Honoring the Life and Legacy of the Late U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka
Sharing stories of how Daniel Kahikina Akaka, educator, native Hawaiian advocate and longtime U.S. Senator, made a difference.
U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka in 2012.
Photo: Kahuku Photography
Some recall retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka as a teacher, others as a government staffer, but most of us remember him for his 36 years in Congress and a life guided by aloha.
“If you were in Washington, everyone knew Akaka,” says former Gov. John Waihe‘e, who appointed then-Rep. Akaka to the Senate in 1990 after the death of Sen. Spark Matsunaga. “He maintained his status as a Native Hawaiian statesman because of his personification of aloha—personification of what’s best about Hawai‘i.”
In the political arena, Akaka won praise for strong support of education, veterans, energy and the environment and as a leader on Native Hawaiian issues. In 1993, he achieved passage of a resolution offering an apology from the U.S. government to Native Hawaiians for its part in the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. It was the fourth time he had introduced the measure.
Spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke, 39, worked for Akaka from 2006 until the senator left office in January 2013. Broder Van Dyke recalls meeting the senator for the final interview before he was hired: “He immediately disarmed me and gave me a big hug and came and sat in the chairs in front of his desk.”
And, though he was warm, kind and gracious, Akaka was also clear in what he expected, Broder Van Dyke says. “He told me that his goal in communications was to have people understand what he was saying rather than to seem smart.”
Writer Jim Borg, who collaborated on Akaka’s memoir, says Akaka remained humble, collegial and congenial. “What struck me most about him was that he always took time to greet the clerks, janitors, security guards, elevator operators and dining room waiters, many of whom he knew by name,” Borg says.
Akaka had a knack for remembering people. Great-grandson David Mattson, now 23 and in flight school for the Coast Guard, worked part of a year as a Senate page and saw the reverential treatment that senators received. Yet Akaka’s advice to him showed no sign of privilege: “Be personable, and try to remember people’s names,” he says.
Akaka also never forgot the trauma he witnessed as a young man drafted into the Army during World War II. “He saw some terrible things; Japanese families would commit suicide by jumping off a cliff,” Broder Van Dyke says. After the war, Akaka sailed for two years aboard the missionary schooner, Morning Star, recognizing later that the voyage helped him recover from his own post-traumatic stress disorder. In later years, he worked hard to pass legislation to address PTSD, providing medical benefits such as mental health examinations and treatment for Guard and Reserve troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Broder Van Dyke says.
DAN AND FELLOW MISSIONARY LOREN MILLER ABOARD THE MORNING STAR VI IN 1947.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF AKAKA FAMILY/WATERMARK PUBLISHING
Credit union advocate Sylvia Young worked with Akaka on financial literacy issues. She says he’s responsible for that financial disclosure box on our credit-card statements that tells consumers how long it will take to pay off any outstanding balance. (She calls it the Akaka box.)
Young recalls how Akaka and his staff helped many behind the scenes. Back in 1991, she got a call from a friend, Guy Takahashi, that his infant daughter, Chelse, was born with a rare heart condition and would likely die soon without surgery only available in San Francisco.
Chelse Takahashi meets with Dan and Millie Akaka in June 2017 at Pauoa Chop Suey.
Photo: Courtesy of Akaka Family
In a recent interview, Guy Takahashi recalled their family’s emotional roller coaster: “The blood wasn’t going through her heart; it was just circulating on one side.” He couldn’t find a private transport willing to fly his newborn to California because of her high-risk condition. He still chokes up thinking about it: “She was given last rites.”
Akaka’s staff found a military plane headed to San Francisco that could transport her, Young says, after Akaka arranged for the infant to be designated a ward of the secretary of the Air Force.
She had the surgery and recovered completely. Chelse Takahashi, now 27, grew up knowing the story of her dramatic lifesaving journey and the influential lawmaker who made it happen. Just a year ago, Chelse met Akaka for the first time on Father’s Day, when her family joined his for dinner at Pauoa Chop Suey.
“He thought it was important to meet me,” Chelse says, which she found nearly as surprising as how genuine he was. “It was just a very warm feeling, like an uncle we hadn’t seen in a while.”
Hawai‘i’s congressional delegation (left to right: Dan Inouye, Cec Heftel, Spark Matsunaga and Dan Akaka).
Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives
For many years, Akaka’s was the first name spoken for each alphabetical roll call, making him familiar for years to Capitol staffers and C-SPAN junkies nationwide. When he was retiring, The New York Times penned a story about his place as No. 1 on the roll.
