AP / NA OPIO, YEARBOOK OF PUNAHOU SCHOOL
This 1972 photo provided by Na Opio, the yearbook of Punahou School, shows Barack Obama, in the back row, third from left, posing with his fifth-grade class and teacher Mabel Hefty at the Punahou campus. Obama named Hefty his favorite teacher for her power to make "every single child feel special." CLICK FOR LARGE
A teacher's Hefty influence
Punahou teacher Mabel Hefty influenced leaders such as Barack Obama and Nainoa Thompson
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When fifth-grade teacher Mabel Hefty called on Barack Obama on his first day at Punahou School, he wished she hadn't.
Yet, 36 years later, hers was the name that came to mind when the presidential candidate was asked on national television to name his favorite teacher.
Another of Hawaii's best-known leaders -- pioneering navigator and educator Nainoa Thompson -- credits "Mrs. Hefty" with helping him get past a fear of failure in the classroom.
The imprint of this remarkable woman, who recognized and drew out the spark in her students, is still vivid long after she disappeared from the scene.
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LIKE many teachers, Mabel Hefty worked in relative obscurity, known well by students and staff but little beyond the tree-lined borders of Punahou School.
She retired 27 years ago and her obituary in 1995 merited just a few lines in the Star-Bulletin. But as author Henry Adams once said, "A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops."
On Monday, when asked on national television to name his favorite teacher, Democratic presidential candidate and 1979 Punahou graduate Barack Obama chose Mrs. Hefty, his fifth-grade teacher, for her power to make "every single child feel special."
Another of Hawaii's most prominent native sons also looks back on his days with Hefty as a turning point in his education. Nainoa Thompson had a rough start in school; his third-grade teacher in Aina Haina told his parents he was slow and not to expect much of him.
Hefty showed him otherwise. Thompson, a 1972 Punahou graduate, went on, with others, to revive the ancient Hawaiian art of long-distance voyaging by canoe without instruments, inspiring generations of Hawaiians. He now heads the Polynesian Voyaging Society and serves as a trustee of Kamehameha Schools.
"My most important, influential teacher in the classroom was Mabel Hefty," said Thompson, who noted that he has had extraordinary teachers outside of school, as well. "You knew that she cared about you so much."
COURTESY PUNAHOU SCHOOL
Mabel Hefty with the Hawaiian quilt given to her by Punahou School upon her retirement in 1980. CLICK FOR LARGE
Another student, Lon Wysard, paid his teacher the ultimate compliment by following Hefty's footsteps as a fifth-grade teacher for many years at Punahou.
"She expected a lot out of you and she was tough, but she loved you as if you were her own," said Wysard, now Punahou's associate director of admissions. "She brought out your self-confidence."
He added: "I'm looking at M. Hefty as we speak. The one picture that I have in my office -- maybe that's telling -- is Mabel Hefty with my fifth-grade class."
Hefty's daughter, Carolyn Whorff, a retired teacher who lives in Oakhurst, Calif., said she teared up to hear that Obama considered Mrs. Hefty his favorite teacher. Obama's name had come up as her mother was dying of cancer, before he went into politics, Whorff said.
"I know he's going to be somebody,'" Hefty told her daughter. "You probably will hear about him. If you do, look him up."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 2, 1915, Hefty earned her bachelor's from San Francisco State College in 1935 and started teaching at Punahou in 1947. She was a veteran fifth-grade teacher by the time Barack Obama entered her class in the fall of 1971, hoping to fit in like any other kid.
Hefty had recently completed a sabbatical in Kenya, where she taught as part of an educational advisory team appointed by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"I was just coming from overseas, coming back to the United States, felt a little bit out of place," Obama recalled Monday at the CNN/YouTube debate. "And she had actually lived in Kenya and worked there and taught there, and was able to give me some sense that even though I had experiences outside this country, those were actually valuable and important."
But the first time Hefty called on him in class, young "Barry" didn't want the attention. It was his first day at his new school, on a college-like campus that prompted his grandfather to exclaim: "This isn't a school -- this is heaven!"
Aware that Obama's father was from Kenya, Hefty mentioned that she had been teaching students his age in that "magnificent country." When she asked what tribe his father was from, the class erupted in giggles, and Obama was struck speechless for a moment.
"When I finally said 'Luo,' a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey," Obama recounts in his book "Dreams from My Father." "The children could no longer contain themselves and it took a stern reprimand from Miss Hefty before the class would settle down and we could mercifully move on to the next person on the list."
Later, to Barry's dismay, Hefty invited his father to give a talk to the class during a visit to Hawaii. But the senior Obama's stories of tribal life and Kenyans' struggle to free themselves of colonial rule entranced the students, replacing their early derision with admiration.
Pal Eldredge, Barry's math and science teacher, was there to hear the talk, along with his own homeroom class. Obama remembers Eldredge as a "big, no-nonsense Hawaiian," but he was a rookie teacher still learning the ropes from Hefty.
At his retirement party last month, the longtime Punahou teacher and baseball coach invoked her name, saying, "Mabel Hefty was the person who really showed me the way."
"She called it like she saw it," Eldredge said. "She was like the mother figure to me and to the students."
Thompson said that he thrived in Hefty's class because he could trust her. But he was still shy. When she decided to name him the "most improved student" in the fifth grade, he stayed home sick because he didn't want to get up in front of everyone at the assembly. She saw through the ruse.
"She called up my parents and said, 'I don't care what's wrong. You get him into school today,'" Thompson recalled. "She shoved me up there on stage. She was there for me all the way."
Their friendship continued for life. Even after she moved to California, whenever he came home from a long-distance voyage, there was a letter from Hefty to welcome him. "Those letters meant everything to me," he said.
"You can get into an environment where you start to get afraid of learning because you are afraid of failing," he said. "In her culture of education, you never felt that at all."
Although Hefty primarily taught fifth grade, a brief stint as a high school social studies teacher, after earning her master's degree in 1969, also left a lasting impression.
"She had a big impact on me, with just one course, one semester," said attorney Jeff Crabtree, a 1972 Punahou graduate. "She was probably the first teacher who truly opened my eyes to the outside world.
"She had us thinking about things that were going on in Africa, Europe, Appalachia, issues that were broader than you were used to thinking about. I was thinking about surfing, girls, basketball. She got me interested in some real-life stuff that was important."
A teacher's legacy can reach far beyond the knowledge imparted in the classroom.
"The things you hear about from students over the years are not so much that they learned how to add or write or read from you," Eldredge said. "It's that you affected them somehow to make them want to learn."
Hefty's daughter said her mother tried to have an impact on students.
"If you're a good teacher," she said, "you're going to teach them about life as much as anything."