BY SEN. SAM SLOM – Thursday, November 10, at the University of Hawaii Manoa, there was an inspirational dedication of the newly renovated Johnson Hall residences and the man for whom the dormitories are named.
The first Johnson Hall (A) on Dole Street was built in 1958, one of the campus’ first residences. The second, Johnson Hall (B), opened in 1960. My first stay in Honolulu when I arrived in 1960 was the Atkinson YMCA; my first home was Johnson Hall B as a UH Freshman.
I enjoyed my two year stay in Johnson; it was memorable. I met students from Hawaii, the Mainland and worldwide. Some things I can share; others might still be covered by the Statue of Limitations!
In those days, the building was clean, fresh and comfortable. Both buildings were for men only. To see a female student you had to go next door to Frear Hall, or sneak a guest inside. Hmmm. One of my several college part time jobs was as a dormitory switchboard operator; I was the Lilly Tomlin of the day complete with cables and plugs in Johnson.
Interestingly, UH chose a former woman WAC as resident manager for both buildings. She could have been a character in Police Academy. The poor dear obviously never read the U.S. Constitution; especially the 4th Amendment. She would burst into the dorm rooms, ruffle through drawers, rip Playboy pictures from the wall and even snatch undesirable items from a room.
But it was a kinder and gentler time and a great place to live and communicate with other students. The old College Inn restaurant was at the corner of Dole and University and for $1.25 you could get a complete meal, literally from soup to nuts. And if you walked the other way toward St. Louis, you might have wandered into Club Oasis. Occasionally, you might even see a scantily clad coed you knew on stage.
There was more, lots more. You could picnic or sun bathe on the Johnson roof and take great panoramic photos of Diamondhead and Honolulu. (I remember being up there one night for New Year’s Eve when fireworks were launched from the then vacant field across the street. I remember a rocket coming right for me, turning, and getting hit right in the seat of power.) Ahh, memories.
The residences aged over the past 50 years, but not gracefully.. By the start of this Century, the buildings, referred to as “J-Hall Dungeons,” were downright nasty inside. Our state is known for its lack of repair and maintenance. Students did not want to live there or to visit.
The student government, ASUH, began lobbying the Legislature and politicians for help to renovate Johnson. Their pleas fell on deaf ears for many years. Frustrated, about six years ago, they protested. They organized sleep ins. They erected tents and carried signs. They chose to sleep outside rather than face the problems inside the buildings. Their demands were specific and focused for their school, their buildings. They were persistent but not unlawful or unsanitary. They didn’t attack capitalism. Imagine that!
Their efforts paid off. Several years ago, the State Legislature approved $100 million in State Revenue Bonds to methodically improve many campus buildings. Last Fall, Johnson Hall was closed. Today, beautiful new, safe and sanitary buildings were dedicated. The cost was $6.7 million and includes a redesign of the student rooms, ADA accessible bathrooms, a new fire suppression and alarm system, and upgraded public areas, exterior and basement.
But who is Johnson Hall actually named for? We didn’t know in 1960. We should have. We do now. It’s a good Veterans’ Day reminder.
John Alexander Johnson, Jr. was a remarkable young man—and war hero. He graduated from Punahou and the University of Hawaii. While at UH, he was a leading athlete—captain of the football team—soccer, swim team and other activities, student leader and officer in ROTC. He graduated in 1935 with degrees in business and economics.
After graduation Johnson worked for a sugar company and joined the National Guard in 1940. Johnson was one of the few non-Nisei members of the famous 100th Battalion. He met, wooed and wed Elizabeth. She followed him to the Mainland for his training in several states. Johnson was distressed that at the beginning of WWII the government assigned Americans of Japanese Ancestry only guard duty, not full military action that they sought. He had Elizabeth write a letter to Washington officials to call for equal treatment of AJAs.
In 1944, at age 30, “Jack” Johnson was killed during the battle of Cassino, a pivotal and costly series of battles with the goal of breaking through German lines. He had previously asked Elizabeth, if he were to die, to be buried where he died. Reluctantly. Elizabeth buried him in Italy, though she wanted to bring him home to Hawaii.
Today, Elizabeth, Widow of the late Jack Johnson, who remarried and is Mrs. Elizabeth Toulon, attended the ceremony with daughter Lidi White. Lidi, who spoke in the first person of her Mother, told the heart warming story of her Mother’s remembrance of Jack.
They untied the Maile Lei and Kahu Kordell Kekoa blessed the buildings, the people, and the photograph of Jack Johnson that will be prominently displayed in the new Johnson Hall.
It was a day, and man, to remember.