Talk Story: Maryanne Kusaka

Maryanne Kusaka, a former mayor of Kauai and now president of the Kauai Museum board, celebrated her birthday with friends Friday at the Kilohana Plantation. The following is a reflection on who she is, and what makes her Aunty Maryanne.

How did you end up living on Kauai after being born and raised on Maui?

I was actually born on Parker Ranch in Kamuela, Hawaii and my parents were relocated to Maui to run the Hawaiian Telephone offices first in Kula, then, after four years, in Hana. So I was really raised in Hana, Maui — one of the most wonderful places to be raised.

The isolated village of Hana raised all the children there — people knew where we all were when our parents were looking for us. We were welcomed in all their homes — Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese, Hawaiian and Korean for treats, and best of all, in the evenings we sat at the feet of the kupuna to listen to stories of menehune, night marchers and mermaids in the river pools of Kipahulu. It truly was a magical time. I have always said that I was so very fortunate to have been born in Kamuela, raised in Hana and then to live and work on Kauai. Who could ever ask for more! The reason I moved to Kauai from Maui in 1964 is a long story so we will save it for another day.

During your days as a teacher, was our current mayor, Bernard Carvalho Jr., one of your students? What was he like as a student? Are there any memorable moments? Did you think that one day he would become mayor of our island?

Yes, Mayor Bernard was one of my many students at Kapaa Elementary School. He was the tallest in the class and though he was larger than the rest, he was a gentle giant! Soft-spoken, shy, always helpful and so very obedient — you see he was raised by his grandmother, whom I knew quite well and who warned all of Bernard’s siblings that the teacher knew where to find her if any of them gave us any grief! She was tough and worked as the head custodian next door at the high school. The Carvalho children were perfect models of behavior, with large eyes full of anticipation. I remember that Bernard loved music. And we see that shine today as he often sings at functions — and he has Mrs. Renee Thronas to credit for that talent and ridding him of his shyness. Bernard appeared to be a peacemaker and a great role model to his classmates and so very well liked.

No, I never dreamed he would be mayor. When I served as mayor I worked closely with Bernard in Parks and Recreation as he was in charge of the lifeguards. They needed lots of support so that was one of my focus areas — I wanted them to be professionals in command of their great responsibility.

Together, we made great strides in eight years with that department — from nine guards and five guarded beaches — we grew the department to 33 guards with sharp uniforms, new towers, jet skis, new trucks, safety equipment and eight guarded beaches.

The lifeguards were moved from the Parks Division to the Fire Department and we launched the Junior Lifeguard Program with Kalani Vierra, currently the Ocean Safety Bureau supervisor.

Bernard was my point person and when we took any new idea to the County Council for approval in his department — he sold them on it so he was already preparing for a higher level of leadership, building confidence in his capabilities. I am very proud of his efforts today — he works hard for the people of Kauai, we have his heart for sure.

How about other Kauai people who are living and working here?

It is such an honor to live here in this special place, and I am honored to have my former students who called me Mrs. Kusaka, now call me Aunty Maryanne — such a warm feeling of respect and aloha — I love it! In some cases, I have become part of their family having taught three generations.

Donna Mitchie Taniguchi allowed me to be immersed in her family — her mother Gracie becoming one of my favorite people in the world!

Assistant Chief Mike Contrades stands out in my memory as an exemplary student — perfect in every way — I told his dad Tommy that he could have 12 children like Mike and they would all be a dream to teach!

Another standout was Peter Nishimitsu — Kumu Hula Pohaku. I would call him when I was mayor for his advice on Hawaiian place names when we needed to name buildings or special places or to advise me on cultural practices. It broke my heart when we lost him so soon, I will always remember him.

So many were special to me — Dustin Alfiler and wife Maile Belmonte — great parents today. During an emergency I witnessed the way Dustin handled the situation as a first responder and I welled with pride. Others are firefighters, police officers, accountants, attorneys, dentists — proud of their accomplishments and the way they serve our community. I am so proud of all of them, too many to name here but they know who they are — many live away in careers but many work and raise families right here on Kauai, their birthright. I thank them for blessing my life!

