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Fujio Matsuda 1924-2020: Only Hawaii-born University of Hawaii president expanded the college system

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1963
                                Before Fujio Matsuda, left, became the first Asian American to head a major university, he was appointed director of the Department of Transportation. Above, Matsuda and Munny Lee, then the department’s program officer, confer on future highway projects. Matsuda died Aug. 23 at home. He was 95.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 1963

    Before Fujio Matsuda, left, became the first Asian American to head a major university, he was appointed director of the Department of Transportation. Above, Matsuda and Munny Lee, then the department’s program officer, confer on future highway projects. Matsuda died Aug. 23 at home. He was 95.

  • COURTESY PHOTO
                                Fujio Matsuda

    COURTESY PHOTO

    Fujio Matsuda

As a teenager, Fujio “Fudge” Matsuda spent his weekends turning a 100-pound sack of flour and a dozen eggs into 400 bundles of noodles for his mom’s saimin stand.

In his spare time, the only son of Japanese immigrant parents could be found in a corner of his Kakaako neighborhood bookstore reading Japanese-language books and magazines because he couldn’t afford to buy them.

Even as Matsuda rose to the post of state transportation director and went on to become the nation’s first Asian American to head a major university, he never forgot his humble beginnings and local values, according to those who knew him well.

Matsuda died Aug. 23 at his Honolulu home, surrounded by his wife of 71 years, Amy, and his six children. He was 95.

Matsuda was the University of Hawaii’s only locally born president, serving in the post from 1974 to 1984. UH officials say much of what the university system is today is due, in part, to Matsuda’s foresight and vision.

“We always understood that one of his major goals was to make higher education available to as many local students as possible,” his son, Tom Matsuda, said. “The community college system really expanded under his watch.”

Also during his tenure, the William S. Richardson School of Law was established so local students could get a law degree here instead of having to leave to the mainland, he said.

A UH news release said that under Matsuda’s leadership the first systemwide strategic plan was developed, the East-West Center was separated from the university, and the university built its Korean Studies Center, marine sciences building, an athletic complex and swimming pool, the Institute for Astronomy, Gilmore Hall and the art building.

UH President David Lassner said in the release, “Even in the 1970s, before the internet or the PC, he intuitively understood that computers would change the way we teach and learn. I came to UH to help in the startup of his statewide Computer Based Education Pilot Project in 1977 and I never left.

“Fuj led UH and then RCUH (Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii), balancing vision and pragmatism, and always with integrity. I am proud to have known him.”

Glenn Miyataki, who served as special assistant to the UH president and later as director of long-range planning, called Matsuda a “builder and a great humanitarian.” He said Matsuda held a strong belief “in the dignity of a person regardless of a person’s station in life.”

Miyataki said he was also effective in dealing with the various UH entities and smoothing out any potential conflicts.

“If the regents and the administration were dealing with a complex issue, there were a lot of frayed feelings. He walks into a meeting and he tamed the lions,” Miya­taki said.

Matsuda was born Oct. 18, 1924, in Honolulu to Yoshio and Shimo Matsuda. He was a senior at McKinley High School when Pearl Harbor was bombed Dec. 7, 1941. Matsuda volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team’s 232nd Combat Engineer Company and eventually was assigned to the 291st Field Artillery Observation Battalion, an all-white battalion, serving in northern Germany and France.

After the war, Matsuda earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Rose Polytechnic Institute in Indiana in 1949, the same year he married his wife, whom he knew from high school. He received a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in structural engineering in 1952.

Returning to Hawaii, Matsuda co-founded the civil engineering firm SMS Engineering in 1955 and became a professor of civil engineering at UH, eventually being named department chairman.

In 1962, Gov. John A. Burns tapped Matsuda to serve as head of the Department of Transportation at the age of 38. He held that position for 10 years, overseeing rapid expansion of state highways, airports and harbors as Hawaii grew.

In 1973, Matsuda was asked by then-UH President Harlan Cleveland to return as vice president of business affairs. At age 49, he was appointed UH president by the Board of Regents in July 1974 and remains the only UH president of Asian descent in the school’s history.

Satoru Izutsu, who served as special assistant to Matsuda beginning in 1983, called him a mentor and patient listener who taught by example. “Of course he was precise because as an engineer he was really disciplined,” Izutsu said.

“His goal was to make the University of Hawaii an outstanding educational institution. He was proud of the entire university. He saw the big picture of where education really belonged or could participate in the development of Hawaii.”

The two began taking weekly tea ceremony lessons in 1984 and continued for 35 years. “It focuses on harmony, purity, respect and tranquility, and he really lived all of these precepts,” Izutsu said.

Matsuda’s former secretary Brenda Kanno credited his upbringing for much of his success as a leader.

“That generation grew up with different values; the work and personal ethics are very different from today,” she said. “People took care of each other back then. He always looked at issues from all perspectives and not just jump in to make a quick decision.

“He was an engineer. He got criticized for taking too long to make a decision, but that was because of his process of thinking and looking at issues from all sides. He also was very conscious of the other person’s feelings — basically treat everyone with the same courtesy and respect that you would expect for yourself.”

After stepping down as UH president, Matsuda served as executive director of the RCUH from 1984 to 1994 and helped form the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research, serving as its chairman. In 2003, he led a fundraising drive to raise $9 million to save the Japanese Cultural Center from having to sell its building, according to the UH release. A year later he was honored as a “Living Treasure” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai‘i.

Honolulu Community College’s Fujio Matsuda Technology Training and Education Center is named in his honor.

Despite Matsuda’s busy work life, Tom Matsuda said his father “enjoyed being a dad, being with his family, taking us out and doing things and having fun with us. He loved big family gatherings. He liked to sing, and growing up in Kakaako, he learned a lot of Hawaiian music.”

All his children followed in his footsteps, one way or another, with careers in education, public service or social justice, and one of his sons is an engineer.

Fujio Matsuda is also survived by sons Bailey and Richard; daughters Sherry, Joan and Ann; 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a public memorial gathering when it is safe to do so. In lieu of gifts or flowers, the family requests donations to the Fujio and Amy Matsuda Scholarship Fund at the University of Hawaii Foundation.

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