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Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, October 30, 2000

A top cop retires
to hit the law books

IN my lifetime, I'd like to see a woman serve as president of the United States, governor of Hawaii and police chief of Oahu. I mean, really, is that asking so much?

Thus, it is with great interest I watch Hillary Clinton campaign in New York (today, the Senate; tomorrow, the Oval Office?), while Republican Linda Lingle and Democrat Mazie Hirono position themselves to be Ben Cayetano's successor in 2002.

Meanwhile, at the Honolulu Police Department, I've been an avid follower and fan of the ascending career of Barbara Uphouse Wong, 47. She joined the force in 1972 as a dispatcher, became one of the first two female HPD officers in 1975, and worked her way up to assistant chief in 1997.

Assistant chief, folks! Wong became famous as the highest-ranking police woman in Hawaii and one of the loftiest in the nation.

Whenever I'd see her in public, I'd kid Wong about her "next job" as chief of police. She'd just laugh and shake her head.

I could dream, couldn't I?

So on hearing the news in April that Wong was retiring after 28 years with HPD to attend UH law school, I screamed in mock horror. "No, Barbara!" I pleaded. "You don't really want to be an attorney?"

Yes, she does. After bidding aloha to colleagues and staff at a big retirement party in June, Wong became a member of the law school's entering class of 2000 in mid-August.

She is one of 74 aspiring law-yers in the bunch, of whom 62 percent are women and 20 percent hold advanced degrees (including two medical doctors).

During her lunch break last Monday, Wong described the taxing demands of her six classes, the brilliance and supportiveness of her peers, and how retirement is far from boring when you go back to campus.

"The hours are long, but it's fascinating and challenging," says Wong. "The first few weeks were quite overwhelming with all of the daily reading assignments, briefing cases and working on papers."

Initial fears that she wouldn't blend in with students young enough to be her kids soon faded away, although she has responsibilities and concerns most of them don't: like being a wife and mom to three kids ranging in age from 24 to eight.

BALANCING family demands is difficult, she admits. "You know how that goes. The mother still keeps track of the basketball games, Cub Scout events, potlucks, homework, laundry, and on and on," says Wong.

She's not complaining, though. In fact, if any woman is contemplating going back to school after a long absence -- but fears she won't be able to hack it -- she should look to Wong as a role model. It's not only possible, it can be fun, too.

"I tried to keep a journal the first few weeks but I had no time whatsoever," marvels Wong. "Anyway, it's going great."

She hopes to specialize in intellectual property law because of its cutting-edge quality, or employment law since Wong spent five years running the human resources aspect of HPD, which has 3,000 employees. When she graduates in May 2003, she'll be only 50 years old.

Fifty years old, folks! That's still be young enough to be chief and she'll have a law degree to boot. Maybe my dream isn't quite dead after all...

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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