How did you end up working for former Kauai mayor Tony Kunimura? Did you ever think that while working in the Mayor’s Office that you would one day become Kauai’s mayor? What about some memorable moments while working for Uncle Tony?

Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would work for the Mayor’s Office. Phyllis, Uncle Tony’s wife, suggested my name to Tony to replace David Penhallow Scott, who wanted to return to private life. He was the administrative sssistant to the mayor.

I had just returned from a family trip to the Mainland in 1987 and got a call from Uncle Tony to come in for a meeting. He said, “Bring your husband!” and the rest is history. You just did not say no to Uncle Tony!

One thing I made him promise was that he would not use swear words in my presence! And every time he was corrected he would say, ‘I have one school teacher at home and now one more at work – what did I do?’ Such a colorful character — but history shows he did so much for Kauai and performed brilliantly over his 34 years in public service.

I remember that after a crash two-week course on my new responsibilities, David left me. Another week went by and the mayor announces that he was going to Australia on a promotion trip for three weeks! Yikes! It was scary — he left me in charge — I protested and Tony said, ‘Just check with Mike (Belles) the county attorney — he knows what to do!’ And you can believe I did call on Mike several times and he was always there to help. Even when I was mayor and frustration would get the best of me I would call Mike and bless him — he would be in my office in minutes with the best advice! Thank you Mike, a forever friend.

I learned two things from Uncle Tony — first, how to critique purchase orders, travel requests, and budgets — he was a master at that — and whenever I would be stunned in my naivety I would ask about a situation and his only response was, ‘Maryanne, follow the money!’

Uncle Tony would say many times that I would one day be mayor and I always protested but he knew something I did not recognize —and that too is history.

What were some of your goals when you were elected mayor?

This may sound silly, but in my heart I wanted the island to resemble my yard, green, well kept and full of flowers. We had no money for frills so to fulfill this goal and with my team we started Hoolokahi — a great volunteer effort that engaged well over 10,000 volunteers over the eight years we served.

The first goal was to fix the beach parks that were still boarded up and rid the island of three huge mountains of trash and hundreds of abandoned cars that languished for two years following Hurricane Iniki. That done in short order, we worked hard to focus on the EDA grants awarded but not yet assigned to projects — the Waimea community needed attention so we focused EDA Federal money there and built the Tech Center; we gained the support of the Federal Highways Enhancement Funds where volunteers provided the 20 percent match — at Lydgate Park Sand Bridge, camp grounds and Pathway, the Lihue Airport Gateway and the Kealia Bike Jogging Path, including the Kapaa Lihi.

Roadside Beautification partnerships like the Koloa/Poipu bypass road, Rice Street plantings, beach parks and neighborhood parks, all using Hoolokahi volunteers, beautified the island once again. Recycling was the buzz word and we used ADA funds to build the Recycle Center at the Lihue transfer center, and the Metals Recycle Center in Puhi — that was finally done to accept all those cars left at the beaches and roadsides of our island. We were embarrassed to see those photos in the paper weekly! (Remember that, Dennis?)

The hotel occupancy was about 36 percent when I took the helm, only two of eight hotels were open for business and we needed to get the jobs back for the many people out of work — the industry told travelers not to come to Kauai as we were not available for tourism.

I joined two international Travel Industry Societies PATA and ASTA and met with many travel agents over the first three years and proved to them that Kauai was available for tourism, and by 1997 the visitors returned and nearly all hotels were back on line and jobs finally helped to solve some of our unemployment issues. Person-to-person relationships are so important to the Japanese and others we met and welcomed once again to our shores.

Another goal was to build a new police/prosecutor/civil defense facility, which we dedicated in October 2002 that includes the large $96,000 well-equipped Larry Bowman gym. Another was to enhance and equip our lifeguard corps and lower the drowning rate; and to provide our youth with activities to occupy free time. We needed volunteers again, and with their help, we built a skateboard park and an in-line hockey rink at the Kapaa Ball Park Complex, added the pavilion and lights, improving the Pop Warner field, naming it for Wilfred Kaui, a great athlete and coach.

