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Connie Chun / 1928-2020: She was the first nurse and Filipina to serve in state House

  • COURTESY CHUN FAMILY
                                Connie C. Chun is seen here in her 20s, left, and later as a Hawaii state legislator.

    COURTESY CHUN FAMILY

    Connie C. Chun is seen here in her 20s, left, and later as a Hawaii state legislator.

Connie Chun, the first Filipina and first nurse elected to the state House of Representatives, was also a lawyer, philanthropist, marathon runner and matriarch of the “Hunky Bunch.”

Her accomplished life began with a dramatic first step. “Growing up in the ‘barrio’ area of southern Philippines created limited options for my future,” she penned in a 2008 personal essay.

Not wanting to pursue a teaching career, as her father wished, she said: “I ran away from home, joined a missionary group and earned a scholarship to a four-year nursing school at Manila Sanitarium &Hospital. I graduated as valedictorian and class president.”

Chun died Aug. 26 of cardiac arrest at the age of 92 at Straub Hospital in Honolulu.

She served in the state House from 1980-84, representing Districts 18 and 30. She chaired the Public Assistance/Human Services committee in her first term.

Friend and former state Rep. Andy Levin said, “She was the only freshman (representative) to chair a committee.”

“She was always reminding people she was a nurse and brought that background to her position as a legislator,” he said. “She always tried to do what was good for the public.”

Chun advocated for nurses and sought to lower the passing grade for registered nursing exams to match other states in the nation.

She co-authored a bill to bring “Nursing Home Without Walls” to Hawaii, which was enacted in July 1988. It established a community long-term care/nursing home without walls program within the Department of Human Services to provide comprehensive home services for acute or chronically ill and disabled clients.

Chun was born June 2, 1928, in Mindanao, the Philippines.

In 1956, she received a Fulbright Scholarship, was accepted as a graduate student in the Public Health program at Loma Linda University in California, becoming the first Filipina registered nurse in the program.

She went on to serve as director of nursing at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Hospital and assistant director of nursing at St. Francis Hospital.

In the 1970s, Chun obtained a Master of Public Health Degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a law degree in 1978 from the UH William S. Richardson School of Law.

Her daughter, June Beltran, said she doesn’t know why her mother decided to go to law school in the 1970s, but she does remembering typing a lot of briefs for her mom while Beltran was in high school.

After serving two terms as a representative, Chun fell victim to reapportionment and lost in 1984 to incumbent Donna Kim for the 40th District seat.

She ran again in 1988 against Romy Cachola for the 39th House District (Kapalama-Foster Village), Honolulu Star- Bulletin columnist Richard Borreca calling them two of the “more colorful politicians.”

He cited as part of Chun’s colorful “claim to fame” was raising Sooey, the family’s 800-pound pet pig, which her neighbors objected to. As an attorney, she successfully fought in 1983 to keep the porker all the way up to the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.

But she was not so lucky in the 1988 race. The Democratic primary race with Cachola ended in the state’s first ever primary election tie, with a 1,795-vote deadlock. Because the law in the case of a tie was vague, a run-off was held in the general election, with the governor appointing the winner. The bitterly fought run-off ended with Cachola garnering 77 more votes (2,917 to 2,840), ending Chun’s legislative career.

In 2008, the YWCA honored Chun and three other women leaders in Hawaii, who each wrote her path to achievement in a personal essay.

“My life started with hardships, but I learned early that if you pursue excellence combined with patience, perseverance, compassion and enthusiasm, you will get what you want,” she wrote.

She urged young woman to pursue their dreams and never give up.

Chun also wrote another key to her success was having “a mentor, and a partner who can motivate and encourage you when the going is tough and make you laugh when you are sad.”

She found that in Dr. Hing Hua Chun, a cardiologist nicknamed “Hunky,” who guided her through getting her degrees.

They married in 1970 and formed a blended family — he, with three boys and she with three girls, like the 1970s TV family, “The Brady Bunch.”

The family ran as the Hunky Bunch in many Honolulu Marathons, starting in 1973. In 1974, they ran the Boston Marathon wearing matching “Hunky Bunch” sweatshirts.

Levin recalls how all the freshmen representatives in 1980 were thrown into a conference room before getting their office assignments.

“Connie jumped up on one of the conference tables, and said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to run a marathon.’”

While others thought she was a “nut case,” Levin said, “I was intrigued and went up to her, and said I’m interested. She introduced me to various articles on how to get started.”

He’s been running 40 years now.

Chun is also survived by daughters May Lynne Gill and Joy Groody; stepsons Jerold, Hingson and Daven Chun; 11 grandchildren; and sister Lee Caspe.

Private services were held. Any donations may be made in Chun’s name to the Philippine Nurses’ Association Hawaii Foundation Scholarship Fund, 827 Fort Street Mall, Honolulu, HI 96813.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year Chun received a Fulbright scholarship.

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