R.I.P. Sam King

The world always seems emptier when somebody dies, but it seemed even more so with news of the passing of Senior U.S. District Judge Samuel Pailthorpe King at 94.

He was one of the truly great ones among us, even as he deflected attention from himself with instinctual modesty and self-deprecating humor.

I first met King when he was the Republican candidate for governor against John A. Burns in 1970, but I didn’t really get to know him until we worked together on the “Broken Trust” essay on the Bishop Estate that ran in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997 and was later expanded into a book by King and co-author Randall Roth in 2006.

I wrote the introduction for the book, and though my part was a only a small piece of the big effort, it was a considerable challenge for me.

Most of the writing I’ve done is the kind that lines bird cages at the end of the day, and I knew the introduction to the most important book on one of the most important stories since Hawai‘i became a state would have to stand up for a long time.

It was a precious gift to have the counsel of a man who had himself stood up for a very long time as a leading force for good in the state’s public life.

King, Roth and I passed the introduction back and forth dozens of times as the book evolved.

The judge was nearing 90 at the time, but his questions were always incisive, a misstated fact or a nuance never got past him and he caught me in more grammatical errors than any editor I ever had. It led me to look at some of his own writings, which sparkled with clarity.

In meetings in his chambers at the federal court, where he heard cases to the end, I found him to be one of the smartest and most learned people I’ve known. The walls were covered with many books on a great variety of subjects — more than you’d expect anybody to be able to read even if he lived to be 94.

At breakfast meetings at a waffle place he liked on Kapiolani, King was full of insights on the latest events in Hawai‘i and the world, and he was often downright funny in sizing things up.

One of my favorite memories of King was a lunch interview he, Roth and I did with former governor Ben Cayetano for the book. It was a great chance to just sit back and listen as King, the son of a territorial governor, and Cayetano started talking about the oddities of life in Washington Place.

It took guts for him to speak out on the Bishop Estate as a sitting judge, but he was passionate about the welfare of Hawaiian beneficiaries and considered it his duty.

King fought hard for what he believed in, but he was an honorable gentleman — the kind we need more of in today’s toxic political environment— who always fought fair.

I was sitting next to him in a panel discussion on the Bishop Estate when Henry Peters, one of the trustees that “Broken Trust” helped to bring down, made a surprise appearance in the audience and launched into a long-winded defense of his actions.

King had more class than to deny the man his say, but I could hear his soft mutterings to himself as he countered every claim Peters made in a line of private rebuttal that was simply brilliant in its insight and logic.

As was the case throughout the Bishop Estate controversy, Peters had no idea of the extent to which he was being sliced and diced by a greater mind with a moral compass that was true.

It would be a major step toward a better Hawai‘i if we all took a moment to reflect on how to each be a little more like Sam King.

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3 Comments on “R.I.P. Sam King”

  1. Jim Loomis Says:

    Thank you, Dave. Sam King was indeed a giant.

  2. Will Says:

    Poignant and concise summary, David. Here’s what I wrote in the comment on my facebook link to the SA story about Judge King: Co-author of Broken Trust, U.S. District Court (District of Hawaii) Judge Samuel King, passes on. The Broken Trust essays were immensely courageous pieces determined to stand up against corruption, taking heed Edmund Burke’s admonition that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. The Broken Trust authors did something. Thank you Judge King.

  3. Michael Says:

    King’s influence vital to ‘Broken Trust’
    By Leila Fujimori

    You were more than just a writer, a friend.
    You are part of a legacy. You helped write
    the book.


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