Former Washington Place Groundskeeper Recalls a Special Time
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Neatly displayed in the home of Hozen “Lefty” Shimabuku are precious mementos of the 32 years (1966 to 1998) he worked as a Washington Place groundskeeper, serving four Hawai‘i governors — John A. Burns, George R. Ariyoshi, John D. Waihe‘e III and Benjamin J. Cayetano. That’s a lot of memories.
But the 87-year-old Nisei’s fondest memories are of the years Gov. Burns and his wife Beatrice resided at Washington Place.
Washington Place, the white, airy, two-and-a-half-story home built in Greek Revival architectural style in 1847, was once the residence of Lydia Kamaka‘eha — the future Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i — and her husband John Owen Dominis, whose father built the home. Following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, Queen Lili‘uokalani was held under house arrest at Washington Place for five months (in addition to a year of house arrest at ‘Iolani Palace, the former residence of her brother, King David Kaläkaua).
After the queen’s passing in 1917, Washington Place became the official residence of Hawai‘i’s territorial and state governors. In 2002, Washington Place, situated directly across from the State Capitol building on Beretania Street, was designated a historic house museum and a new and separate residence was built directly behind Washington Place for the governor’s family. The historic Washington Place is today managed by the Washington Place Foundation and used mainly for official state functions hosted by the governor.
But Lefty Shimabuku’s memories are from a time when Hawai‘i’s first family ate, slept, played and entertained in the historic home. By the time Burns was elected governor, his three children were already grown and out of the house.
Gov. Burns will always be remembered and revered for his efforts to change Hawai‘i from a highly stratified society into an egalitarian one in which people were judged on the basis of their character and skills rather than their race. As a Honolulu police captain during World War II, he was a member of the Committee for Interracial Unity, working with a multiethnic group of community leaders such as Hung Wai Ching, Shigeru Yoshida and Charles Hemenway to prevent the mass incarceration of Hawai‘i’s large Japanese American community.
In post World War II Hawai‘i, he developed close and lifelong friendships with many of the Nisei veterans who had gone to war for America, only to return to a Hawai‘i still ruled by the “Big Five” businesses and a society that was unwilling to treat them as equals and were determined to maintain the prewar status quo.
One of Burns’ confidants was Matsuo “Matsy” Takabuki, a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran. After the war, Takabuki had earned his law degree on the GI Bill. In his memoir, “An Unlikely Revolutionary: Matsuo Takabuki and the Making of Modern Hawai‘i,” Takabuki wrote of Burns: “By his words and actions, he reminded us that this was as much our community as anyone else’s.”
That deep-seated belief in equality is what, in part, made Lefty’s years with the Burns family so special and memorable.
In his work at Washington Place, Lefty got to see the intimate side of John Burns.
Oddly enough, Lefty — who took the nickname because of his favored hand, and because it was easier to remember than Hozen — never planned on becoming a groundskeeper. He had trained to become a barber. But just when he was ready to start his career, “all the young kids was making their hair long,” he laughed. Kaimukï, Kapahulu and Waikïkï . . . one by one, the barbershops in his neighborhood were closing their doors.
So, he decided to find steady work with the state. In 1966, Lefty applied with the Department of Land and Natural Resources and was assigned a groundskeeping position at Washington Place.
He remembers reporting to work on his first day. “The place was a mess!” he said, recalling the bare, brown front lawn. “Leaves were piled up and lots of dirt everywhere.”
Lefty and his crew got to work right away. They ordered some topsoil and planted grass. “Even in da back area, we wen put all new grass. Oh, the governor was so happy!”
“The governor used to watah da plants. Aftah he come home from work, he used to watah da plants. So, I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that because we going handle,’” said Lefty.
Besides his grounds work, Lefty would often push first lady Beatrice Burns around the grounds of Washington Place in her wheelchair. She had been stricken with polio while pregnant with her third child, William. He died just hours after he was born.
Lefty recalled waiting for Mrs. Burns outside of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s bedroom. “As soon as she come out, I used to wait for her. Den she open da door and she come out. I take her down the ramp and move her around the grounds.”
He said Mrs. Burns acknowledged the hard work that the groundskeepers had done and got after the security crew for tossing their cigarette butts on the ground. Lefty remembers coming to work the next day and having the security guard tell him, “You know what? I got scoldings!”
“For what?” Lefty asked.
When the security guard told him it was for dropping his cigarettes butts on the grounds, Lefty responded, “Eh, das you guys fault, not my fault.”
Gov. Burns was not a big fan of bodyguards and personal drivers, said Lefty. He liked doing things himself and would often try to shake off his security detail, creating quite a stir.
He shared one of his favorites stories about the governor.
“They (Washington Place) have three gates — two in da front and one in da back — always open. Only had one security guard. So I used to tell my boys that if anyone come onto the grounds, talk to them nicely. You know, ‘Can I help you? This is a restricted area.’ But if dey give you bad time, den you call the security to go aftah dem guys.
“They only had one guy watching,” he explained. That was not the norm with other governors that had two or three at a time to watch the gates.
Lefty said Gov. Burns, a devout Catholic, wanted to attend church alone. As a former Honolulu police captain, he was confident he would be safe walking just two blocks to the church. That did not sit well with his security team, so Burns struck a deal with them: Security would be posted at his starting point, Washington Place, and at his destination, Our Lady of Peace Cathedral on the Fort Street Mall, to ensure that he made it safely to church and back.
