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William Kwai-Fong Yap

November 15, 2023, is the 160th anniversary of the birth of a man considered to be one of the fathers of the University of Hawaiʻi. Born on November 15, 1873, William Kwai-Fong Yap dropped out of school when he was 13 to take care of his family. Thirty three years later, he would successfully lead an initiative to expand the then College of Hawaiʻi, a small, mostly agricultural school, into a comprehensive university. Thanks to Yap’s efforts, the college was renamed the University of Hawaiʻi in 1920 with a much broader mission that continues on more than a century later.

Yap’s story was recounted by UH Vice President of Advancement and UH Foundation CEO Tim Dolan at the November 1 event marking the public launch of the foundation’s historic $1 billion campaign: For UH • For Hawaiʻi. Dolan explained that Yap wanted a better future for his 11 kids.

“So what does William Kwai-Fong Yap have to do with the launch of our biggest campaign ever? Everything, really,” said Dolan to the crowd of 500 people. “The story of Mr. Yap embodies the hope that became the very foundation of our university. It’s not always about your credentials. It’s not always about your status, or your wealth, or even your advanced degrees. What mattered most to Mr. Yap was providing something precious to his family—a university education that could never be taken away from his 11 kids. And he had the heart and the grit to see it through. We are truly blessed that this ballroom is filled with numerous versions of Mr. Yap: self-effacing, tenacious and unswervingly committed to the public good.”

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Tim Dolan speaks about William Kwai-Fong Yap’s impact at the For UH • For Hawaiʻi event.

Yap had no formal education or background in political lobbying, but that did not stop him from mounting a grassroots campaign to convince the Territorial Legislature to transform the college into a university. With the assistance of College of Hawaiʻi President Arthur Dean and Regent and former Territorial Gov. Wallace Farrington, Yap drafted and circulated a petition to expand the college as a university offering graduate degrees. The petition stated the need for a university to prepare people for careers (beyond agriculture) and be a strategic point for Asia and Pacific relations.

He gained more than 400 signatures and on April 29, 1919, Senate Bill 76, An Act to Establish a University of Hawaiʻi, was passed unanimously and signed into law. Yap soon established the first scholarship fund, later renamed the William Kwai-Fong Yap Memorial Scholarship.

“‘For UH, For Hawaiʻi,’ that’s the tagline of our campaign. I think Mr. Yap would like that,” said Dolan. “I imagine he’d be impressed with our 50,000 students across 10 campuses. This campaign is for you, Mr. Yap. Thanks for your inspiration.”

In 2009, Yap was posthumously presented with the Regents’ Medal of Distinction, which is awarded by the Board of Regents to individuals of exceptional accomplishment and distinction who have made significant contributions to the university, state, region or nation or within their field of endeavor. His legacy was recognized in 1982 with the dedication of the William Kwai-Fong Yap Memorial Room in Hamilton Library at UH Mānoa.

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