People found the sound of his name reassuring, even with the interminable delays in Congress, because when “Mr. Akaka” was called out, something was happening. “It became very natural saying his name because of the three syllables, the first soft one and the two hard ones,” says David J. Tinsley, who called Akaka’s name hundreds of times before leaving the Senate. “That is the one I will always remember when I think of calling the roll.”
When Akaka retired, he shipped home his Senate chair, with the “Mr. Akaka” nameplate. Eldest grandson Dr. David Mattson volunteers as unofficial curator of his grandfather’s collection and took great pains to commission an accurate replica of a Senate desk. Mattson and his wife, Elizabeth, turned their downtown apartment into a satellite office, which Akaka used to work with Borg on the One Voice memoir. A sprawling collection of Akaka memorabilia—awards, pins, books and photos of him with world leaders including Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela—fills the condo. The collection even includes a “Blalas Fo Akaka” campaign button.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD
The senator’s most famous piece of legislation never passed. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, widely known as the Akaka bill—which he proposed in various forms starting in 2010—attempted to establish a process for U.S. federal recognition of Native Hawaiians like that of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Back in 2006, Time magazine tagged Akaka as among the least effective senators. In response, he told The Honolulu Advertiser: “I was taught not to be a show horse, but a workhorse.”
The U.S. and Hawaiian flags flying at half staff from Akaka’s death April 6 until his burial May 21.
Photo: David Croxford
Waihe‘e visited Akaka in the weeks before he died at The Villas at St. Francis on April 6. Of Akaka’s legacy, he said, “I wouldn’t call him quiet and effective,” a reference to former Gov. George Ariyoshi’s slogan. “He was pleasant and effective.”
Waihe‘e also says there was more substance than many saw. “Because of their personas, there’s the impression that Sen. Akaka deferred to [late U.S. Sen.] Dan Inouye. Actually, in many cases the opposite was true. In many cases, Inouye deferred to Akaka, especially on things Hawaiian, and used his talent to implement what Akaka wanted.”
And Akaka wasn’t afraid to take unpopular stands, voting against the resolution to authorize the Iraq War. In One Voice, Akaka weighed in on one of the biggest Native Hawaiian controversies in recent years, the Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for the summit on Hawai‘i Island. He said: “The old need not be the enemy of the new. Let’s allow Mauna Kea, rightfully, to become a bridge between our past, as Hawaiians, and our future. Students of stars are who we are.”
In his last Senate speech, Akaka said his goal had been to bring the spirit of aloha to the Capitol. “In Hawai‘i, we look out for one another, we work together and we treat each other with respect.”
He thanked colleagues, his staff, the many government workers who support them, his family, wife Millie and the people of Hawai‘i: “It truly was the experience of a lifetime. All I ever wanted was to be able to help people, and you gave me that opportunity.”
Nephew Dr. Jeffrey Akaka suggests the best way to remember his uncle is simple. “We can aspire to live aloha every day as he did.”
Photo: David Croxford
Sept. 11, 1924
Born in Honolulu.
Attended public schools, then graduated from The Kamehameha School for Boys high school.
Served in the Army Corps of Engineers.
DAN IN UNIFORM WITH BROTHER ABRAHAM AND HIS DAUGHTER, FENNER MARIE, IN 1944.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF AKAKA FAMILY/WATERMARK PUBLISHING
Graduated from the University of Hawai‘i with a bachelor’s degree; earned a professional certificate in secondary education from UH in 1953.
Earned a professional school administrator’s certificate from UH; earned a master’s degree in education, also from UH, in 1966.
A teacher in Hawai‘i public schools; vice principal in 1960; principal, 1963–1971; program specialist, Compensatory Education, 1968–1971.
Dan at the keyboard.
Photo: Courtesy of Akaka Family/Watermark Publishing
Served as director, Hawai‘i Office of Economic Opportunity; special assistant, Hawai‘i Office of the Governor, 1975–1976.
Elected as a Democrat to Congress, serving from Jan. 3, 1977, until May 16, 1990, when he resigned to go to the Senate.
May 16, 1990—
Then-Gov. John Waihe‘e appointed Akaka to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Sen. Spark Matsunaga.
Nov. 6, 1990—
Won a special election to complete the term ending Jan. 3, 1995; re-elected in 1994, 2000 and 2006.
Served as chair, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Committee on Indian Affairs.
Jan. 3, 2013—
Retired from the U.S. Senate.
Published memoir: One Voice: My Life, Times and Hopes for Hawai‘i by Dan Akaka with Jim Borg, Watermark Publishing, bookshawaii.net. Watermark is a sister company of HONOLULU Magazine.