HAWAIIAN VISIONARY ROBERT WORTHINGTON DIES

admin's picture

Kamehameha Schools Financial Aid Director

By Gerard A. Finin

Robert Eugene Worthington, former Cook Islands Honorary Consul to the United States and the retired Director of Financial Aid at Kamehameha Schools, died in Honolulu, Hawai’i on Thursday, August 14, 2008. He was 72.

Worthington was in the vanguard of efforts to reconnect Hawaii’s peoples to their ancestral families across the Pacific islands region. Recalling his decades of public service, Kamehameha Schools’ trustee and board chair Nainoa Thompson described Worthington’s pioneering spirit and tireless work ethic as central to "rebuilding a new and proud image of Hawaiian culture." His unpretentious "lead from behind" approach contributed to a broad range of educational, political, cultural and sports endeavors. He played a major role in institutions including the Kamehameha Schools, Polynesian Voyaging Society, East-West Center, Gates Millennium Scholars Program, Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club and Pacific Arts Festival.

Thompson recalled the extremely close bond between Worthington and Thompson’s late father, Myron "Pinky" Thompson, who shared a life-long commitment to the betterment of Native Hawaiians. "When the Polynesian Voyaging Society needed a navigator who could negotiate complex government relations with island nations and ensure the highest standards of protocol, my father instinctively turned to Bob, knowing that if he was entrusted with the task it would all be done with sensitivity, dignity and humility. Bob was a rare individual who could see the cultural landscape." "To be sure," added Thompson, "he was a cornerstone in Hawaiians’ rebuilding the foundation of trust with our ancestral families in the neighbor island nations of Oceania."

Upon learning of Worthington’s death, Cooks Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai issued a statement saying he is deeply saddened to learn of the passing. "Bob worked tirelessly for the Cook Islands, ensuring that we took full advantage of the close ties with Hawaii, especially in trade (maile), scholarships (University of Hawaii, East-West Center), training, and various conferences and workshops."

Emeritus University of Hawai’i Professor and East-West Center Senior Fellow Robert Kiste, former Director of the UH Center for Pacific Islands Studies, described Worthington as "a forward looking man of vision who led a life of service to Hawai’i and the Pacific islands region." Recalling how Worthington was frequently the only Hawaiian attending intergovernmental meetings in the South Pacific, Kiste said, "Bob never promoted himself. Service to the people always came first, driven by unstinting energy and constant perseverance."

Robert Worthington’s early years in Waikiki were unsettled due to family circumstances. By grade nine he was accepted at Kamehameha School for Boys and became a boarding student on the Kapalama campus, rising in his senior year to be elected class president. During the mid 1950s Worthington’s independent voice at Kamehameha Schools resulted in the last minute withdrawal of a scholarship offer from Northwestern University in Illinois. Undaunted, Worthington headed off to California and completed his bachelor’s degree in political science at Occidental College before returning to Hawai’i to become community relations officer for the newly established East-West Center. It was through the Center that his interest in the South Pacific was stimulated, leading to marriage to a Cook Islander, and an extended stay in Rarotonga as a small businessman.

Hired in 1974 as the director of boarding, in 1978 Worthington was promoted to director of campus financial aid and from1989 until his retirement in 2003 served as director of financial aid and scholarships. During Worthington’s tenure, Kamehameha’s financial aid program grew to administer more than 15,500 annual awards totaling more than $25.4 million. New types of aid support for Hawaiian students included collaborations with the East-West Center and Alu Like, community endowments set up by people like former Kamehameha principal Gladys Brandt, and other private scholarships. He is also well remembered for establishing student and faculty exchange programs that brought scores of Polynesians to the Kapalama campus.

Some of his most memorable years in the 1990s were devoted to working with former Cook Islands Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry, who will be part of the official delegation from the Cook Islands at Saturday’s memorial services. "Bob was always there, incessantly helpful, with iconic efficiency, grace and enthusiasm. He helped secure the support of the Governor of Hawaii, allowing us to establish our first office in the United States."

However, Worthington’s diplomatic reach extended well beyond the Cook Islands. Polynesian voyager Nainoa Thompson recalls a time when the Hokule’a was scheduled to sail through the Kingdom of Tonga’s Ha’apai islands and needed assistance from a local navigator who knew the groups’ treacherous waters. "When we learned that the only person qualified for this task was imprisoned, Bob found a way to have him released on special assignment to Hokule’a. From that point on the success of our visit to the Kingdom was assured."

Through his years of experience working with small island states like the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Tuvalu, Worthington gained an appreciation for both the joys and woes of nationhood. His knowledge and objectivity was always a rich source of information for those committed to Hawaiian sovereignty.

Thompson said Worthington’s memory will live in the people he helped and the many lives he inspired. "His vital role in the work of the Hokule’a, his innate kindness and caring that were at his core, pulled together a lei of Pacific island people connected by friendship and trust."

Saturday 23 August - Viewing at Kamehameha Schools Chapel from 9am - 11am followed by a service from 11am - 12pm.

Gerard A. Finin is Interim Director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the East-West Center in Manoa.

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Add new comment