Relatives and friends — and Helene Hale had a lot of them — gathered Sunday night at Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo to honor the life of one of Hawaii’s most remarkable women.
Nearly 180 people attended the posthumous tribute to the woman hailed in a proclamation sent by Gov. Neil Abercromie as the first African-American elected to office in Hawaii and “the first woman to hold an executive position in local government since Queen Liliuokalani.”
Abercrombie ordered all state flags be dropped to half-mast on Sunday to honor Hale, who died of natural causes on Feb. 1 at her Hilo home on Feb. 1. She was 94.
Hale’s niece, Barbara Hilyer, of Portland, Ore., said the Astronomy Center was a fitting location for the event. “She was instrumental in bringing astronomy to the Big Island,” and she envisioned the Big Island as the “key to the universe.”
Elaborate displays of photos and memorabilia of her life — family, politics, swimming, a Scrabble dictionary, even her favorite Rocky Road ice cream — prompted visitor after visitor to nod in recognition of what an “amazing” and “remarkable” woman she was.
Retired Hilo journalist Hugh Clark said Hale always “walked the walk,” and he admired her political “buoyancy — much like the swimmer he was.” Clark wrote her political obituary in 1994, only to write about her resurrection at age 82 with a successful bid for a seat in the state Legislature. Her campaign slogan was “Recycle Helene Hale,” Clark laughed. “It sure took away the age issue. She brought it up.
“It was her third or fourth revival … depends on who’s doing the counting.”
Mayor Billy Kenoi also presented a proclamation from the county and in personal remarks recalled how much his parents talked endearingly about Hale while he was growing up in Kalapana.
“She was smart, tough, fair, and someone who cared,” he said. “She looked you in the eye and always treated you with kindness, aloha and respect.
“She made Hawaii Island a better place to call home and made us better people as well,” Kenoi said.
More than one person remarked about her feisty character, and her ability to curse a blue streak on occasion.
“She was proud to be the first woman member of the Waiakea Lions Club — at age 91,” said Hilyer’s husband, John Daggett.
Harry Kim, former Hawaii County mayor and Civil Defense director, recalled the first time he met Hale, as Civil Defense director, and said, “My jaw dropped. I never heard a woman swear like that.”
Hilyer reminded the crowd that Hale was an intrepid traveler and “felt herself as a citizen of the world more than any other identity.”
Dagget said Hale was an avid reader of nonfiction and modeled her life on the works of Mahatma Ghandi.
“She advocated for the United Nations, for women, for world peace, and always for justice. And every time someone came to visit, she would always have a lei,” he said. “She taught us the real meaning of aloha.”