Ruth M. Ono

Vice President Emeritus, the Queen’s Health Systems

October, 2003

She’s met with former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali and had tea with Mrs. Ghali. She’s dined with royalty and heads of state. She’s had a number of firsts: first woman to receive an honorary degree from Japan’s Toho University; first woman to be honored by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii; first woman to chair the Aloha United Way. Ruth M. Ono, Ph.D., is now vice president emeritus of the Queen’s Health Systems, but she is far from retired.

In fact, the alumni foundation of her alma mater, McKinley High School, is betting their dinner in her honor this month will be their most successful fund-raiser ever. McKinley High School Foundation President Steve Hirano says, “She brings people to the table and so, if you honor Ruth Ono or you get involved with Ruth Ono, you know that she will deliver.”

Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee concurs. “She’s the kind of person that if you wanted something done, you would talk to,” he says.

As a child growing up in Lahaina, Ono, the only child of the eldest son of an eldest son in a traditional Japanese family, was taught that knowledge was power. Her grandfather gave her two-hour Japanese language lessons every day after grade school. Those long lessons paid off later in life, as demonstrated by her extensive relationships with Japanese businesses, particularly in the medical community. In July, Ono missed the East-West Center’s “International Affair” dinner she helped to plan with Joan Bickson, because she had to fly to Tokyo to address the 58th Congress of the Japanese Society of Gastroenterological Surgery.

But the 68-year-old Ono says her ideas about power have evolved. Sitting in the lower office of her two-story Kahala home, gazing over the swimming pool to the family’s Buddhist altar, Ono says, “I realize now that credibility is power. If people believe in you and trust in you and know that whatever you do is for a good cause, or something that is good for this community, it touches home.”

She has a high-powered core group of people who help her with whatever project she undertakes: accountant Wendell Lee; attorney Iris Okawa; University of Hawaii Vice President Doris Ching; JAIMS executive Blair Odo and florist Gary Dung.

Ching says Ono, her friend of more than 15 years, influences local decisions, national policies and international business transactions. “So highly respected wherever she goes … and recognized by other phenomenally powerful persons – including Hillary Clinton, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Dole, Marian Wright Edelman – [Ono] is certainly a woman of the world,” Ching says.

This just adds to her power within her sphere of influence in Hawaii. The chairman of the McKinley Alumni Foundation dinner in Ono’s honor, Grubb and Ellis President Jackson Nakasone, says, “I think it’s that old Hawaiian saying: The more bread you throw on the water, the more fish you catch. I think she gives so much of herself, so you know, the Island community, the aloha, then people give back to her. That’s why she’s a powerful person.”

– Kelli Abe Trifonovitch

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch