LIFE OF SAMOAN ‘TREASURE’ RECALLED: “AUNTY TUTASI” PASSES PEACEFULLY AT 99
A woman known to many as “Aunty Tutasi”, a Samoa Ambassador and “Pioneer of American Samoa” died peacefully on April 5 in Hawaii, at the age of 99,” said Rep Mauagoali’i Sipa Anoa’i, one of her nephews.
Helen Tutasiilemauosamoa Wilson Steinhilber was born in Leone, Pago Pago American Samoa on Mar. 7, 1914, and was the daughter of the late Caroline Helen Ripley of Leone, and Frederick Roy Wilson of Hope, Michigan. Her brothers are Ripley Roy Wilson and Chester Edward Wilson, with sisters Ella Christina Wilson Sherwood and Lillian Tutumanu Wilson Herbert.
In an interview with Helen Wilson Richardson, (one of the nieces), Helen told Samoa News that “Aunty Tutasi” was married twice. Her first husband was Charles Simmons; they married in 1936 when she was 21 years old. Simmons, a Navy pilot, died less than two years later, killed during a test flight. In 1960, Tutasi married Dr. Lewis Steinhilber, the head surgeon at the American Samoa Hospital. Dr. Steinhilber passed in 1982. Following his death, Tutasi relocated to Hawai’i.
Helen told Samoa News that in 1925, when Tutasi was 10 years old she was sent to Honolulu, where she attended Lincoln School and later, Kamehameha School for Girls. In 1933, she became the first non-Hawaiian girl to graduate from Kamehameha.
Between her trips back to Samoa, she studied at the University of Hawai’i, worked in social services, and later returned to Samoa to work in this field. She served the community by working to improve communication in the English language and was called “a teacher of teachers”.
“She was part of the hosting committee when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited American Samoa,” said Helen. She noted that her mother tells the story of hearing Aumoeualogo Salofi, a teacher at the time, speak of Tutasi. Aumoeualogo saying, “If this girl, who was born in Samoa, can travel around the United States speaking perfect English, then I can do it too!”
Aumoeualogo later became Speaker of the House in the Fono of American Samoa.
“Eventually, Aunty Tutasi left Samoa for California to further her studies, but the offer of a role in the film Mutiny on the Bounty was too tempting, and thus her career in movies began. She was in many of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies, serving as an understudy for Dorothy Lamour.
“During her time in Hollywood, she was a roommate with actress Jane Wyman. She also met Jane’s boyfriend Ronnie, another actor, and quickly they all became good friends. When speaking of Ronnie, she said he really was a good actor. The man Aunty called “Ronnie” is the man we all know as Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States of America,” said Helen.
Movie life soon paled and she then accepted an offer from popular entertainer “Ray Kinney” to join the Honolulu Maids at the Hotel Lexington’s Hawaiian Room in New York where she started a new career that included Polynesian dancing, costume design, and catering services.
“Aunty Tutasi became a valued addition to Arthur Godfrey's weekly CBS-TV program in New York with her dancing and acting. Also featured on the show was her lifelong friend Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian surfing legend and Olympic champion. They were a big hit with the Hawai’i-conscious audience.
“One year, they celebrated May Day in New York as “Lei Day” by distributing orchid leis to the studio audience. On the show, as Aunty Tutasi described how May Day was observed in the islands, Godfrey picked up his ukulele and strummed a tune while insisting that she dance an impromptu hula. The audience went CRAZY! From then on, the spirit of aloha was celebrated as Lei Day in Manhattan,” said Helen.
She further stated that Tutasi lived in a New York penthouse furnished in typical Samoan style and filled with lush tropical plants where she hosted family-style luaus. Later Tutasi launched her own business called Polynesian Services and Entertainment, and became involved in the lucrative New York tourist business by featuring travel packages for a "Hawaiian South Seas Weekend in Atlantic City," where she supervised everything from the luau dinners to the Polynesian dancing and fashion shows.
Tutasi became well-known as the Manhattan representative for a New York-to-Honolulu flying service. Maugaoalii added, “Aunty Tutasi” was instrumental in introducing the authentic traditions of Samoa to the mainland— and her high standards, attention to detail, and great love for people were the secret to her success.
When in Hawai’i after the death of her husband in 1982, “Aunty Tutasi” settled in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she became a member of the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association (PPSEAWA). Her mother, Caroline Helen Ripley, was one of the founders of this very association.
PPSEAWA are distinguished women from the Pacific area and the United States who work together to strengthen the bonds of peace among Pacific people and to encourage cooperation toward improving existing conditions.
“An advocate for education, Aunty Tutasi mentored many young Samoans, encouraging them to pursue professional goals not merely for personal advancement, but to help the aiga and others. So many people have benefited from her kind generosity.
“Aunty Tutasi had an entrepreneurial spirit, so when opportunity presented itself, Aunty seized it with her whole heart striving always for excellence. In her time, Aunty Tutasi was recognized as a true trailblazer earning many ‘firsts’ for a girl from Samoa. And yet with her many achievements and travels in life, she never forgot her roots.
“She was an ambassador of Samoa showing the world all that was good and lovely about her island home of Samoa. Like her mother Helen before her, she honored her parents and her family in all that she did."
“True to her name, she stood in the gap for the Samoan people. Aunty Tutasi is a treasure and her life is an inspiration to all. In her last will and testament she gave this tender farewell:
“My heartfelt wishes and aloha shall go to all my dear relatives and friends in Samoa and Hawai’i for their friendship and kindness extended to me throughout my lifetime. Aloha nui loa — Tutasi'".
It was Aunty Tutasi's wish that she be brought back home to Saita’a, Leone as her final resting place. A private Memorial Service was held in her honor at the Ripley Family Homestead, where she was laid to rest on Friday, April 19, 2013 at the Ripley Family Cemetery in Sogi, Saita’a. Rep. Maugaoali’i said Her body was accompanied by her nieces; Helen Wilson Richardson, Ada Wilson Mageo, and Saitaua Wilson. She was 99 years old.
Samoa News wishes to convey deepest condolences to the family.