Jean Elizabeth Holmes epitomized the spirit of aloha long before she even knew what it was.
The beloved editor of The Garden Island newspaper for nearly 20 years, Holmes died Wednesday, May 25, in Gettysburg, Pa., at the age of 98.
In 1965, she answered an ad placed by Mike Fern, son of Publisher Charlie Fern, for a job as a reporter and editor on a tiny island thousands of miles from her Maryland home. Even though she had never been west of the Mississippi River, she was an adventurous soul. Before long, she and her son were on a plane headed for Kauai.
It was love at first sight. Kauai and its people, especially the Hawaiian population, captured her heart and never let go. She would live here for more than 40 years.
“She was just very Hawaiian at heart,” remembers Faith Burgess, a longtime friend. “She was good to everyone, even when there was a conflict.”
A colorful Hawaiian muumuu became her signature attire, often enhanced with a lei she had received at a function she attended.
The newspaper was still located in its old site on Kuhio Highway when she arrived, but construction was well underway on the new plant across the street. Shortly after her arrival, TGI moved to its current location.
Back then, the paper was published once a week on Wednesdays. Her staff consisted of one courts and cops reporter and a business editor who also handled sports. All of them also covered news and human interest stories.
Her ties to the Hawaiian community eventually became so strong she was made an honorary charter member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Order of Kamehameha 1, Kaumualii Chapter #3.
She was the first non-Hawaiian to be accepted into the auxiliary, which was normally reserved for wives or relatives of the members of the distinguished Order.
Being a part of the organization meant a lot to Holmes, whose respect for the Hawaiian people never faltered. It was important to her that they were always treated fairly, both in the press and in the community.
Years later this would influence her ground-breaking decision to include the use of the Hawaiian “okina” in Hawaiian words and place names in The Garden Island. TGI was the first daily in Hawaii to include the okina.
(The okina denotes a glottal stop when pronouncing Hawaiian words. However, at least one authority on Hawaiian language and culture considered the okina a consonant and felt its omission not only meant a word was misspelled but its meaning was often changed.)
Jean Holmes’ tenure as editor coincided with a period of burgeoning growth, rampant development and bitter controversy on Kauai, with Nukolii at the forefront.
As the economy grew, however, so did the newspaper. Gradually, more editions were added. Eventually, The Garden Island would become a daily, with issues published seven days a week.
Holmes hired more reporters to handle the increased workload. One of them was William LeGro.
“She turned my life around,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. She gave me this chance and I took it and everything changed.”
LeGro said she taught him a lot besides “newspapering.”
“She taught me how to ask questions and how to write coherently,” he said. “She taught me the ethics of journalism; how to not take ‘No’ for an answer; how to hold government accountable; the duty of giving the community all the information they needed.”
Over the years, Holmes and her staff were both praised and vilified for their coverage of the issues by those on opposing sides. But she had the courage of her convictions and never caved to pressure of any sort.
“She was very nice but didn’t take any shibai from anyone,” LeGro said. “She was very strong and I admired that in her.”
Her regular column was entitled “We Might Be Wrong But ….”
Even here, “She wasn’t one to pronounce judgment — she was too self-effacing for that, thus the title, and she wasn’t reckless, but she also had no fear,” LeGro said.
Holmes retired as editor in 1984. For several years, she had lunch every week with police and court reporter Georgia Mossman, who was one of her closest friends, and Dede Wilhelm, another longtime friend.
The trio would meet at Kenny’s Restaurant or Barbecue Inn.
“We would talk about every topic in the world you could think of, laugh and have a wonderful time,” Wilhelm remembers.
“There was so much levity in the conversation. It was a good fun time, a friendly time. It was just a friendly lunch get-together. We didn’t try to solve the problems of the world. We just had fun,” she added.
Holmes had planned to live on Kauai for the rest of her life but health issues forced her to move back to Maryland in 2006.
Before she left, the close friends had one last farewell lunch at Gaylord’s.
Both Wilhelm and Mossman kept in touch regularly.
On Oct. 5, 2006, Mossman wrote a tribute to Holmes before she left Kauai.
“While she was editor of The Garden Island … she provided real, local news gathered in real local style.
“She could immediately recognize a story (which is an art); she wrote it and mixed it with her own inimitable flavor. Then she delivered it to “her family,” the people of Kauai.
“She will be missed,” Mossman ended.
She already is. Me ke aloha pumehana, Jean Elizabeth Holmes, from all of us who loved you.
Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island newspaper and a Kapaa resident.