The 73-year-old School of Social Work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has a new name in keeping with its mission and tradition. In September 2008 the UH Board of Regents named the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work to honor a school alumnus and influential state leader.
A visionary who achieved much during his long and prestigious career, Thompson was first and foremost a social worker devoted to improving the health, education and wellbeing of Native Hawaiians and all the people of Hawaiʻi.
“It is truly an honor for our school to share his name and to be able to identify with such an extraordinary citizen of Hawaiʻi” says Dean Jon Matsuoka. “Mr. Thompson was a highly principled, wise and compassionate person who continues to inspire those who knew him. His legacy will inspire generations to follow.”
“Pinky” Thompson, as he was known, passed away on Christmas Day 2001 at age 77. To many local social workers, he is to Hawaiʻi what Jane Addams was to Western social work—a professional dedicated to bringing social justice to underserved groups.
He was also a leader in the struggle to preserve Hawaiian culture, guided by the wisdom of his ancestors and finding in his Hawaiian heritage ancient values with modern day applications.
A background for caring
Thompson’s desire to help people was nurtured by his parents, who took in a dozen at-risk foster children. “I grew up living with kids who were less fortunate and we became close,” Pinky told an interviewer. “I felt their pain. I wanted to find a way to help, and that began my process of entering into social work.”
A scholarship student and star athlete at Punahou School, Thompson graduated in 1943 and joined the Army, suffering a severe head injury in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Self-introspection during his two-year recovery strengthened his commitment to help others.
He received a UH master of social work in 1953. It was just three years after the UH master’s program began, but the roots of social work education in Hawaiʻi go back to 1936, when the university first offered courses, primarily to train employees of local social work agencies who were college graduates but lacked professional preparation.
The courses evolved into the School of Social Work, which was fully accredited in 1948. It added the bachelor’s degree in 1977 and doctorate in 1991. Today, more than 300 students are enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate programs.
The mission of the school continues to be the advancement of social work practice for the purpose of preventing or resolving the most critical social problems, says Matsuoka.
Graduates work in medical and mental health facilities, schools, courts, corrections and public welfare departments, service organizations and counseling agencies, substance abuse treatment centers and programs serving the elderly and immigrant/refugee populations.
A focus on culture
“Beyond the profession’s traditional commitment to advancing social justice and increasing opportunities for underrepresented and oppressed groups, UH’s program works to increase comprehension of how social policy, practice and research can be improved through understanding of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Island and Asian cultures,” the dean adds.
It is an emphasis practiced by the school’s namesake throughout his distinguished, five-decade career.
After graduation, Thompson worked with emotionally disturbed children as director of social services for the Salvation Army’s Children’s Residential Home. In 1962 he was appointed executive director of the Queen Liliʻuokalani Children’s Center. There, he and his staff recognized that some of the classic social work practices they had been trained in didn’t work with many of their Native Hawaiian clients.
Discussions with noted Kumu Mary Kawena Pukui resulted in revival of many indigenous healing practices, including hoʻoponopono, and a classic two-volume publication Nānā I Ke Kumu: Look to the Source, still in use.
Mental health practices that evolved from Thompson’s leadership are now common practice and taught in the UH social work program.
A political agenda
The late Gov. John A. Burns tapped Thompson to serve as his administrative director and advisor on Hawaiian affairs. The job often took him to Washington, D.C., where he worked with Hawaiʻi Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka on programs aimed at helping Native Hawaiians achieve social and economic self-sufficiency and ensure they were included in federal programs for Native Americans.
Thompson became the first chair of the state Land Use Commission and, in 1970, was appointed director of the state Department of Social Services and Housing. He served two decades as a trustee of the Bishop Estate, now Kamehameha Schools. He emphasized the importance of early education, believing that the spirit within every child has the potential to change the world.
In 1975 Thompson helped start Alu Like to obtain federal funding for Native Hawaiians in job training, health, housing, education and Native Hawaiian rights. He is also credited with creation of Papa Ola Lōkahi, a clearinghouse for information associated with the health status of Native Hawaiians, and was instrumental in establishment of the Native Hawaiian Education Act.
Thompson was also a paddler and president of the Hui Nalu Canoe Club. He served as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, establishing friendly relationships with native peoples throughout the Pacific as the voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa retraced ancestral migration patterns using ancient Polynesian methods of way-finding, or navigation.
Thompson’s son Nainoa continues his father’s work as a master navigator, Kamehameha Schools trustee and advisor to the UH president.
Living the legacy
Naming the school after Thompson was pono because “it was there that he built a foundation for the real issues that needed to be dealt with, for the people who need the support the most and that society supported the least,” Nainoa Thompson wrote in a congratulatory message presented during a dinner celebrating the naming.
Thompson’s wife Laura; children Lita Blankenfeld, Myron and Nainoa; and associates remember Thompson as a man full of life and laughter, a warrior opposing social injustice and a tireless advocate for Native Hawaiians challenging the status quo.
“What is constantly on my mind,” Thompson told a reporter in 1984, “whether I’m on a plane headed for Washington, D.C., or at a canoe practice, is ‘How can I do more to influence the process that will affect the future of our Hawaiian people?’”
The school’s activities tackle that question through a variety of programs, including a recently developed distance education option that offers the master of social work curriculum on each of the neighbor islands.
Courses are being expanded to other Pacific/Asian domains and degree programs. The recently established Center for Training and Evaluation Research of the Pacific has quickly become a major regional research/program evaluation and training enterprise.
With federal funding, the school serves as a national research center focusing on Native Hawaiian elderly. Strong collaborative relations have been established with institutions in Japan, China, the Philippines and Thailand, and formal agreements have resulted in joint research and program evaluations, faculty and student exchanges and training.
Matsuoka says he expects the coming years to be exciting and challenging as the school continues to serve Hawaiʻi while expanding into regionally and globally relevant areas.