HILO — Helene Hale, whose political career started before Hawaii’s statehood and who, as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors in the 1960s, was the first woman mayor in the state, died of natural causes Friday night at her Hilo home. She was 94.
“Helene Hale was special,” former Mayor Harry Kim said Saturday. “She was there for the people of Hawaii Island and for what was right in her mind, and she was unafraid to confront anything she thought was wrong.”
Hale, who was born Helene Eleanor Hilyer on March 23, 1918, in Minneapolis, graduated from the University of Minnesota, where her grandfather had been the first African-American to graduate. Her uncle was Ralph Bunche, the political scientist, academic and diplomat, who in 1950 became the first person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“She adored Hilo,” Hale’s niece, Barbara Hilyer, said.
She and then-husband William Hale came to the Big Island in 1947, where she taught at Konawaena Intermediate School. She was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1954, and in 1962, was elected chairman and chief executive officer, the equivalent of mayor. She lost her seat to Shunichi Kimura in 1964, and served on the County Council from 1980-84 and 1988-94.
At age 82, Hale, a Democrat, came out of retirement in 2000 to serve three terms in the stage Legislature, leaving only after a minor stroke affected her speech.
“I think she was a formidable champion for people from all walks of life,” said Gerald De Mello, recently retired director of university relations for the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “She was especially supportive, in her later years in the Legislature, of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.”
Hilyer said that Hale took her leave of life, as she did politics — on her own terms.
“She got to be the boss to the very end,” Hilyer said. “She really did it her way. … What can you say about Helene Hale? What an amazing woman; what an amazing life.”
Hale had major political roles in the development of astronomy on Mauna Kea, the establishment of the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo’s first sewage treatment plant, and the new $8.6 million Pahoa High and Intermediate School gymnasium that bears her name. Hale had advocated and worked to have the gym built since her County Council days.
“She isn’t just one servant leader, she’s one servant warrior,” Mayor Billy Kenoi said during the facility’s groundbreaking ceremony in August 2009. “She’s been fighting the good fight longer than many of us have been alive.”
Sometimes, the fight came close to being literal. Once, while representing Kona on the Board of Supervisors, she challenged Ikuo “Ika” Hisaoka to duke it out publicly. Hisaoka declined her invitation.
“At the next meeting of the Board of Supervisors, he brought me a pair of boxing gloves — little ones, play ones,” Hale recalled after Hisaoka died in 2010.
Kim said that Hale possessed the toughness and drive necessary to thrive in the political arena when “it was not popular to be a woman politician.”
“She was like a pit bull, but even a pit bull rests once in a while,” he said. “Where did she get the energy?”
Hilyer said that her aunt, whom she described as a trailblazer, “would proudly call herself a politician.”
“Nowadays, politicians have a bad name,” she said. “But she comes from the finest era of vision and leadership, making the hard decisions, working a long time to make things happen. She was civic-minded; she was a proponent of politics as what it should be: a higher calling.
“I hope that doesn’t die with her.”
Hale served many community organizations and on numerous boards, including terms as president of Big Island Local Development Corporation, Hilo Business and Professional Women’s Club, Mauna Kea Foundation, Hawaii Island Board of Realtors, Hawaii Island YWCA and co-president of Hawaii County League of Women Voters.
In addition to Hilyer and her husband, John Daggett, of Portland, Ore., Hale is survived by a nephew, retired Judge Bruce Hilyer of Seattle; son-in-law, Judge Marcus Tucker of Long Beach, Calif.; granddaughter, Angelique Kaiulani Tucker Stephens of Hollywood, Calif.; and grandnieces and a grandnephew.
A memorial gathering will be held at a date and time to be announced, Hilyer said. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the University of Hawaii Foundation for either the Helene Hale Scholarship Fund, the UH-Hilo Public History Enrichment Fund — which will be archiving her public papers — or the Imiloa Astronomy Center. Donations can be mailed to the UH-Hilo Office of Development at 200 West Kawili St., Hilo, HI 96720.