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Thursday, October 19, 2000


By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Harry Kim, candidate for Big Island mayor, with his pet mynah
bird. The front yard of his new home is a lava field,
left in its natural state.

Popular figure

Harry Kim's determination
to succeed was spawned by
a difficult childhood

By Rod Thompson

HILO -- When former Hawaii County Civil Defense director Harry Kim was in the ninth grade, his school put him in the D class. "D for dummies," Kim says.

Logo Thirteen years later, Kim graduated from Southern Oregon University with a master's degree in economics. The degree is part of what makes him qualified to be Hawaii County mayor, says Republican candidate Kim.

The lasting sting of the D class is why he's running, he says.

Poverty barely describes Kim's childhood. His mother from South Korea and father from the North, who spoke hardly a word of English, lived with their nine children in a one-bedroom house on a tiny farm in the rain forest south of Hilo.

He attended Keaau Elementary School. "No matter what I did, I couldn't get higher than a D in English," he says.

One day a frustrated teacher hit him in the face. The 14-year-old boy stood up and shoved her back. He was expelled on the spot.

His parents begged, pleaded, and got him into Hilo Union School, where he landed in the D class.

"That was the most beneficial thing that happened to me," he says. He saw kids who simply could not read required by their teachers time and again to stand and stumble over words, embarrassing themselves in front of other kids.


Bullet Name: Harry Kim
Bullet Born: Aug. 22, 1939, Keaau, Hawaii
Bullet Family: Wife, Roberta Jean "Bobbi" Keefe; two sons
Bullet Residence: Hilo
Bullet Education: Hilo High School, 1957; Southern Oregon University, B.S., 1966; M.S. 1967
Bullet Professional: Social studies teacher, Honokaa High School, 1967-69; Hilo High 1969-71; Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, 1971-1976; Hawaii County Civil Defense Director, 1976-2000
Bullet Political: No prior experience running for office; publicly supported a candidate only once: Lorraine Inouye, Democratic mayoral candidate, 1990

"It just makes you realize the wrong we do with people. From that day on, there was a drive to be a teacher." And Kim would teach the right way, he decided.

Kim's father died when he was 15 and the family struggled. From 3 to 9 p.m. on school days and all day on weekends, he and his older brothers and sisters wove mats and other lauhala items.

He had no time to learn or play ball games. Years later, his brother-in-law asked him to help coach high school football. "Set up a nickel defense," he told Kim.

Kim had no idea what that meant. He told a boy, "Set up a nickel defense," then watched what the boy did.

As his older brothers and sisters left home, there weren't enough hands to make lauhala. So, in 1955, his mother started a kim chee business, which Kim continued until 1993.

Some people thought the business made him wealthy. Kim says he never earned more than $200 a month from it.

Kim went to Hilo College for two years, served in the Army as a medic at Schofield Barracks, and used his GI Bill benefits to finish his education at Southern Oregon University, where he met his wife, Roberta "Bobbi" Keefe.

He received his master's degree in 1967, then taught two years in Honokaa, followed by two years at Hilo High.

In October, 1971, a month into the new school year, his principal told him to teach a class in a way Kim considered unstructured, leaving the kids too much free time. Kim refused.

"You either accept that or you don't teach here," the principal said.

Kim answered, "I don't teach here," and walked out.

Fighting lava's destruction

He went to work for the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, a position which essentially made him a grant writer for Hawaii County.

In 1976 he became Civil Defense director, a post he held until retiring this year.

In 1983 Kilauea volcano began a series of east rift eruptions, still continuing today, which more than anything else made Kim's fame.

Lava pushed through one community after another: Royal Gardens in 1983, Kapaahu in 1984 and finally, most destructively, Kalapana in 1990.

Star-Bulletin file photo
As Big Island civil defense director, Harry Kim toured natural-
disaster sites. Above, he went to Kalapana in 1977
after a volcanic eruption.

As lava destroyed one house after another, eventually totaling 181, Kim ordered 24-hour, daily monitoring of the flow.

"You don't sleep too good at night because you don't want anybody to be caught in that," he says.

His six-person agency couldn't do the job alone, so he insisted that police, firefighters and public works crews staff road blocks.

It rankled some county workers, such as firefighters who said they weren't trained to man road blocks. Kim made it happen anyway.

The accusation that Kim grabs power from other agencies still surfaces sometimes.

Major Charles Chai, police liaison to Civil Defense, says, "I've never experienced, in my dealing with Mr. Kim, him trying to impose his policies or projects on the police department."

If some complain, many Kalapana residents express gratitude.

Careful monitoring of the flow meant residents two blocks from the lava might remain in their homes, while a home at the flow front went up in flames.

'Hugely popular'

Years later, residents remember Kim putting their interests first. "He's just a hugely popular person," says Republican Party head Linda Lingle.

One former Kalapana resident traveled to Germany and brought Kim a piece of the Berlin Wall.

A little girl whom he helped during the lava flows, now a teenager, hugs him whenever she sees him and thanks him for saving her life.

Actually, he says, she locked Kim's keys in his car as lava approached, and he was busy saving the car.

Amidst this fame, Kim's wife Bobbi is often overlooked -- which is the way she likes it.

"Life with him is an adventure," she says. Part of the adventure is Kim's love for nature -- and nature's love for him.

A visitor to the Kim home will discover a pet mynah bird named Stretch who "protects" Kim by buzzing the visitor's head. Kim rescued the baby bird from a cat four years ago.

He also saved a baby cardinal that fell from its nest and a rabbit his son found.

Kim also describes sitting in tide pools at Kapoho, visiting with two rare lined butterfly fish who come when he calls them.

"He's very much a reflective person," says Bobbi. "He gives a lot of insight to others because he's had a vast array of experience. He is gifted. He really is."

A consistent part of Kim's reflections are that big projects imposed from the top down, such as expensive west Hawaii subdivisions, hurt local residents.

"People are having anxiety about it," he said. "Let's make sure it doesn't make us strangers in our own land."

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