Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Damien and Jack in Hawaii

It was not my plan to spend the night in the Molokai leper colony, especially not to spend it on a rectory sofa presided over by a grandfather’s clock that chimed the passage of each quarter-hour.

It was a blessing, in fact, to be grounded by a storm that prevented a return flight to Honolulu aboard a small prop plane. The settlement in the late 1950s had no accommodations for overnight visitors, but it had a hospitable Catholic priest.

I was there to write about Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts who began a memorable ministry to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873. Leprosy became known as Hansen’s Disease
The blessing to me was to have a sense of the jet-black stillness of the night, once the generators had been turned off, and to reflect on the contrasts of waves and chimes. It was a blessing to have a few extra hours with the people who lived there and with the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse who lived with them, and loved them.

On May 10 the Roman Catholic Church celebrates a Mass memorial for Father Damien, now St. Damien.

I was writing for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin at that time. It was an exciting place to work. Then I became editor of the Hilo Tribune-Herald, a daily newspaper owned by the Star-Bulletin, and eventually managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser. One of the pleasures of journalism is getting to know lots of people in every kind of work. When statehood came to Hawaii on Aug. 21, 1959, the Territory of Hawaii had a non-voting delegate to Congress named John A. Burns.

Democrat Jack Burns had defeated my boss, Republican publisher Elizabeth (Betty) Farrington, for the Congressional post. Burns ran for governor in 1959 but lost to William Quinn. Burns won in 1962 and served three terms as governor. We were pretty good friends, often meeting for breakfast.

We were meeting in my office at the Tribune-Herald on the Big Island when a desperate phone call told me that Betty Farrington, no fan of Burns, was unexpectedly entering the front door. Burns dashed out through the composing room and left by a back door. He was a quicker politician than I was.

We sometimes met at an early weekday Mass in Honolulu’s downtown cathedral, and we shared an enthusiasm for social justice. When Burns named me chairman of the Hawaii State Educational Television Committee, charged with creating a TV system and drafting the legislation to get it going, we made certain its use would be available to all children, whether in public or private schools. Another Burns enthusiasm was for making Father Damien one of Hawaii’s two choices for Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Both of those projects came to pass.

Jack Burns was a gifted politician, and a great man. He and Father Damien make a good team.

They both knew the agonies of sickness, the pains of others, and they knew that some issues are beyond the understanding of saints and governors.

I know I haven’t forgotten the car keys;
I don’t have a car!

Not even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knew for certain whether Cairo, the southernmost town in Illinois, would survive the great Mississippi flood of 2011. Cairo is positioned at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, its survival depending on the skill of the Army Corps of Engineers in diverting water through levees deliberately breached.

Anyone flooded just below that point wouldn’t know whether the water came from one river or the other. That’s the feeling that came to me when I realized just a few moments ago that I had written a very similar story about Father Damien and Governor Burns several years ago.

Which of my rivers washed away my memory of telling that story at least once before? Was it the Ohio River of Advancing Age, or the Mississippi River of my progressing brain disease? Memory thins out at age 86, and it takes a beating from my type of parkinsonism.

If you’ve read this story before, please forgive an absent-minded journalist. My hope is that if you’ve read it before you have forgotten that you did.

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