A Few Last Words From Frenchy
It was a sunny Saturday in February 1998 when I sat down with Frenchy DeSoto at Makua beach – as informal a setting for a MidWeek cover story interview as any. She was, at the time, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs chairwoman. Make that the outspoken and often controversial OHA chairwoman. Hearing news of her recent death at age 81, reading others’comments on her life and contributions to Hawaii, I had two immediate thoughts: First, one of the best things about my business is the opportunity to get to know history makers in ways that most folks can’t. Second, I wanted to give Frenchy one last chance to speak in the pages of MidWeek. What follows is a condensed version of that cover story, plus one more anecdote.
To help put a fractured people and a fractured culture back together again, Frenchy DeSoto may be the perfect leader. The chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs knows fractured. She also knows about making the fractured whole again.
“My full-Hawaiian mother never raised me,” DeSoto said. “My maiden name was French, and my German father killed himself when I was 6. The court took us away from our mother. I was raised from foster home to foster home, and I ran away from every single one of them. There must have been 17 or 16, like that.
“I ran away because I was looking for my brother and my two sisters. I’d find out where they were and I’d walk. One time I found my brother in Kaimuki in the Salvation Army boys home. I walked from Kalihi to Kaimuki to get him. He was feeding pigs. And then they took him up to the dorm and tied his leg to the bed frame (so he couldn’t leave). I climbed up the back stairway and lifted up the bed frame, so you could slip the rope off, and then I removed it off of him and put him on my back, and away we went. I must have been about 9, he was 7.
“That’s why I created my own family,” she added, a tear creeping into the corner of an eye. “And then I fought everybody that crossed it.”
Ultimately, the ohana for whom she would fight extended to all native Hawaiians, and to all who are powerless and wronged by the powerful.
“So that’s why I get so emotional perhaps,” she continued that day in the shade at Makua. “That when I speak of people starving, it’s not an intellectual exercise, Don. When I speak of the pain of children, it’s not another exercise of brainwave patterns.
“But I was tough. I shined shoes on Bethel Street when I ran away. I hawked newspapers that I stole.
Got enough money to buy a book. And people would get so angry with me. Most people, they get money, they buy food, and I’d buy a book. I loved Shakespeare. I found a kinship with a broken soul. It was part of glossing over the pain … I tried to build a front of toughness.”
It’s telling that this hard-charging woman who knew no back-down married a champion motorcycle racer and was the mother of perhaps Hawaii’s top motorcycle racer, John DeSoto, who went on to become a Honolulu councilman. Politics, he got from Mom. Fearless, he got from both sides.
“They called him Cobra,” Frenchy said of her husband, John Sr. “He is second generation from Puerto Rico, born on the Big Island. Plantation people, Peepeku. When I met him, he was one of the few human beings who was very kind to me. We met down at the Natatorium – I was swimming, also working at St. Francis. All the motorcyclists would hang out at the Natatorium. This other Hawaiian boy, Joe Peters, who I knew casually, my girlfriend was going with him, and she introduced me to my husband. He took me riding motorcycles. He had a Harley at that time, ’61.”
Together they had “six children of my own plus raised four more. In Hawaiian, they’re called luhi – you raise ’em, you don’t adopt ’em: Japanese girl, Filipino boy, haole boy and Hawaiian boy … I don’t care about the color.”
She ventured into politics in the most grassroots of ways:
“I think because I have a lot of children, I became involved in what they did and started from there, recognizing that there needed to be changes – such as corporal punishment in the schools. I noticed that when my children were younger, going to school, they didn’t spank children in Hawaii Kai – they spanked them in Waianae. Very subtle, and yet not too subtle discrimination in my view. That was my first success. Of course I’ve never, ever done any of this by myself. I never could have. It was a lot of people who thought like I did, who committed like I did, to making a small difference.
“I did the PTA and then I quit when, at one meeting, teachers and parents sat around talking and talking about why Johnny wrote an obscenity on the bathroom wall. Nobody thought of going and asking this damn kid what the hell he did and why it was wrong. So I thought, (expletive), this is certainly a lot of waste of time. And I understood then that a lot of people are more interested in retaining the status quo, if you will. They’re not ready to be creative.
“I got into trouble when I was young – I had a violent temper. Some people still accuse me of that, but I think I have mellowed, to the point where sometimes people mistake my kindness for weakness. Now that is a big problem – for them.”
I was fortunate never to have been an adversary of Frenchy’s, and over the years we developed what I’d call a warm professional relationship. One of the things the public didn’t usually get to see was her sense of humor, which could be self-deprecating, or her kolohe nature.
“I was born at St. Francis, and a Dr. Hays delivered me,” she said in that cover interview. “And it was told to me that he was ‘rather inebriated’when he delivered me. It’s wonderful for me, because I always have an excuse to fall back on when I start acting stupid!”
Some years later, working on a story that involved Hawaiian aumakua, family gods, I called to ask about her aumakua – and never have a deity and a human been so perfectly paired.
“Oh, my aumakua is the elements – wind and rain, waves and storms,” she said, excitement rising in her voice. “So if I’m out at sea on a boat, and the wind is blowing and the rain is coming down sideways, and the ocean is rough, I’m never scared.”
And here she laughed a rascal laugh.
“Some people might call me a dirty old woman, but when I’m out there in the elements like that, surrounded by all that power, it’s a very sensual, kind of sexual thing.”
She laughed that laugh again. Aloha, Frenchy, and mahalo for all your good work for Hawaii. May ka makani forever blow your way.