Last November, former Chief Justice William S. Richardson sat in his office at the law school that was named in his honor and reflected on his life. He was about to celebrate his 90th birthday with a fundraiser for his beloved UH law school, and though he had slowed down a bit, he was sharply dressed in a tucked-in aloha shirt and slacks, and he sported a full head of hair and that famous warm, wide smile. In person, the man was even more impressive than all the adoring descriptions of him.
The more I asked about his accomplishments, the more he talked about his struggles. He insisted he wasn’t a very good student in school. He described in vivid detail his make-do childhood growing up in a house his father built out of scrap lumber. He talked about spending summers working in the pineapple cannery. He said his mother would save buttons off other people’s discarded clothes to make shirts for the family. At that late stage in his life, those stories of dignity through hardship were how he described himself, more than all his political and judicial clout, and that graceful humility added to the legend of William S. Richardson.
The theme throughout his legal career was that the law should be used to protect and fight for people who don’t have the power to fight for themselves. The theme throughout his life was that anyone who was willing to work hard should get a fair chance. He fought at the Legislature for funding to build the UH law school because he thought Hawaii policymakers should be educated in Hawaii, and it troubled him that too many talented Hawaii students couldn’t afford to go to mainland law schools.
His own education at UH and then the University of Cincinnati law school was paid by small wages from odd jobs. For a time he worked as a chauffeur, driving an old lady to go shopping and to visit her friends. "I would take my books with me and study in the car while waiting for her," he said. When he left for school, his parents rented out his room in their humble Kaimuki home for extra money.
"We had some indoor plumbing, but no hot water," he recalled of his childhood home. "My job was to pick up kiawe wood from the trees that were cut down for roadwork. I would stack the wood for drying. With the wood, we’d start the fire to heat the water and get the water going. My father took a bath first, then my mother, then the kids in descending order of age."
For many people, Richardson served as a father figure. When he was Bishop Estate trustee, he was known to show up at the schools’ sporting events, song contests and graduations. He would drop by the cafeteria to have lunch with the students.
At the law school, students would come to his office seeking advice or just the opportunity to sit in his presence. He loved that. "I just try to encourage them," he said. And he’d talk about his simple upbringing with the message that many things are possible with hard work, diligence and humility.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.