By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Gerald De Mello, 69, was born in Hilo and grew up in a house fronting the future site of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, although he says he had no idea at the time what a big effect the campus would have on his life.
Nor, it seems, was he aware of how important he would become to the process of shaping UH-Hilo’s future.
On Dec. 31, De Mello will retire after serving for 21 years as the campus’ University Relations director.
It’s a wide-ranging job, requiring long hours, extensive travel, and cooperative work to build and maintain strong relationships with community members, business leaders and politicians to, among other things, secure funding for expansion projects.
And De Mello did it well, helping to launch a period of enormous growth for the once sleepy little community campus.
“Gerald has been an indispensable advocate for the university and a major reason for the growth and development UH-Hilo has enjoyed while he’s been here,” said UH-Hilo Chancellor Don Straney. “His outreach to Big Island legislators, federal and county officials, business, labor and community leaders has created a highly effective partnership with the University that has resulted in some of the most significant capital improvements in UH-Hilo’s history.”
But, in keeping with the way he has always performed his job — preferring to keep his own input outside the spotlight — De Mello downplayed his impact in an interview last week.
“Look, people give me too much credit,” he said with a laugh. “My job has been all about teamwork. You can’t do this alone.”
Be that as it may, there is no denying that De Mello served as one of the centerpieces of a team that got results.
Since taking the job in January 1991, De Mello has seen the construction of the Student Life Center, the Science and Technology Building, the Student Services Building, and the College of Hawaiian Language Building. He’s also presided over the beginning to construction for the new University Village Phase I, and the launching of the College of Pharmacy, among other milestones.
Major projects at the school — dating back to 1999, shortly after former Chancellor Rose Tseng took office — show that capital improvement project monies brought to Hilo and Honokaa, site of the North Hawaii Education and Research Center, totaled $327.3 million. Tseng’s tenure served as UH-Hilo’s high-water mark for growth, and much of the credit, she says, is due to De Mello.
“Gerald is really the best,” she wrote earlier this month in an emailed response to questions. “… We work well together. Often, I do the visionary part and prepare justification statements and the academic part, and he connects with people and helps me get the community and legislative support through lots of discussions and meetings. He and I always worked as a team and we were very successful in obtaining fundings for all the buildings (seven different ones during my tenure) and many new programs since 1998.
“UH-Hilo had not received any money for new buildings for 20 years before that time. Together, we were able to break the log jam. Gerald deserves the credit, mainly. Gerald is dedicated and loyal — simply the best community relations director anyone can have.”
Prior to Tseng’s chancellorship, De Mello helped set the stage for the new construction by building upon the campus’ programs and enrollment.
“When the state was doing well financially, we focused on the operating budget to fund positions and programs that contributed to our growth. This included a $600,000 legislative add-on engineered by (former state) Rep. Harvey Tajiri,” De Mello said. “We also invested heavily in infrastructure, which was key to attracting the clientele and investment in the University Park of Science and Technology. When enrollment went up, we began to ask for large projects.”
As the son and grandson of sugar workers, De Mello says helping Hawaii Island make the transition from a plantation economy to one known for higher education has always been the motivating factor behind his efforts.
“Dad worked from sun up to sun down seven days a week and I just picked up his work ethic,” he said.
“… Most of our lives, we inherit history. But our recent history has been dynamic. This has been an opportunity to make history. It requires many hands and the cooperation of many people. It means you have to bury the egos.”
De Mello says his own contributions have been made possible through the hard work and dedication of his wife and Hilo High School sweetheart, Claudette.
“My wife’s been a major beacon of support,” he said.
Together, they have a daughter, Kehau, and son, Randy, as well as three grandchildren — Tia, Timmy and Alisya.
On giving up such an important part of his team, Straney said UH-Hilo will work to carry on with a strong framework that De Mello helped set in place. But, his presence and influence will be difficult to replace.
“One way to say it is that Gerald has had a very heavy teaching load,” Straney said. “He’s worked with all of state government to teach them about what Hawaii Community College, UH-Hilo, Hilo and Hawaii Island want to do in higher education. … With him, what you see is what you get. Gerald is straightforward, honest, sincere and very knowledgeable. He earns people’s trust easily.
“I think everyone is going to remember him for his efforts to create the buildings that constitute the campus. Some of his hardest work and most successful work was in helping legislators understand why we needed a new bookstore, or why a new Student Services Building, or a Hawaiian language building. A lot of the rooms people work in at UH-Hilo are there because Gerald worked to make it happen.”
Straney added that, because De Mello is such a valuable community resource, he’ll need all the help he can get in remaining on the sidelines.
“I’ve retired twice in my own career, and I obviously don’t know how to do it,” he said. “This is the second time Gerald’s retiring, and I’m hoping he’s better at it than I was.”
On that front, De Mello says he’ll spend the first six months of his retirement primarily saying the word “No.”
“I’m not planning on doing anything right away. I’m going to spend time with my family. Go out to Hamakua, enjoy those quiet, meditative moments,” he said. “Pick some coffee. Pick some oranges. Look at the ocean.”
He has no doubt he’ll miss the hustle and bustle of being a part of such a large and energetic organism like a university campus. Of course, he said, he’ll miss the people and miss the adrenaline. But, he doesn’t view retirement as an end to all that.
“It’s a new beginning,” he said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.