According to Lefty, Gov. Burns kept his security staff and drivers on their toes. “Every Thursday, he used to go down Waialae golf course to play golf. Once, the security went drive him down and dropped him off at Waialae golf course. The driver figgah da governor going be about five or six hours at the golf course. And den, he (the driver) went in da restaurant go talk with da girls and left da car. The thing is, the governor looked around and nobody (to play golf with) was there, so he came out and the car was there, but the driver was away. So, he took out his keys and, VROOM! He wen go home!” said Lefty, laughing.
“When the driver came out, ho! — he was shocked! No mo da car!” Still laughing, Lefty continued, “He called the office and said, ‘Eh, you know what? Somebody stole da car!”
The staffer who had answered the phone in the governor’s office replied, “You stupid! He’s home already! Buggah, catch da bus and you come back.”
“Aftah dat, I tease da guy all da time, ‘Eh, no fall asleep on da job,’” said Lefty.
“If driver not available, he (Gov. Burns) jump in the car — gone! He take off!” Lefty explained.
“The family was outstanding,” Lefty said, smiling. “I was always so close to the family.” He even enjoyed the company of the Burns’ grandchildren. “The grandchildren used to come around. They would run around and turn on all the (water) faucets and all the watah was running, so we had to change all the faucets and put da kine keys on top,” Lefty laughed.
“They were about 6 or 7 (years old), and they come running to me, ‘Uncle Lefty!’ Then they step on my shoes.” Lefty demonstrated how he held their hands. “I start walking,” he said. “We still keep in contact,” Lefty said with a wide smile.
In November 2011, Lefty visited Brendan Burns, the Burns’ grandson and the son of the late James Seishiro Burns, retired chief judge of the Hawai‘i Court of Appeals. Brendan Burns is principal of ‘Äina Haina Elementary School.
In his book “An Aura of Greatness: A Reflection of Governor John A. Burns,” Brendan shared his delightful visit with Lefty.
“I arrived at the school office and saw Lefty standing outside the office. I greeted him and invited him into my office for a chat. As we talked, his eyes lit up as he shared some terrific memories and stories about my grandfather. He mentioned that my grandfather was always seeking to serve others.”
Brendan recalled Lefty talking about how Gov. Burns viewed Washington Place as the “people’s house,” often welcoming visitors in and treating them like family. Wrote Brendan: “After we spoke for about thirty minutes, Lefty left and went home. Right after he had gone I remember thinking about how much he loved my grandfather and enjoyed working for him. The general feeling of all his staff was that they loved him like a family member.”
Brendan also shared his own memories of visiting his grandparents at Washington Place.
“Washington Place was my playground as a child up until my grandfather’s term ended in 1974. My sister, my cousins, and I would play games, ride our bikes, and interact [with] our family members and staff in the times we spent there. It was a happy time in my life, growing up as the grandson of one of the greatest leaders of modern Hawaii, Governor John A. Burns. Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas dinners were especially grand in scope, as much of the extended family came to Washington Place for these celebrations. I remember my father, James Seishiro Burns, climbing a ladder to put the star on the top of the tall Christmas tree annually,” Brendan wrote in an email.
“My grandfather and grandmother made Washington Place a welcoming place that had a very positive feeling in general. The mangoes and mountain apples from the fruit trees on the grounds were especially delicious to eat.
“Uncle Lefty was always happy to see the Burns’ grandchildren. I remember him always having a smile on his face and talking to us. Not only was he an outstanding gardener at Washington Place; he was also a person who was a positive person in my life as a child. I remember him being an expert on the many fruit trees that were planted around the grounds of Washington Place, especially the mountain apple and mango trees. He worked with my grandmother, Beatrice Burns, to make the plants and trees on the Washington Place grounds a special place to see and be at. He loved working for my grandparents during my grandfather’s three terms as governor, from 1962-1974. He continues to be a good friend of the Burns grandchildren to present day.”
When Beatrice Burns passed away in 1988, Judge Burns called Lefty and asked him if he serve as one of his mother’s pallbearers. Lefty was stunned. “A small potato like me!” he exclaimed. “At first I wanted to cry. I no can answer him — you know what I mean?”
Among others Jim Burns had asked Big Island rancher Larry Mehau, his father’s longtime supporter, and Dr. Seishiro Okazaki, Mrs. Burns’ masseuse, to serve as pallbearers. Okazaki’s massages had helped her to safely give birth to Jim, despite being paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. She and the governor had decided to give Jim the middle name of “Seishiro,” in honor of Dr. Okazaki.
“All the dignitaries look at me like, ‘Who dat guy?’ and nobody knew who I was.”
John A. Burns was beloved because he respected people, regardless of their station in life and because he believed in giving people an equal chance to succeed.
One of Lefty’s stories epitomized the reason John A. Burns was loved and respected by so many.
One day, a homeless man down on his luck approached Burns. “You know, Governor, I looking for job. Can you help me?” he asked.
“Governor Burns said, ‘OK,’ and took out his pencil. He wrote down one name and gave um to da guy and said, ‘Take this to the office and go see this person.’ You know, that’s da type of guy he was . . .”