Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami ’01 delivers keynote speech
She had him at Chaminade. For many senior high-school students, trying to determine where to attend college depends on several factors: cost, location, size, personal interests, campus life, graduation rates and the potential return on investment. However, for Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami ’01, the primary reason he chose Chaminade University was simple—he met a girl.
“I know it sounds shallow, but it’s the truth,” said Kawakami, this year’s 65th Commencement keynote speaker. “But knowing what I know now about Chaminade, I would have chosen it 1,000 times over any college in the country.”
The son of the late Charles and Arlene Kawakami, Mayor Kawakami is a third-generation Kaua‘i resident, and is now serving his second term as the Garden Isle’s chief executive officer. Having shepherded the island through a once-in-a-century pandemic and now through recovery, Kawakami does not shy away from the necessary hard work of what he calls, “the people’s business.” The physically fit 46-year-old is a no-nonsense-type of leader who likes to roll up his sleeves, get into his steel-toe-capped boots and don his hard hat at the drop of a dime.
During COVID, he was forced to make a series of difficult—and, at times, unpopular—decisions, including lockdowns, turning public camp sites into Safe Zones to prevent the spread of the virus, enforcing mandatory vaccine mandates and curfews, and instituting strict protocols and safety measures. Yet, through it all, he became widely known, erroneously by the way, as the TikTok mayor. A 30-second clip that he posted went viral on Twitter and not the aforementioned social media site. In the video, he performs an amusing dance and a card trick, then encourages people to wash their hands. It was all an effort, he said, to break the monotony of staying home.
“I have to say my wife put me up to it and my daughter instigated it,” Kawakami chuckled. “We just wanted to help people get through some tough times, we wanted to do it together, and at the end of the day, we wanted people to feel like they mattered and that we cared about them.”
He attributes this empathy as one of the values he learned while completing his bachelor’s degree at Chaminade, where his now-wife, Monica nee DeBusca Lizama, also graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2001 and a master’s in education in 2003. A self-described average “C” student, Kawakami evoked the memory of several Chaminade professors, who made an impact in his life, during his commencement address.
One such individual was the late Marlene Baker, who enjoyed a 45-year career in the Students Success and Records office. Kawakami said he would bring Kauai cookies to her so that she would build him a favorable schedule, quipping that was probably his first sign of being a politician. Henry Gomes, or “Uncle Henry” as Kawakami affectionately refers to the late revered professor, would talk to him about “country-kine things,” and made him feel like it was perfectly OK to just be him. Then there was recently retired Yukio Ozaki, who opted not to cancel an art class, even though enrollment plummeted from 15-20 students to a lone Kawakami overnight.
“Now that I have 20/20 hindsight vision, what I’m about to say is the last thing my professors would want to hear,” Kawakami said. “As the sands of time have passed, some of the knowledge, some of the details of the countless hours of classroom lessons, lectures and knowledge have faded. But what has remained is how the power of the human element can change the trajectory of one person’s life. All it takes is just one person. One person that believes in someone and is willing to invest time, effort and kindness can uplift a community.”
It’s with this indomitable spirit that helps inform Kawakami’s leadership. He cited three principles that he follows: 1) Act in good faith, which helps build trust; 2) always act with the community’s best interest; and 3) establish a sound, prudent process of decision making.
“Not everyone will agree, but I can defend my position,” Kawakami asserted. “Compromise is an art, and by compromise, I don’t mean consensus, which, when I hear, often tells me that things are not going to move forward.”
Life for Kawakami has certainly had a forward momentum. When he graduated from Chaminade, his first job was a grocery clerk for Longs Drugs Kaimuki. The pay was $200 per week, and his duties included sweeping the floors, stocking the shelves and racks with those familiar yellow books, and whatever needed to be done.
“I had to put my business degree to work,” Kawakami said. “I started at the entry level, but that’s how I thought it would work. Just because I had a degree didn’t mean I was going to start at a higher level. My degree was supposed to give me the tools to get to that next level, and it did.”
One day, he received a call from his dad, asking him to come home to help out in their own grocery store. His dad told him If he could work at Longs, then certainly he can work at the family’s own enterprise. However, there was one problem: Monica was pursuing her master’s, and she wasn’t about to quit and return to Kauai. So, she proposed an ultimatum: He had to marry her.
“I went to Kahala Mall and applied for a loan, which was my first loan ever,” Kawakami recalled. “I qualified for $9,000—which was big bucks back then for me who was making $200 a week—and I went upstairs to a diamond specialist, and chose an engagement ring.”
Married now to Monica for 20 years, the couple has two children, Hailee and Christopher. A dedicated family man, Kawakami praises his family for their support throughout his two terms as Kauai’s Mayor, as well as his years of service on the State Legislature. He also credits his experience at Chaminade as helping shape his style of leadership.
“I have a lot of clear memories of my time at Chaminade, and the people who made an impact on my life; the faculty and staff truly cared for us,” Kawakami said. “I gained a worldly view of different cultures, and how to appreciate our differences.”
And despite all the pressures of governing, Kawakami said, from a pressure standpoint, being the Commencement keynote speaker was a big one.
“If I were to go back to my 20- or 21-year-old self, and be told that I was going to be the Commencement speaker at Chaminade one day, I would have said ‘Get out of here!’” Kawakami said. “I never imagined a picture in which I would be in a position speaking to the graduating class and their families. I’m grateful for this opportunity to come back around and to be part of this Commencement.”