Lately, forsaking a planned retirement at 65, she has rapidly become perhaps the most popular member of the Maui County Council. Newly re-elected Gladys Coelho Baisa, a child of the plantation camps and valedictorian of her graduating class at Old Maui High, is possibly one of few of Portuguese heritage here who go back two generations and still can claim, “I’m 100 percent Portuguese.”
Always a hard worker, Baisa said she didn’t know what hit her when she joined the council three years ago.
“It was an incredible change for me,” said Baisa. “I thought I had made a horrible mistake. I felt I knew the council from working with it over the years. But it is a very different story when you are behind the desk.”
Forsaking a planned retirement at 65, Gladys Coelho Baisa has rapidly become perhaps the most popular member of the Maui County Council.
In a relaxed, wide-ranging interview last week, Baisa talked about everything from her school days in Pā‘ia and Makawao to the challenges of Maui government. In an easy-going style, she offered a freshly honest perspective on an intriguing and elusive question: What is right and wrong with county government and what should be done about it?
First though, pretty much in her own words, some basic Baisa:
Before coming to Maui in 1878, Gladys’ maternal grandma worked scrubbing floors in the kitchen of the King of Portugal. It was there she learned how to make a special soup. The recipe was handed-down to Gladys, used more than a century later when she cooked and served Portuguese bean soup as part of her first election campaign.
On Maui, Grandma met and married another Portuguese immigrant, a craftsman who had come to build bridges, at least one of which still stands. Gladys’ grandparents saved money, bought property, farmed and one even drove locomotive number five Upcountry and around Pā‘ia and Pu‘unēnē for the sugar company.
Gladys’ father, a machinist and mechanic, and his brothers all went to work for the plantation as well.
In 1946, “we were living in Skill Village in Pā‘ia where my father worked in the mill,” Gladys said. “In those days, camps all had names. Skill Village was the place where skilled workers like my dad lived.”
“The union came in 1946—the ILWU,” Gladys recalled. “When that strike was over, [the workers] won more wages, but lost their free housing. They would have to pay rent they had never paid before.”
Gladys’s mother, a strong-willed, independent thinker, was having none of this.
“Being Portuguese, without my father knowing, she bought a plantation home and had it moved to Makawao where she had inherited land,” said Gladys. “She had it renovated and all ready.”
The surprise was sprung during a Sunday afternoon drive, when 7-year-old Gladys and her father saw the new house in Makawao for the very first time.
“My father, who was the nicest human being in the world, preferred to live in Pā‘ia,” said Gladys. “But my mom said, ‘If you pay rent, you end your life with a box of receipts.’”
After graduating from Maui High, Gladys wanted to become a librarian. Mother said no, Gladys recalled. “You can get an all-expenses scholarship [from the company],” her mother said. “You are going to Honolulu to study nursing.”
“There was no arguing with my mother,” Gladys explained.
After training, she went to work for Maui Pine at the Hāli‘imaile Dispensary for five years. When children came after marriage, the couple’s schedules didn’t mesh well.
“Somebody had to give this up,” said Gladys. “When I was in high school, I really liked accounting, but I didn’t pursue it. I went back the Maui Technical School, the forerunner to Maui Community College [now UH Maui College]. I went back to the hospital again, but in the accounting department. From there I was hired by MEO as their first finance director,” Baisa continued.
“I didn’t even know what MEO was,” she recalled. “This was in ’69. It was chartered in ’65. Joe Souki was the director. They had a bookkeeping service that wasn’t working, so they hired me.
“I did that job from ’69 to ’84, when I took over as executive director. The budget was less than $2 million and there were 60 employees. When I left 37 years later, we had an $18 to $20 million budget, 300 employees and some 40 programs. It grew.
“Like most young people, I had this crazy idea. When you are 65, you should probably not work anymore.”
At retirement, Baisa told the MEO board chairman, “I’m going to relax. I think I’ve earned it. I will be a grandparent, travel. I will do what retired people do.”
But she was told it would be a mistake to let that experience to go to waste. “Why don’t you use it? Why don’t you run for council?”
She did in 2006, and she won.
In the next column, the councilwoman will share what she has learned.