The Executive Director of the Maui Nisei Veterans Memorial Center Treasures Her Japanese Values and Upbringing

Kathy Collins
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon at Maui’s Nisei Veterans Memorial Center, a tiny Japanese American woman from Hawai‘i island stopped in for her first visit. When the 98-year-old mentioned that her brother had been killed in action in World War II, research archivist Melanie Agrabante excused herself from the room. Having spent countless hours compiling personal histories for the Center’s Nisei Veterans Archives, Agrabante recognized the man’s name. After a few minutes, she returned with a box bearing the name of the woman’s brother. Looking through its contents, the older woman came across a stack of cards and letters and gasped, “Joanne? My name is Joanne!” The letters were, indeed, intended for her, written by a young soldier to his baby sister but never delivered. Now, nearly a century later and half a world away, they had finally reached their intended recipient.     

Deidre Tegarden, executive director of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui.

Deidre Tegarden, NVMC Executive Director, chokes back tears as she relates this story. “We — meaning every single person in this community — made it possible for her to have that closure. Not just the Nisei veterans, or their families, or the people that work here; every single person who drives by, or reads our newsletter, or comes [to us] on a Zoom (webinar), all these people make it possible for these stories to be told.”

Whether speaking of the NVMC’s accomplishments or the achievements she has made at the Center, Tegarden is quick to credit teamwork and community. “I love how integral the idea of ‘team’ and mentoring is in Japan. One is taught that by working together and helping one another, you achieve more for the organization, school, office, humanity. There is the argument that it takes away creativity and independence, but with careful navigation, you can be creative and independent while also working as a team. Both can be true,” she said.

Though she has not a drop of Asian blood in her veins (she is of Irish/English/French ancestry), her AJA friends and colleagues joke that “she’s more Japanese than we are!” NVMC President Brian Moto has known Tegarden for nearly 30 years, asserting that she has stronger interest in the culture and places of Japan than many Japanese Americans, himself included.

This affinity dates back to the early 1980s, when Tegarden’s newly divorced mother moved to Japan with 11-year-old Deidre and 4-year old Gavin. A teacher, journalist and peace activist, Melinda Clarke felt a calling to the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack. In a recent webinar about her book, “Waymakers for Peace,” Clarke explained, “It was 1979, we were in Altoona, Pennsylvania, not too far from Three Mile Island, when the nuclear accident happened … you can’t imagine how freaked out I was, with two young children … we were suddenly a single parent family, there was 11% unemployment, nothing was working … I went to sleep one night, woke up at about 4 o’clock in the morning with a big sign — ‘Hiroshima’ — across the sky, as if written by one of those airplanes. It happened four times. So I thought I had a call.”

On Shikoku island, Clarke got a job teaching English while the children attended public school in Imabari. Tegarden’s home-economics teacher at Tachibana Junior High School took an immediate liking to the polite young Caucasian girl. Eventually, Mrs. Yamamoto confided a deep, dark secret to this student’s mother and her fellow teacher, Clarke: she was a hibakusha — a survivor of the atomic bombings. At the time, great stigma surrounded hibakusha because of the general public’s misunderstanding and fear of radiation illness. The subject was taboo even in conversation. Yet, feeling that she was among trusted friends, Mrs. Yamamoto not only told her story, but she also arranged for Clarke to interview other hibakusha.

From left: Deidre Tegarden’s home economics teacher, Mrs. Yamamoto; Deidre and brother Gavin Kelly; and their mother Melinda Clarke. (Photos courtesy of Deidre Tegarden)

While Clarke gathered material for the book she would write decades later, the children eagerly absorbed the language and culture of their new home. Mrs. Yamamoto and her Tachibana colleagues ensured a classical Japanese education for Tegarden, including ikebana, tea ceremony and kendö. And some of the most basic lessons were taught by her young peers.

“The ʻhome ec’ assignment was to sew a skirt,” Tegarden recalled. “It was the day before we had to turn in our skirts and mine was awful! I knew I would get a bad grade. That evening at 8 p.m. there was a knock on the door. Four or five girls from my class, that I didn’t really know, came to our apartment, took my skirt apart and completely resewed it by hand. It was beautiful. I got a great grade. That was teamwork.”

