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Pacific Ponderings

Firm Foundations

Today is my first day as president of BYU–Hawaii and my 65th birthday. I feel grateful today for those who have gone before me—for parents who gave me life, for family and friends who have strengthened and sustained me over the years, and especially for those who first envisioned and built BYU–Hawaii. I stand on their shoulders. I build on foundations they laid with such sacrifice and love.

On the flight here I read a history of the labor missionaries who built the campus. As Susan and I jogged around campus early this morning, I seemed to see and hear in my imagination those labor missionaries hard at work 60 years ago when this place was yet fields. When I was turning five and still anticipating my first day in kindergarten, Laie echoed to the sound of digging and hammering. Men and boys were pushing wheelbarrows and excavating trenches to build a university envisioned by a prophet of God, President David O. McKay, more than 30 years before. In 1955, he was eager to have classes start and a campus built. Faculty, students, and labor missionaries responded to his prophetic call to commence the long envisioned Church College of Hawaii.

About 50 families from the mainland, 80 “local boys,” and other local men and couples served here as labor missionaries. Among the local boys was a young man named Lawrence Lani, nicknamed Torpedo. Only 4 feet tall, Lani was a beloved boy with boundless energy and a radiant personality. He was everyone’s favorite because he was “so willing to do things,” even the unpleasant jobs. Lani kept getting pulled off of skilled labor crews to dig trenches. He said:

“I no like dig trench, so I go work for carpenter. He have me to dig trench. I work for while . . . then they transfer me to plumbing. I think I like this. I work for few days; then Bro. Shirers go in and look at blue prints for two or three hours, then come out and say I must dig a trench thirty feet. So I dig some more. . . . Last week I work under temple—dig out more dirt, then I go back to plumber.”

In his willingness to dig trenches, Lani served as a model of all the labor missionaries: “for every man, no matter how skilled, has done his share of digging trenches.”

Lani contracted leprosy during the project. His “cheerful letters from the hospital . . . were full of courage and optimism.” They lifted everyone’s spirit.

Today, we build on the foundation laid by Lani and others like him who sweat and toiled under a hot Hawaiian sun to fulfill the vision of a prophet. Like them we must be willing to do whatever it takes, even digging trenches, to fulfill the vision of President McKay and his prophetic successors.

When I visited the campus in June, I was deeply moved to learn that we are literally building on the foundation laid by these labor missionaries. When the construction crew set about to rebuild sixty year-old “hales” (dormitories), it was discovered that the old foundation could be re-used because the labor missionaries had built such strong foundations. They made them with crushed coral from the quarry behind the school. These foundations were meant to last. The project historian writes: “Under every building there is a two-foot pad of crushed coral. Surely, this is a building that will serve humanity for many, many years.” Now these foundations are being used to support the weight of an additional story in remodeled hales that will likely last many, many more years.

I love the symbolism of this! The modern university is also built on foundations laid by labor missionaries, students, faculty, administrators—including the nine presidents who have preceded me—and, above all, prophets of God. When we remodel or add stories, we build on firm foundations.

As the new President of BYU–Hawaii, I am committed to building on the firm foundations laid by pioneers, past presidents, prophets, and the Prince of Peace. I am honored to be part of a university that aspires to be a house of learning and of light. A university built in the shadow of a temple. A university located in a historic place of refuge and gathering. In short, a Zion university.

I come here with a sense of deep gratitude for our founders. On this my birthday and my first day in office, there comes to mind an Old Testament-inspired axiom: “We drink from wells we did not dig” (see Deuteronomy 6:11). Likewise we work and dwell in halls and hales we did not build, which rest on foundations dug by trench-diggers like Lawrence Lani, who heeded the call of a prophet to raise a university to the Lord in Laie. May we be worthy of this legacy and add to it noble stories of our own.

John Tanner

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