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‘Mother of Honolulu City Lights’ Carol Costa was dedicated to holiday event

                                Carol Costa, left, was press secretary for former Honolulu mayors Frank Fasi, Eileen Anderson and Jeremy Harris, right.
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Carol Costa, left, was press secretary for former Honolulu mayors Frank Fasi, Eileen Anderson and Jeremy Harris, right.

In 1985, when legendary Honolulu Mayor Frank F. Fasi determined that city hall was “just not festive enough” around the holidays, he tasked his then-Press Secretary Carol Costa with jazzing up the courtyard and lawn of Honolulu Hale.

And thus Costa became “the mother of Honolulu City Lights,” a yuletide tradition that generations of kamaaina families and visitors have used to mark the beginning of the holiday season on Oahu.

Costa, 80, died Tuesday under hospice care on Oahu.

Honolulu City Lights began with a 50-foot tree and some snowmen sculpted with chicken wire and leftover fabric. Gradually, it grew to include Shaka Santa, Tutu Mele and a seemingly ever-increasing crew of characters, the annual Public Workers’ Electric Light Parade, a wreath-making contest and even an offshoot ceremony at Kapolei Hale. Downtown Honolulu businesses joined in the merriment, creating many blocks of big, festive holiday showcases.

Costa was so dedicated to the Honolulu City Lights event and the all-volunteer crew that put it together each year, she continued on as a volunteer for the celebration until just a few years ago, long after she retired in 2004 after three decades as an employee of the City and County of Honolulu, serving Mayors Frank Fasi, Eileen Anderson and Jeremy Harris.

“Carol was my dearest friend,” Harris said in a statement. “She was always the person I could go to, and she offered love and care and wisdom; she made our work of politics bearable; she was a truly good person; she always wanted to help people and she got such fulfillment from helping people; our Honolulu city government was the richer for her being in it; she lead with wisdom, calm, and honesty; she gave me the absolute very best advice I could possibly want; she was a selfless person.”

While Honolulu City Lights might be Costa’s legacy project with the city, many veteran news reporters remember her as the chief spokesperson for Fasi and then his successor, Harris.

“Carol loved the city and was a devoted public servant,” said Keoki Kerr, who covered Honolulu Hale for KITV during the Fasi and Harris administrations. “Sometimes I’d disagree strongly with the veracity of statements from certain city department heads and the mayors that Carol served, but she always maintained her integrity and pleasant personality in every stressful situation.”

Costa was born in Oakland, Calif., and attended San Jose State University, where she obtained a journalism degree and met fellow student and future husband William “Buddy” Costa.

Lisa Costa Taylor, their daughter, said her mother’s father worked for United Airlines and the family used his travel benefits to visit many destinations around the world.

“She was always very enamored with Hawaii and fell in love with Hawaii,” Taylor said. It didn’t take much of an effort to persuade Buddy Costa, a Hawaii boy, to return home to make their life together.

Carol Costa’s first job when the couple moved to Oahu was as a reporter at a small publication known as the Waikiki Sun Press.

She began work for Fasi and the city in 1974. “She gave her entire career to the ‘C&C,’” said Taylor. “My mother was quite a role model as a professional career woman.”

“For over three decades, Carol was a major and unifying force in the administrations of Fasi and Harris. Starting as director of the Office of Information and Complaint, she came to understand the bureaucracy and the places to go to get things done,” said Cheryl Soon, former director of Planning and of Transportation Services.

“But her true and personal legacy is Honolulu City Lights. Tasked with creating a public holiday display at Honolulu Hale, she grew it into the official city tree, signature ornaments like the bears, the electric light parade, the wreath contest. Carol’s fingers were in every detail and it was her gift to the children and families of Oahu,” Soon said. “She accomplished all this layered upon her very full plate as Communications Director. In short, she was a force for good, beloved by her co-workers and a dedicated public servant in the truest sense of that term,” said Soon.

Besides her husband and her daughter, Costa is survived by a brother, Robert Swensen of California, and a granddaughter.

“Carol had a deep love of Hawaii … she absolutely loved our state,” Buddy Costa said. “She was a very kind and gentle person; she embraced my Hawaiian extended family. She was a hard worker and dedicated to her work and volunteer duties. She was accepting of who I was in all ways. I got the better part of the deal.”

Services are pending.

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