“That may have been the defining moment for Deidre,” reflects Moto. “She’s shared that skirt story several times, in a way that tells me how impactful those girls’ actions were. Imagine being the only gaijin in school, feeling alone and out of place, and then your classmates come to help without being asked. It left a deep and lasting impression on her.”

Tegarden and her brother Gavin, walking to school in Imabari, circa 1980.

After four years in Japan, the little family moved to O‘ahu, where Tegarden attended McKinley High School before relocating on to China for a year before returning to the mainland. In 1990, Clarke went back to Japan and opened a language school. Her daughter joined her after graduating from college and stayed for another six years. Together they expanded the company to include weddings, most of which were performed in Hawai‘i.

The business connections established through their destination-wedding business led to Tegarden’s return to Hawai‘i. First in Waikïkï, then on Maui, she worked for several years in the hospitality industry, for Outrigger Hotels and the Hula Bowl.

Her first venture into the nonprofit realm became a major turning point in her professional life. After successfully rebuilding Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Maui, which had been devastated by an embezzlement fiasco, Tegarden was widely acknowledged as a savvy businesswoman with superb leadership skills. Again, in typical fashion, she downplays her role and gives credit to the Maui community — individuals, businesses, and other nonprofit groups — for joining together to save the organization.

In 2007, Tegarden was appointed director of the County of Maui’s Office of Economic Development by Mayor Charmaine Tavares. Tavares lost her bid for re-election in 2010, so Tegarden then became Governor Neil Abercrombie’s Maui representative. She later served as protocol officer for both Abercrombie and Governor David Ige.

She returned to Maui in 2016 and made her own bid for elective office, running for a seat in the State House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Moto, who, as County Corporation Counsel, had worked with Tegarden during the Tavares administration, suggested to the NVMC Board of Directors that she be considered for the center’s executive director position. She interviewed for the job in the midst of a particularly heated race, as her opponent’s supporters hurled unfortunate, unfounded accusations. Her refusal to engage in counterattacks may have caused her defeat at the polls. But her political loss turned out to be a true win-win situation for the NVMC and Tegarden herself.

With a contemplative smile, she recalled, “On the day of the election, one of the Board members called me and said, ‘Of course, we hope you win. But if you don’t, we’re calling you on Monday morning.’ And that kindness really allowed me to get through a difficult night…it gave me the strength to not break down and to know that there was something even better on the horizon. For that I will always be thankful.”

The Board, too, is thankful. Moto explains, “Deidre is the complete package. It’s very unusual to find someone with such a strong background in Japanese language and culture, who also understands and appreciates island life and culture, and has a world perspective. On top of that, she finds meaning and purpose in serving the community and promoting values that she believes in.”

Asked which of the Nisei values she holds dearest, Tegarden pauses, then says, “Growing up in Japan, the word we heard every single day was ‘Gaman.’ Endure. Every morning at school, we stood outside and sang the national anthem in the rain. We walked to school in the snow, with no gloves, no scarves, no hats allowed. To learn gaman…It means so much more than patience, it means that no matter what comes your way, you endure it. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything about it, that you just have to endure and let horrible things happen. You can do something about it, but in order to do so, you have to endure. I think, in these COVID times, we could all have a little more gaman.”

Tegarden with friends in Hiroshima in the mid-1990s.

Gaman, giri (a sense of duty), enryö (humility reflected through mannerly restraint), placing community above self: the concepts and values ingrained during her formative years have guided her ever since. “Japan shaped my entire life, how I am, how I act and communicate and even my thought process,” she muses. “Japan is a second home to me and lives inside my heart every day. I am as comfortable there as I am here. And I can’t imagine my life without the Japan experience.”

Kathy Collins is a professional storyteller, actress, radio and television personality, emcee, comedian, newspaper columnist, freelance writer and, first and foremost, a Maui girl.


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