Giving a voice and meaning to sharing the aloha spirit, we were greatly assisted by Gurudeva and the Kauai Hindu Monastery, touching every classroom through the aloha cards and posters and they continue to care for our aloha signage to this day. Our vision was ‘Aloha, It’s Kauai’s Spirit!’

Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do when you were elected? Was eight years enough time to do everything that needed to be done? What, if anything, was left unfinished?

Most of what we set out to do we started or worked on or found money for and I am proud to say that the next administrations have continued.

My regret is that we never completed the siting of the new landfill but I think the present administration is poised to get that done. The present location seems to be the best option. Of course we could always have done more, but I am grateful to have had Bryan Baptiste and Bernard Carvalho’s commitment to continue several of the programs we started as they will become a legacy long remembered. With HUD money we had planned to work with the Contractor’s Association of Kauai to build a new office for them and a community kitchen on land we got by executive order — the land is now provided to the water department for their facilities expansion. I was ready to leave after eight years — it was not a stroll in the park and among my favorite thing to do was to get out and meet our employees and listen to their suggestions on how to make us operate better and to meet them on the job sites. Larry Saito and Paul Nishimoto were among my favorite supervisors in Public Works.

Looking at life on Kauai today, would you have done some things differently while you were mayor? If so, what would they be, and why.

More Hawaiian Homes awards to put our people in housing. Traffic is horrendous. These are mainly a state issues but more needs to be accommodated and worked on through collaboration.

I wanted so badly to reopen the Coco Palms Hotel where so many of our collective memories remain — we were married at the Church in the Palms — but that was not to be. Otherwise, I am pleased with all that my team collectively accomplished — they deserve the glory, they made the vision come to life. In eight years there were only three changes in the appointed leadership team and I am really proud of that.

As president of the Kauai Museum board of directors, what are some of the projects you are working on to improve the facility?

The Board of Trustees is moving ahead to reinvigorate the facility with new exhibits and an enhanced upgraded main building. We are indebted to Flora Fujii who so generously left us some money, which we have used wisely. The Hawaiian Collection has moved from the Rice Building to the Main Building. Our very creative friend Chucky Boy Chock works like the menehune as he performs magic as the transformation will prove.

So much has changed. We are now working on the landscaping with Hawaiian plants, pathway and new signage. We have upgraded our computer system, and added new air conditioning units to protect the archives and fragile Niihau collection. We are installing enhanced lighting, updated wiring, paint and sometime near the end of the month we install our PV system to save on annual electrical costs. We have been the fortunate recipients of grant money from several sources. My gratitude to the board for their trust in our combined efforts to make the museum an honored centerpiece of island life.

What is your vision of the Kauai Museum?

We are living our vision now, with the Hawaiian collection front and center and then sharing the varied cultures that make Kauai special which now grace the Rice Building and are shared during our annual cultural festivals.

Our grant in aid from the state is just being utilized with the installation of the photovoltaic system that should start by the end of September. We hope to meet the federal ADA guidelines with the installation of an elevator to access the second floor of exhibits. It is all in progress as we work on permits.”

Please feel free to express any other thoughts you may have from the standpoint of “Aunty Maryanne.” What makes life on Kauai special?

Kauai’s people make Kauai special through the aloha they share with others.

Life is about choices and I like to think that I have made some great choices in my life — not by chance, but by using good common sense and surrounding myself with great supportive friends and colleagues. That includes my son Kale and wonderful, kind husband of 43 years, Charles.

And I certainly thank all the people of Kauai, those who support me and those who haven’t supported me for you have all in your own way helped me to grow into the person I am today. My life has been a gift from God and the way I have chosen to live my life is my gift in return to Him.

Mahalo and Aloha nui Kauai – kulia ika nuu.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, send us an email.