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Lifelong educator recalled as ‘mother of middle schools’

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    Margaret Yuriko Oda was a Honolulu district superintendent in the 1980s and had many talents and interests.

Margaret Yuriko Oda, a pioneering educator who was born in a plantation town and left a lasting impact at schools across the islands, has died at 93.

The former teacher, principal and deputy superintendent of the Department of Education, who was known as “the mother of middle schools” in Hawaii, died April 15 at Kuakini Medical Center. She had suffered a massive stroke four days earlier, according to her daughter, Dr. Marjorie Oda-Burns.

Oda shared her talents with many nonprofits, leading the board of Kuakini Health Systems for many years and serving as president of the Japan-America Society of Hawaii. She was also a trustee for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Honolulu Museum of Art and the USS Missouri Memorial Association, among other philanthropies.

As Honolulu district superintendent in the 1980s, Oda pushed for the creation of middle schools focused on the needs and concerns of adolescents in grades six through eight. The concept was later adopted statewide, replacing intermediate schools, which had operated like small high schools for seventh- and eighth-graders, with little personalized support. The Hawaii Association of Middle Schools dubbed her the “mother of middle schools.”

Oda also set up Learning Centers at high schools so students could delve more deeply into a subject. As principal of Kaiser High School in the 1970s, she developed a reputation for unflappable leadership as well as her delectable apple pies, sold at the school carnival, her daughter recalled.

“She was very strong in her beliefs,” said Harriet Aoki, a retired banker and close friend. “She never gave up on making the schools the best she could. She was so committed to education in Hawaii.”

Oda helped launch Pacific Buddhist Academy, a high school in Nuuanu devoted to promoting peace. As trustee of the Japanese American National Museum, Oda led the “From Bento to Mixed Plate” project, a traveling exhibit on Japanese immigration that toured the islands, Japan and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Although she only had one child, she really was devoted to all of her organizations — she was like a mother to everybody in that way,” said Oda-Burns, a retired orthopedic surgeon. “She never took on something that she didn’t do wholeheartedly.”

At the same time, Oda was a dedicated homemaker and mom.

“She was always there for me,” Oda-Burns said.

Born March 26, 1925, in the sugar plantation village of Wailea, Hakalau, on Hawaii island, Margaret Kurisu was one of seven children of Satoru and Satoyo Kurisu. She graduated from Hilo High School in 1943 and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii.

She married her high school sweetheart, Glenn K. Oda, in 1947 after he returned from military service and they headed to Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s in mathematics, and he got a civil engineering degree.

She began her teaching career in Hilo in 1951 while he became a contractor, heading Constructors Hawaii and S.K. Oda Ltd. She helped propel students onto career paths that matched their interests and obtain scholarships, her daughter said. But the first time she applied to be a principal, she was rejected.

“The district superintendent told her that although he thought she was the most qualified person for the job, he couldn’t give it to her because there were men who had to support their families,” Oda-Burns recalls.

Instead Oda was given the unenviable task of consolidating three elementary schools into two. She went on to nurture teachers and principals statewide, as she rose through the Department of Education as an administrator.

Oda was awarded a 1972 fellowship in education at Yale University and in 1977 she earned the first doctorate awarded by the UH College of Education.

“She said a school was only as strong as its principal,” Oda-Burns said. “She did a lot in leadership development for principals. She would go into classrooms with teachers, not to assess them but to help them become better teachers.”

Although she retired from the DOE in 1990, she never slowed down. She headed the education committee for the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation and was a trustee for the Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation.

A lifelong learner, she was well into her 80s when she took up calligraphy at Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, where she also was a trustee.

Among her many honors, she was awarded the Fourth Order of Sacred Treasure, Golden Rays with Rosette by the Emperor of Japan in 1992.

“She was meticulous in everything she did,” Aoki said. “She was just a joy to be with. She had so many interests. We took Buddhism classes together, we even took tai chi together. Her mind was very sharp to the end.”

Along with her daughter, Oda is survived by her granddaughter, Theresa Michal Oda-Burns, a college counselor. Her husband died in his sleep in 1984.

Services will be held at Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin at 3 p.m. May 26. In lieu of monetary gifts, the family requests donations to Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii, Pacific Buddhist Academy, Honolulu Museum of Art, Kuakini Foundation, Manoa Heritage Center, Hilo Hongwanji or Hilo High School Foundation.

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