Talk Story: Phyllis Kunimura

The Movie Night in the Park and the closing of Maluhia Road to clean the Tunnel of Trees are “pre-events” to the Koloa Plantation Days, a 10-day celebration which starts on Saturday and is highlighted by the Koloa Plantation Days parade and ho‘olaule‘a on July 30.

Phyllis Kunimura, former first lady of Kauai and the widow of the late Mayor “Uncle” Tony Kunimura, has been at the helm of the celebration since the start.

“This Koloa Plantation Days celebration has grown from a single-day event to now cover more than 10 days with more than 30 events for residents and visitors,” Kunimura said.

How did Koloa Plantation Days start?

In 1985, Koloa was selected to celebrate the sesquicentennial of sugar in the state of Hawaii by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association. Koloa was chosen because it had the first successful sugar mill in the state. I wasn’t part of the committee then.

The event was huge. A monument was done near the remains of the first sugar mill. We had a cane-cutting contest in the morning in the field next to the monument. It was exciting the way they did it, because that’s the way it was in real life. The main street in Koloa had vendors. I know because we had a table where we sold items made by the children.

Where the post office is located today, we put up a large tent and Sueoka’s catered the luau. It was just a one-day thing, but I can still envision sitting at the luau. It was so much fun to sit and talk story with everyone.

The event was so successful. The committee was asked to do it again in 1986. Uncle Tony was already in office (as the mayor), and David Penhall0w Scott sent out letters to a lot of people.

In 1987, there was no event. Kapaa had the Christmas parade. Waimea had already established the Waimea Town Celebration and the Capt. Cook Caper. Bob Watts — he married a Waterhouse girl — called and asked, “Phyllis, let’s see if we can get the Plantation Days going again.” The turnout for the planning meeting had a lot of people, including those from Lawai and Kalaheo.

How did you get to Kauai?

It must have been pre-ordained. I was born in upstate New York and was teaching in Ithaca, New York. At that time, teachers had two-month vacations and a lot of them traveled. It was fun to travel. I thought to myself, “How great it would be to teach somewhere else.” I knew about Hawaii because my sister had come to visit, so I approached the superintendent of the Ithaca schools about a direct exchange. He contacted Charlotte Nagoshi, a kindergarten teacher at the Elsie Wilcox Elementary School, who came to New York, and I went to Wilcox School.

This must have happened in 1960 or 1961. I was living in the nurses’ quarters behind the G.N. Wilcox Memorial Hospital.

Within months of getting here, I met Uncle Tony. He was on the board of supervisors at that time. That changed everything, and I never left.

What makes the Koloa Plantation Days special?

The beauty of the Koloa Plantation Days is whether we’re sitting in the parade, or under the tent, waiting, we all start remembering — we would not be here without Koloa, without Uncle Tony’s ordinance of “no building taller than a coconut tree.”

When we did the Kalaheo-Koloa development plan, we were so cognizant of things changing. The idea was to keep things the way it is. We converted the homes behind the Chevron into commercial buildings, and Koloa is still Koloa.

Traveling with Tony, we went to the Pageant of Masters where it was like looking at the real thing. We incorporated this idea into the floats for the Koloa Plantation Days. We developed a theme where groups would have purpose and focus each year. Our big concern was who would be liable if someone got hurt. We did the event at the park, and that led to the group becoming a corporation so the board members would not be liable.

I was the president from the beginning and chair until 1991. This was a unique community-based organization that is linked up with the visitor industry. Gov. George Ariyoshi, who attended the sugar celebration, and the first Koloa Plantation Days, said there was nothing like it in the state — the combination of community and visitor industry.

The manager of the Sheraton Kauai Resort was on the first committee, as was Margy Parker of the Poipu Beach resort association. The luau moved from the post office location to the Sheraton Kauai, becoming the Sunset Ho‘olaule‘a.

The Koloa Plantation Days brings the stories to life. This year’s theme, “Planting the Seeds that Nourish the Soul,” the seeds have already been planted way back when the plantation was family life. There were the different camps that came together to share the languages and blended the different cultures of the people living in them. We want to nourish that in the people here and now — the uncles and the aunties — so it’s not lost.

What happens from here?

Arryl Kaneshiro. Bronson Ho. Bertram Almeida. They all came home at the right time. This is the next generation. They were my kindergarten students at one time, and now, I bring them in as part of the committee.

The best part is I know their parents, and I can see and hear them talk with passion when they do their job.

Arryl Kaneshiro took over the chairing of the Koloa Plantation Days parade from Aunty Stella Burgess. But they have passion and now Arryl does a great job even after we lost Aunty Stella.

This Koloa Plantation Days is a time to see reunions — whether it’s family reunions or school reunions. They all talk story when they come together — this nourishes the soul. When you talk about the stories, it generates something in the soul that makes one leave better than before starting the conversation. It’s like Gov. Ariyoshi said, “You can’t stop talking about it.” We can’t lose that.

Koloa Plantation Days has grown, never faded away. Its basis is history, talk story, and passing it on.

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