Follow the Leader
When Waimea resident Bob Masuda learned he would be receiving an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Hawaii, his first thought was how proud his Japanese American parents would have been of their eldest son from Kaka’ako, the area where he grew up on Oahu.
“I shared it with them, along with a bunch of lei at their graves,” he says.
His second thought was, that as the invited commencement address speaker, he would have the chance to share life lessons learned from his parents and 55-year-career with more than 1,000 graduates and their friends and families gathered at the university’s Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.
And so on Dec. 19, Masuda opened his speech quoting one of his favorite poems, “Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones,” by R. Lee Sharpe. Using the poem as an analogy, he told the students that their life journeys will have “stumbling blocks,” but also opportunities for learning by building “stepping stones” along the way.
Masuda’s first “stumbling block” was flunking his first year in high school. “It was an embarrassing learning experience I still get teased about,” he says.
But growing up in the-then “camps” of old, Kaka’ako also provided him with a wealth of learning experiences for use as “stepping stones” in the years ahead.
His childhood on Oahu and summers and vacation ties with his grandparents on Hawaii Island were full of cultural adventures — spearing fish, gathering limu (algae) and traversing the trails and streams of island mauka forests. These experiences were stepping stones leading to a respect and love of the land that Masuda holds dear and fights to protect still to this day.
His lifelong career with the YMCA began with a part-time job during high school. He stayed with the organization for more than 40 years, serving along the way as branch director, president and CEO of the YMCA Honolulu; executive director of the International Division of the YMCA of the USA; and director of the YMCA of the USA International Office for China and the Pacific.
International travel became part of his daily life. The travel was especially extensive during the ’80s and ’90s when China, central and eastern Europe, and the old Soviet Union were just opening up to the rest of the world.
During this period of change, Masuda personally negotiated sensitive issues, such as repatriation of assets on behalf of reemerging national YMCAs. He also provided personal leadership assistance to YMCAs in areas of crises, and those with management and organizational issues. This work required frequent travel to Belfast in Northern Ireland, Jerusalem, the Gaza strip, parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and the emerging nations of the former Soviet Union.
On one of his trips to East Jerusalem, bullets were shot at the vehicle in which he and his wife, Jane, and two other couples were riding. While no one was seriously hurt, it was a frightening experience, Masuda agrees.
However, never while traveling and working internationally for the YMCA was he fearful. Instead, what he learned was that “all people — regardless of national citizenship, race, religion, creed, wealth or whatever — just want peace, and to be respected, treated with dignity, acknowledged as a person and loved and trusted,” he says.
In his recent commencement address, Masuda urged the students to walk a similar “higher road of humanity” – to suffer not from fear or suppression, and to be ever mindful of the concepts of reconciliation, unity (versus uniformity), justice and altruism. He also reminded them of the principles shared by people who live on an island.
“I ola o’e, I ola makou ne,” he said. “My life is dependent on yours, and your life is dependent on mine. Today’s global society needs to realize, like island people do, that the world is an island, and as an island we have finite space and limited resources so we need to share, promote and value.”
He continued, “Island people know, when tomorrow comes, we are still going to be living next to each other so we are friendly, and value respect and loyalty.”
Masuda lives what he preaches. The qualities of reconciliation, justice and altruism are particularly relevant to his life, and correlate with the many positions he’s held both while working for YMCAs as well as for the County of Honolulu, the State of Hawaii and the federal government.
He has served on nearly 20 different boards, including chairman of the board on some, and as the CEO or in a management capacity for 16 government, civic and non-profit organizations, mostly on a volunteer basis.
In addition to his YMCA work, Masuda has worked on behalf of his beloved Hawaii and its precious natural resources. He was the first deputy director for the State’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and also worked two years as a senior advisor for Natural and Cultural Resources Planning, and special assistant to the University of Hawaii president.
Most recently he has been working part-time and volunteering as a senior advisor for the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry based in Hilo. Among his duties are providing vision and leadership to the Tropical Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center (TropHTIRC), a partnership of private, non-profit, federal and state organizations.
An outgrowth of the organization is the new Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forestry, which will support research activities of TropHTIRC, restoration of ohia to the landscape and promote science and cultural activities that stem from the importance of Hawaii’s forests. Masuda says he is honored to have been elected president of the foundation and is looking forward to its official launch this summer.
Immune from the many accolades he has received over the years, including his new honorary doctorate, Masuda remains true to his values. He is genuine, considerate, humble and kind, and to those offering him their congratulations on his latest honor, “Dr.” Masuda thanks them but notes his new degree was not “earned” but rather bestowed on him by the university.
“I disagree,” says Masuda’s close friend and Kaka’ako neighbor of long ago, Dr. Paul Nakayama of North Kohala. “I got mine in the classroom but Bob got his the hard way. He earned it from a lifetime of service to his state, his country and the world.”
Another close friend, former colleague and best man at Masuda’s wedding is Dr. Michael Chun of Waimea, retired president and headmaster of Kamehameha School, Kapalama on Oahu. “Over the 30 years I’ve known Bob, his life has been all about service,” he says. “He has the ability to connect with people and to engage with people. You talk about motivation and service, and I can’t think of a better example of a servant leader than Bob Masuda.”