OP ED: Witness to Pacific History
(Editor’s Note: Gov. Coleman's youngest sister, author Marion Opeamailetailealiioaiga Hetmanek, just celebrated her 85th birthday and is living in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area where for the past sixty years she has been an active member of the Samoan community in the Nation's Capitol.)
This week marks the 57th anniversary of the appointment by President Eisenhower of my brother, Uifa’atali Peter T. Coleman, as the first native born Pacific islander to be Governor of an American territory, and brings back many nostalgic memories, for I had the honor of being present for the occasion in Washington, D.C.
As far as I know, I am the lone survivor of that historic swearing in ceremony, which was a significant milestone in the evolution of self-government in the Pacific Islands.
News of Peter’s appointment was overwhelming for our family. At the time, he was Attorney General of American Samoa, another first he had achieved the previous year. At the same time we also were saddened that our mother, Amata Aumua Coleman Kreuz, had passed away the previous year as well, and did not live to see her youngest son appointed to the highest position in our islands. She had devoted her entire life and much of her financial resources to educating her 11 children in private schools to prepare them to one day serve their people. That dream was fulfilled by her son Peter.
My sister-in-law, Peter’s wife Nora Kawailiula, could not accompany him to Washington for the ceremony because the government only approved his travel and, on the Attorney General’s salary in those years, personal finances were tight. Moreover, Nora had 10 children to look after in Pago Pago.
After a boat trip to Honolulu and air travel from there, Peter arrived the day before his swearing in; our brother Larry, my husband and I met him at the airport. He was very excited but also frantic, because the airline had lost his luggage with his suit for the ceremony. Fortunately, a friend from his college days who was still living in the area had a Brooks Brothers charcoal gray suit that was a perfect fit.
The day of the ceremony my two brothers, my husband and I arrived at the Interior Department building at 10:15 a.m. for the 11:00 a.m. swearing in. When we entered Secretary Fred Seaton’s huge office, he greeted us, shook hands with all of us and complimented Peter on his suit. When he commented he could not afford a suit like that, we all had a good laugh, since he had no idea we had borrowed it.
At the beginning of the ceremony, Secretary Seaton asked Peter if he were ready to assume the governorship of American Samoa, as he was only 36 years old. With his eyes — and ours — teary, he replied: “Yes, with all humility, I am ready.” The Secretary then proceeded with the oath of office with Peter’s right hand on the Bible.
The ceremony was simple with no fanfare. The only people present were the Secretary, the four of us, Guam Governor Barrett Lowe, who preceded Peter as Governor of American Samoa, two Assistant Secretaries and the Director of the Office of Territories. When it was all over and everyone congratulated the new Governor, Secretary Seaton sprung a surprise when he said “Well, Governor, now let’s go over and see the President.” From there, the two men rode the short distance over to the White House to meet with President Eisenhower because, as the Secretary said, it was the President’s desire to bring self-government to all the territories as soon as possible. Indeed, by the end of the decade, there would be native born governors in Guam and the Virgin Islands as well.
Later that day we drove back to our home in nearby suburban Maryland and all had a good laugh when Larry said to Peter: “Governor, as your first duty, you are elected to cook our lunch and wash the dishes.” And with that, Peter cooked his favorite dish of beef and string beans and even washed the dishes afterwards.
Little did we realize it that day but my dear brother, who I still miss so very much these sixteen years after his passing, would carry the torch of public service for all of our people over a long and distinguished career during which he would become the second longest serving Governor in American history. The cooking of lunch for us that day was emblematic of the simplicity and humility with which he lived his life. He shunned materialism and devoted his life to the very end to service to the people. I am so proud of him as my brother and I am also so thankful that I could be witness to the history that was made more than a half century ago.
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