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The Honolulu Advertiser

Advertiser Staff

Posted on: Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hawaii lost some iconic figures in 2009: Sevey, Gill, others

 • Other notable deaths
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tom Gill

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawai'i will start the new year absent a trio of influential icons: newsman Bob Sevey, progressive politician Tom Gill and women's sports advocate Donnis Thompson. All three, who died over the past year, were named to The Advertiser's select list of 50 people who "steered the course after statehood."

The state also bid aloha in 2009 to master kumu hula Uncle George Na'ope, who helped steer the course of a Hawaiian cultural renaissance .

Two other notable losses were sitting City Council members Barbara Marshall and Duke Bainum, both remembered for their willingness to tackle tough issues.


Labor attorney Tom Gill was a pivotal figure in the "Democratic Revolution" of 1954 whose brash persona and uncompromising idealism often put him at odds with party leaders.

Gill died June 3 at the age of 87.

A leader in the party's progressive wing, he drafted the platform that drew Hawai'i voters into the union-backed Democratic Party, changing the balance of power in the Islands.

He was elected to the Territorial Legislature in 1958, and as majority floor leader, Gill shepherded land-reform laws that aimed to control development and expand housing opportunities, and antitrust statutes that helped break the social and political monopoly held by Hawai'i's "Big Five" major companies.

During a single term in Congress from 1962 to 1964, Gill was instrumental in passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other key legislation.

He was elected lieutenant governor in 1966 and tried unsuccessfully to unseat his boss, Gov. John A. Burns, in a 1970 Democratic primary. He lost a second bid for the top post in 1974 to Gov. George Ariyoshi.

Despite falling out of favor with the party mainstream, Gill is remembered for his principled public service and as a champion of fairness and equal opportunity.


Uncle George Louis Lanakilakekiahiali'i Na'ope, who was known as "the last living hula master," died Oct. 26 at the age of 81.

In 1963, he co-founded the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, the world's premiere hula competition. Na'ope also is credited with helping to revive the art of male hula and traveled the globe to spread Hawaiian dance and culture.

In addition to the Hilo festival, Na'ope helped create the Lili'uokalani Keiki Hula Festival and its sponsor, the Kalihi-Pālama Cultural and Arts Society, as well as the Kalākaua Invitational Hula Festival, the Kaua'i Mokihana Festival and the Kupuna Hula Festival. As a measure of his stature, hula festivals in California and Washington state were named in his honor.

A dapper dresser who sported brightly colored clothes, gaudy rings and a straw hat, Na'ope also started Humu Mo'olelo, a quarterly journal of the hula arts. He was honored by the state as a Living Golden Treasure and received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006.

Rae Fonseca, one of several prominent kumu hula who trained under "Uncle George," called Na'ope a bridge between the hula masters of the past and the younger generation of kumu hula who rose to popularity largely as a result of the Merrie Monarch Festival.


Known as the Walter Cronkite of Hawai'i television, Bob Sevey, who died Feb. 20 at the age of 81, worked as news director and anchor of KGMB from 1966 to 1986.

He was one of the most trusted and respected journalists in the state, and was credited with building the top-rated TV newscast of its day.

Although he didn't like the idea of women in his newsroom, the gruff-but-fair Sevey recognized their growing role in the industry and hired many young female journalists who went on to make their own mark in local broadcasting, including Linda Coble.

"He was a teacher," Coble told The Advertiser. "I don't think I would have been as credible as a female anchor or reporter as I was without his guidance. We in the early years of broadcasting who were breaking that ceiling were very fortunate to have mentors, and Sevey was the best."


Donnis Thompson, who died Feb. 4 at the age of 75, deserves some of the credit for the University of Hawai'i Rainbow Wahine's recent march to the NCAA women's volleyball championship semifinals.

After all, it was Thompson who hired coach Dave Shoji in 1975 for a meager part-time salary of $2,000. At the time, women's collegiate sports programs got little respect and even less funding.

Thompson in 1972 became the first director of women's athletics at UH and used her paltry $5,000 budget to establish track and volleyball teams. By the time she left in 1981, five more sports had been added and the school had captured its first national team title the 1979 AIAW National Volleyball Championship.

With UH boasting the top attendance record in college volleyball, it's hard to imagine just how risky it seemed back in 1976 when Thompson proposed charging admission to Rainbow Wahine games. The program is now a consistent money-maker.

"Before anyone else in this state, she had a vision of women's athletics. ... I doubt we'd be where we are today without her persistence," Shoji said, following Thompson's death.

Her trail blazing was not confined to the Mānoa campus. Thompson worked closely with U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink on the 1972 landmark legislation known as Title IX, which required equal support for men and women in academics and athletics at any institution receiving federal money.

She broke another gender barrier by serving as the state's first female superintendent of education, from 1981 to 1984.


Known first to Hawai'i as a respected TV journalist, Barbara Marshall brought that same level of integrity, thoroughness and passion to her office as the Windward O'ahu representative on the City Council.

Marshall, 64, was first elected in 2002, and had served as council chairwoman for nearly two years when she stepped aside because of ill health. She died Feb. 22.

While at KHON, she worked as a newscast anchor, executive producer and head of the "Action Line" consumer report.

As a councilwoman, she was tireless in ferreting out the facts and wide-ranging perspectives on difficult issues, including regulation of bed-and-breakfast operations.


A medical doctor by profession, City Councilman Duke Bainum, who died June 9 at the age of 56, served on the Ala Moana-Kaka'ako and McCully-Mō'ili'ili neighborhood boards before winning election to the state House in 1990. After two terms, he moved to the council in 1994, serving there until an unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2004.

Disappearing from politics for several years, Bainum resurfaced in 2008, running unopposed for the District 5 council seat. Once back in office, Bainum showed he had not lost his willingness to take on issues regardless of special interests, and he brought careful scrutiny to Honolulu's rail project.