH, and had a long career teaching at Laie elementary. She is still alive and well today and will celebrate her 90th birthday soon.

Ethel’s story is important to the founding of this university and reminds us that prophetic visions are often executed by unsung heroes. People like Ethel transformed McKay’s vision into reality. Over the years, so many unsung heroes have helped fulfill the mission of this great place: From the labor missionaries like Sione Feiga, Percy Tehira, Sione Pulotu, Haiolas, Brother Mohetau, and many others who built this campus, to counselors like Aunty Midge Oler who helped me when I first got here, to adjunct faculty, facilities workers, librarians, food service folks like Emily Kaopua who hanai’d me or took me into her home the first semester I was here, to student service employees, and so many others.

I would like to mahalo our hard-working faculty and staff who are today leaving their legacy by serving our amazing students. Your work is essential to the fulfillment of McKay’s prophecy. In that prophecy, he addressed our faculty. He reminds us to align with his vision and to have a testimony that the Lord has his hand over this place.

In fact, I want to mahalo one particular professor who embodied the attributes of President McKay’s vision when I was a student here. Paul Spickard, a former history professor, had an uncanny ability to inspire excellence from his students. His unwavering belief in us carried us to higher plateaus. Although he was an accomplished scholar with a degree from UC Berkley and a well-published author, he would often proclaim that his students were wicked-smart, even smarter than he was. His belief in BYU–Hawaii students was genuine, and he empowered students to eventually believe in themselves. Many of his former students went on to achieve great things. Several finished graduate degrees and returned here as full-time faculty members, including Tevita Kaili, Chad Ford, Kali Fermantez, Matt Kester, Cynthia Compton, myself, and many others.

This campus has the ability to uplift the under-represented student. I believe David O. McKay saw that in his vision. In his 1958 dedicatory speech, McKay explained how education opened the doors for the unlikely success of George Washington Carver, a first-generation college student born to parents freed from slavery. Similar to my mentor Paul Spickard, President McKay saw education as a key to unlocking the potential in unexpected future leaders. My admonition to our faculty is to do the same. Recognize the light of excellence in each of your students. And to our students, believe in yourselves, then surround yourselves with faculty and peers who foster that belief. Then, work hard in your studies and contribute to learning by sharing your ‘ike, or knowledge.

In one of my history courses recently, we watched a film on a particular village in Samoa. Although the film was informative, I learned much more in our discussion afterward from a student who grew up in that village. Although she was reluctant to speak at first, I am so glad that she did because her knowledge of the culture and history far exceeded my own, and she helped students learn first-hand from an insider perspective. This is not a unique experience at this university. In fact, this happens quite often in my courses, where a student has the expertise and inside knowledge on a subject discussed in class. I wonder, however, how many students miss those opportunities to share their unique perspectives because they were reluctant. Teachers, please maintain a classroom environment where students are encouraged to share meaningful perspectives.

My road to BYU–Hawaii began with my conversion to the gospel. After reading the Book of Mormon and attending church regularly with my mom, I experienced a profound conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ at the age of 16. Although my mom was quite active in the church, my parents were divorced when I was young, and I mostly stayed at my dad’s house.

I grew up in a Hawaiian community outside of Hilo on the Big Island, called Keaukaha. I was raised by the ocean there. In my youth, the water and waves served as a kind of pu‘uhonua or sanctuary for me, a buffer from life’s stresses on land.

So, I surfed a lot. And I got pretty good at it. By the time I was 15, I was ranked as a top amateur in Hawaii and the United States. But right about that same time, I found myself turning to my mom with some serious life and death kinds of questions. She, in turn, gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon, and I started attending church. Through my experiences reading the Book of Mormon and praying, my belief and confidence in God and myself began to rise.

I'll never forget the first time I read the Book of Mormon. It was a cool, sunny, and very green Saturday in Keaukaha. I was in my room, it was quiet, and I had just finished the first 30 pages of the book of Mormon. Although I had already been accustomed to prayer, I remember feeling closer to Heavenly Father after praying that day.

After completing the book of Mormon and investigating the church rather thoroughly, I was baptized in the ocean by my Bishop, Alley Auna. It was a cold early misty morning. The service was held at James Kealoha or 4-miles Beach Park near my home. Sanford Okura confirmed me a member of the church just afterward. In that blessing, he said that I would do great things for the Lord. As the blessing progressed, I noticed that it had a familiar ring to it. You see, a couple of years earlier, my grandfather, Mal Helekunihi Duke, gave me a similar blessing: saying that I would go on a mission, and eventually be an influential leader. At that time, however, all that was going through my mind was, "Yeah right grandpa, I am not going to join your church." Years later, as I sat, wet, in a white jumper getting confirmed a member of the church, my grandfather's voice returned to me, and I realized that I had received this blessing before. But this time, I believed it.

After my baptism, my focus in life shifted from a religious-like devotion to competitive surfing to a deep desire to understand God and his will for me. This quest led me to a pursuit of knowledge: first through spiritual education in the form of personal study and seminary classes, to a desire to pursue higher education.

However, funding college became a concern after my 46-year-old father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home. We eventually lost our family home, and I became responsible for my own finances at the end of my senior year in high school. But the Lord provided a way. Although I had only attended one year of seminary, at seminary graduation I was offered a McKay scholarship in the form of a one-year tuition waiver. Although I had only attended one year of seminary, I was offered a McKay scholarship in the form of a one-year tuition waiver at seminary graduation.

Through my newfound faith and experience with amazing faculty and fellow students from around the world here at BYU Hawaii, I grew my love for both spiritual and intellectual pursuits. The Lord transformed a Hawaiian surfer kid into a burgeoning scholar. I was also prepared to serve a mission while attending school here. My love for teaching the gospel in the mission field opened my eyes to a career in teaching. After my mission, I returned to BYUH and fell in love with my history classes. Determined and inspired, I worked to become a History professor too.

Most importantly, however, was that I fell in love with Rebekah on this campus. Our connection was and still is multi-faceted. One connection we share is a common love for intellectual inquiry. We took classes together and had meaningful conversations about history, culture, and theory. We eventually went on to graduate school together, where she studied anthropology, and I pursued history. These conversations continue to bridge us in our marriage, and I have this campus to thank for that.

The Lord used BYU–Hawaii to shape me into a better version of myself: a husband, a scholar, a person of faith. The Lord was even kind enough to open doors for me to combine my intellectual and cultural interests as a part of my research included components of Hawaiian and even surfing history. Ultimately, the Lord knew my heart and allowed my lifelong passions to coexist. This blessing is evidenced in the fact that I am often involved in professional surfing circles as a historian, scholar, and commentator.

As a professor, I have also been blessed to meet and teach amazing students from around the world here. I hope my time with them has inspired them in ways that my former professors inspired me. I am also pleased to work alongside many who share a love for the prophetic vision of this university.

I am grateful to be a recipient of the mission of this institution, and I am humbled to help fine-tune the lord’s vessel in my current position. As the academic vice president, I am fortunate to help align us with McKay’s visionary university. I am also fortunate to work closely with President Kauwe. It is clear to me that he loves our students, has a conviction of the mission of this wahi pana, or sacred place, and is devoted to continuing to align our institution with that vision.

Although President McKay’s vision is 100 years old, we are still living in the middle of it. What is your legacy in the fulfillment of this vision? How will you participate in the fulfillment of the BYU–Hawaii prophecy? I am grateful to all those who helped and will continue to help this place be the institution it was envisioned to be.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.