John Henry Wilson
Mayor took careBy Gordon Y.K. Pang
of the little guy
A road builder and politician. A champion of the Hawaiian race and a showman. The man who held the Democratic Party together in Hawaii through the dawn of the 1954 revolution.
Those are all apt descriptions of John Henry Wilson, the most endearing and, arguably, most important Democrat in the first half of 20th-century Hawaii.
U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was one of those who inherited the mantle from Wilson in 1954 when the Democrats took control over both houses of the Territorial Legislature by appealing to help the common man against the monied Big Five interests of the Republicans.
"While (1954) was clearly an important turning point in our history, we succeeded because of the firm foundation laid by Johnny Wilson," Inouye said.
Longtime Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who alternated between foe and student to Wilson, is another who embraced his theme.
"He always said take care of the little guy," Fasi said. "He wasn't afraid to take on the Big Five."
Wilson's mother had been lady-in-waiting to Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last queen. His father was the queen's marshall, police chief and the last loyalist to surrender at the overthrow.
He first stepped into the public fore in 1897 when, at 26, he enlisted the help of Benjamin Dillingham and took on construction of Pali Road over the Koolaus into Kailua. That same year, the man who studied engineering at Stanford University began work on Dillingham's project to connect his railroad from Waianae to Waialua through Kaena Point.
"Many of the facilities and developments we see on Oahu have his fingerprints," Inouye said.
Building may have been Wilson's most important nonpolitical contribution to Honolulu, but he had interests and successes in other areas as well.
It was Wilson and his wife, Jennie "Kini" Kapahu, who introduced the U.S. mainland to the once-forbidden hula with their Hawaiian Village hula troupe.
As a young man, Wilson also worked on the docks as a stevedore, a move that brought him contacts in the labor world that would aid his future political career when he got support from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Inouye said that while the late Gov. Jack Burns can be credited with bringing Japanese-Americans into the Democratic fold, Wilson equally could lay claim to drawing the unions and native Hawaiians.
Wilson was content to stay on the fringes of politics for much of his life, serving as roads engineer of Maui and Honolulu counties.
Reluctantly, he ran in his first political race at age 47, a bid for a seat on the territorial Senate, which he lost. Mayor Joseph Fern died in 1920 and Wilson, his chief engineer, was selected by the Board of Supervisors to succeed him.
As mayor, Wilson consolidated city government functions by pushing for construction of Honolulu Hale, completed in 1929. He was the first Hawaii politician to use improvement districts to modernize a Honolulu whose population was on the brink of explosion.
Wilson also pushed for a second route through the Koolaus to the Windward side. The Wilson Tunnel was completed in 1961, five years after the mayor's death at age 84.