For former Gov. Ben Cayetano, Kalakaua Intermediate School band teacher Howard Higa had the greatest impact on him as he was growing up.
“I like to think of myself as an honest man, and Mr. Higa helped me to cherish that value,” Gov. Cayetano said.
Kalakaua has always had a tough reputation, and many of the toughest boys found themselves in Mr. Higa’s band class.
“What made Mr. Higa special was he made the guys feel like he really cared for them,” he said. “We could tell he was devoted to his work. His character just came through and that’s why the guys really liked him. He had the ability to inspire his students to do their best.”
He added, “It’s not something you could really point to. It was just in the way he carried himself and interacted with the band guys. He was just very, very thoughtful, very kind, very generous.”
When Mr. Higa at one point was abruptly reassigned to oversee the orchestra, his replacement was not shown the same aloha and support. It didn’t help that “he looked like he was wishing to be somewhere else rather than at this school with all these rough guys,” Gov. Cayetano said.
The boys treated him so badly that he left, prompting Mr. Higa’s welcome return. The band members were so happy that they pooled some money together and bought Mr. Higa a fancy watch.
“He was very touched,” Gov. Cayetano said.
Years later, he learned that the diminutive Mr. Higa was an interpreter who served with the Marines in Iwo Jima during World War II. Mr. Higa had to learn to whistle popular American tunes to keep from being mistaken for the enemy.
“To find out that he was in the war in such a dangerous job and never talked about it, that boosted my respect for him,” Gov. Cayetano said.
The young Ben Cayetano also had several teachers at Puuhale Elementary School who paid special attention to him and his brother, Ken, because they knew the boys’ father was a single parent raising them on his own. Among them were the more relaxed Mrs. Ai in fourth grade and the prim and proper Mrs. Uehara in sixth grade.
Gov. Cayetano recalls that he was asked frequently where he was going after school and reminded to go straight home and asked after his wellbeing. The care that they had for him is something he’ll always remember.