Wright On: Francis Wong ‘a guy who cared’ and so much more

There was a time history will recall before him, and there was everything that happened after that.

Is there a more profound way to be remembered?

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In Hilo, there aren’t a lot of people around anymore who knew who he was, much less ever talked to him, even though uncounted numbers of them attend events each year in a facility bearing his name.

Dr. Francis Wong would have been 100 this year. He’s been gone almost as long as he was alive, passing at just 52 from lung cancer, but one can only imagine where the Big Island would be in terms of athletics, without his guiding hand.

His was the hand, in many significant ways, that stirred the drink of athleticism, brought athletes together, formed teams and leagues and gave young people in East Hawaii something constructive to do with their free time.

“We all knew him back then,” said Harvey Tajiri, the former Hawaii County Council l chair, Finance Committee chair and a member of the Hawaii State House of Representatives for 10 years. “At least everyone who went to Hilo High knew him because he was our teams’ doctor, we saw him all the time and he knew who we were.

“He wasn’t just a team doctor, though, he was a guy who cared, you knew when you saw him, that he cared.”

Wong lived and worked out of his home just off Kilauea in a spot that now houses Clark Realty. He lived on one side, he saw patients in his office in the other side of the dwelling.

It was a different world everywhere in the first half of the 20th century, and what that meant in Hilo was a veritable empty pasture as far as athletic opportunities for youth.

“There was nothing,” Tajiri said. “We had no access here to any college, there were no pro sports we were aware of, and all that time, during the 1930s and 40s and into the 1950s, there was nothing.”

Dr. Wong wasn’t an athlete by anyone’s standard, but he was invested in the community and he had a vision.

He formed the Wanderers Athletic Club as a means of giving young people an outlet apart from running the streets. The club was mostly centered on baseball at the start, but it grew, other clubs were organized and in time, the Waiakea Pirates, Lincoln Wreckers and Piopio Bears all battled with the Wanderers, season after season.

“The coaches should be given some credit, too,” Tajiri, a former political science teacher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo where he organized the school’s first booster club, “because, let’s face it, these weren’t former professionals or college stars or whatever, they were all local guys who wanted to help give kids something to do.”

It was the booster club that gave UHH its first sense of identity on the Big Island because Tajiri knew who to contact, he was already friends with anyone in Hilo considered a mover or shaker. The first Vulcan Athletic Club was a source of strength and community pride that no longer exists.

Until then, if you attended UHH and were athletic, you joined a club team and you played the local squads that Dr. Wong put into motion decades earlier. Tajiri help bring it all together. He brought bands into games to entertain fans, he would have a local tumbling clubs or other groups perform at halftime, and people responded.

“We would have the gymnastic club perform and guess what, their parents would come, their grandparents would come, probably some neighborhood friends,” he said. “Why do people come to watch a basketball game? They want to be entertained, so we did those things and you know, the gymnasts at halftime? We might have 25 more people buy tickets just to see the gymnasts.”

On such small steps the athletic department was built and began to gain a following. In time, Hilo fans would fill the Civic, there were bands, cheerleaders, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think there was an NCAA school in town that people cared about.

Times change. These days, you might have 50-100 people at a UHH game. Bands? Cheerleaders? That old college rah-rah? All memories.

But Tajiri, who was appointed to the University of Hawaii Board of Regents in 2008 and served until his resignation in February 2010, wonders how much interest there would be in athletics here today — with or without UHH — had it not been for Dr. Wong so many years ago.

“Once he got us active, once we were playing for the Wanderers or the Pirates or whatever and going to high school, we were kicking everybody’s rear end,” Tajiri said of those Hilo High days, “but it wasn’t fair for the others. We had St. Joseph in Hilo, but beyond that, we had 2200 students and we played schools with 300, so we won a lot but we all knew it was kind of lopsided.

“The biggest thing though,” he said, “was what (Wong) did to get us off the street. I’m being honest, that crew downtown around Mamo (Street)? That triangle area where Pineapples is now? That was a rough area, you had some kids who could stir up a lot of trouble, and they did.”

The athletic clubs became an immediate outlet that Wong and others saw as a community need, but Wong was the one who did something about it.

They remember Dr. Francis Wong as a humble man who tried to help. A doctor, in those days, was a member of the ‘haves,’ in a culture that lacked big business, media and all the rest. There was no mall, no big box stores, none of that. Wong used his influence, and in some cases his money, to help get potential troublemakers off the streets and into a team with goals, opponents, practices to make and teammates to support.

A quiet, unassuming, with a guiding hand, the essence of imua.

Tajiri is only one of hundreds, if not thousands of Big Islanders whose early years were enabled in part by a constructive pattern of working together to make things better that started with Wong’s efforts.

Tajiri took the lessons from the ballfields and courts in Hilo to UHH, to the state and beyond and he never forgot where it came from.

“He was a secular guy,” Tajiri said of Wong, “he helped Christians, atheists, Buddhists, that was something he wasn’t concerned about, he was compassionate and humble, even his kids were humble, no attitudes, none of that.

“I was a recipient of his compassion,” Tajiri said, “how can I repay him? He gave so much to us, there’s nothing we can give to repay him, probably for as long as we live.”

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Except, maybe to say Mahalo, to Doc Wong, the backbone and the loving spirit of athletics on the Big Island.

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