Bert Kikuchi – UH Maui’s Memorable History Professor
By Susan Halas
History professor Bert Kikuchi was a young man in his 20s when he arrived on Maui in 1970. He had two freshly minted Master’s degrees, when, to his surprise, he was offered a teaching position at Maui Community College (now called UH Maui College). Some 42 year later Kikuchi is still teaching Maui students and still finds it a rewarding occupation.
Born and raised on Oahu, he was a 1958 graduate of St. Louis High School. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and went on to get two advanced degrees from the University of Oregon.
Sitting in his tiny book lined office on campus Kikuchi described his teaching style as more of a “talk story” than lecture oriented. He thinks the best thing about his four decades in the classroom is “my students” and enjoys introducing them to the ins and outs of historical events across the centuries:
“Let’s just say a lot of them come in very naïve – in lots of ways they’re historically illiterate. Learning the story, whether it’s World Civilization or Asian History, forces them to think. 16 weeks is not very much time to cover 500 years. To get it all in you have to speed right through.”
Seen Many Changes
Kikuchi has seen dramatic changes both in what’s offered and in the nature of the student body.
“When I first started here we were more directed toward vocational subjects – carpentry, auto body, it was strictly a two year program. The Liberal Arts were only a small portion of the curriculum. Now we’re UH Maui College, we’re more professionally oriented. We’ve got all kinds of programs including nursing, dental and technology. There’s a broader spectrum of Liberal Arts courses and even some four year programs.”
As for the student body, it’s also more diverse, “not just kids out of high school trying to figure out what to do next. Now we have many older people changing careers or going in a new direction. With the new dormitory we also have students from off-island and out of state.”
Another thing he’s noticed is the increased interest in Hawaiian language and culture. “Before it was really rare to hear any Hawaiian spoken, it was almost a dead language and there was no such thing as ‘Hawaiian Studies.’ It’s very different now.”
Oral History and Vintage Photos a Special Interest
One area he finds of special interest is oral history and collecting and identifying historic photos of Maui from the early part of the 20th century. He began this project many years ago with Virginia Wirtz, who was then head of the Bailey House Museum. Kikuchi had the opportunity to meet with many senior citizens and show them pictures and get their recollections. “The response was phenomenal,” he said. “I went all over to Wailuku, Kahului, Lahaina and Paia. They all had something to say and could provide the details. They brought in pictures from their own albums and we copied them. Sometimes the most interesting part was the name of a store or a street sign in the background that gives a hint of what Maui used to be like.”
He put that project on hold in the 1990s when his teaching load got heavier. Kikuchi had planned to retire but has pushed the date back until next year. He and his wife hope to travel and he also hopes to find some time to renew his interest in oral history and vintage Maui photos.
Thousands of Students Over the Years
Kikuchi pointed out that when you teach for all those years and you have an average class size of 40 or more students “the numbers get pretty big: that’s thousands of people.”
He runs into them in the strangest places. “I’ll bump into someone in the aisle of a mainland Costco, or they’re sitting behind me in a movie theater. We’ll be in Tacoma or Anaheim I’ll hear my name or see someone wave and they’ll say, ‘You were my teacher. I really appreciated that class.’”
“I usually don’t recognize them, but they all remember me. It makes me think I must be doing something right. It’s very gratifying.”