Full Circle

Lawrence Tseu made it to the top of his industry. Now he’s doing all he can to help others.
Inside this unassuming dentist lies a power philanthropist. photo: Jimmy Forrest

As a successful, nationally recognized dentist, Lawrence Tseu has come a long way since his trying childhood. “I started off living in the slums of Kalihi,” he says, recalling the days when shining shoes and selling newspapers after school paid for his St. Louis education. “In the old days, there was no such thing as student loans and very few schools could afford to give scholarships,” he says. “Us poor guys had to work for it.” Seeing the world around him, full of handouts and hand-me-downs, inspired Tseu to change his life.

“I was tired of being poor. I wanted to make something of myself.” A combination of odd jobs and money from the GI Bill, earned through three years of military service, enabled Tseu to pay his own way through school, from the fifth grade at St. Louis, to his bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, to dental school at Northwestern University.

Today, Tseu sits in his quaint, understated office near Ala Moana Center. Evidence of the successes of the soft-spoken husband and father of six lines the walls: diplomas, certificates and plaques bearing his name. Yet, there’s nothing flashy about him. Even with his many accomplishments, such as graduating top in his dental class from Northwestern University, sustaining a 44-year career, and a slew of honors, awards and titles from various charitable organizations and educational institutions across the country, he still responded in disbelief when learning of his latest honor: Outstanding Philanthropist of 2006. “You sure you got the right guy?” he joked.

Tseu has been the right guy to several organizations, leading to this latest recognition by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) this past November. “We’ve been trying to nominate him for a long time, but he never let us, he’s so humble and unassuming,” says Sandy Fong, vice president of Market City, who nominated him.

As Tseu created a highly successful career, he passed on his fortune, providing opportunities to the underprivileged. With successful children of his own Tseu decided his wealth would be better used in the community. “They don’t need my money,” he jokes.Tseu also sits on the boards of many organizations, including the East-West Center, Pacific Gateway Center and Pälolo Chinese Home.

Tseu has made it his mission to create opportunities for hardworking students, so they won’t have to endure the struggles he encountered. “Being poor is not a disadvantage,” he says, “but I know how rough it was to study and work at the same time.” He recalls working six hours a day, all the while juggling a full schedule of dental classes. “When you’re motivated, you find a way to do well,” he says. Tseu is currently establishing a $1 million endowment at the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, a well-respected dental school located in San Francisco. Through the endowment, students who otherwise couldn’t afford the dental school will be able to attend the three-year program.

“My main goal is to help with education,” he says. While arts and cultural organizations are wonderful in their own right, Tseu says his donations are made “not to further enlighten a person’s lifestyle, but rather to those who truly need help.”

Among the many causes that Tseu champions stand two of his favorites, the Salvation Army and the Ronald McDonald House. “I have a soft heart for the elderly, children and people that have been abused,” he says, noting the organizations’ focus on family treatment centers. “If I can help to alleviate some of the suffering and hardship they go through, that’s enough. Now that I’m in a position where I have the time and money, I want to give back and help the community.”

For more information on charities in Hawai‘i, contact the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. Visit its site at www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.