A Tribute to our Founders - Part 2

Co-Founder, Henry Shigekane

Co-Founder, Henry Shigekane

Published in Legal Alert, Issue: Jan./Feb./March 2009

This article is the second in a series on our firm’s founders – Frank Damon and Henry Shigekane. The first was dedicated to Frank, this second one is dedicated to Henry. Reading about these two individuals with such very different backgrounds and upbringing reminds us that success does not come from the opportunities we are offered, but rather from what we do with those opportunities.

The Shigekane Heritage
Henry’s parents were both immigrants from Japan. Shigezo Shigekane (father) came to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields on the Big Island of Hawaii. Fuji Akao (mother) came to the Big Island to join her parents. Her father was likewise working in the sugar cane fields. Henry’s father then left his work to join an importing firm in Hilo and it was there that he settled with his wife to raise a family of nine children, of which Henry was the sixth.

Henry Shigekane
For most, early school years meant attending classes from fall to spring, followed by a long break during the summer to play. But as they grew older, many were recruited to work in the pineapple fields on Oahu and giving them a chance to earn money. Henry was one of those Hilo boys recruited to work in the pineapple fields in Kunia, Oahu. The boys lived in Kunia housing – more like barracks with a common bathroom they all shared. While some may think it was a rough life, the boys enjoyed their times together, working and relaxing. The experience was eye-opening and a memorable one for all of the Hilo boys who were exposed to life in the “big” city of Honolulu during the weekends.

When Henry started his public school education, the then territorial Department of Education had established two sets of schools: regular public schools for the greater majority of children and English Standard Schools for those children proficient in English, mainly Caucasians. Henry, speaking only pidgin English and a smattering of Japanese, attended the regular public schools. At that time in Hilo, because of its small population, the English Standard School ended after the sixth grade and its graduates were funnelled into an intermediate school along with students from the regular public schools. However, these students were set aside in a special classroom apart from other students in the seventh grade, and this separation was continued throughout high school.

Henry somehow was enrolled in this special classroom made up of graduates from the English Standard School and separated from his former classmates. This was a startling and, as it turned out, an agonizing change for him as he was then made aware of his deficiency in language skills and that he was the only one there speaking pidgin English. This daily embarrassment did not last long as there occurred the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and all schools in Hawaii were promptly closed. But upon commencement of the next school term in September of 1942, Henry was once again placed in the same classroom with the students at the English Standard School.

There was then in the school an entity designated as “homeroom” where the students conducted classroom activities other than school learning. Each homeroom had class officers. To his great surprise, Henry was chosen by his roommates as president which required him each day to stand before the class and conduct a meeting. His use of pidgin became a glaring embarrassment. This predicament forced him to improve his speech, which he did, and to this he credits and thanks his classmates. “I thought that was an amazing thing, and they really gave me the shove which no other thing or person could have done for me at that time – only the kids from that school.”

After high school, Henry, lacking adequate funds, enrolled at the University of Hawaii. With his eye still on a mainland college, Henry, while attending UH, took on a job as busboy, baker, yardman and otherwise general factotum at a restaurant called Queen’s Surf in Waikiki. Then with the help of his philosophy professor, he was accepted at Yale University with a partial scholarship and then was off for New Haven, Connecticut on a chartered air flight and a Greyhound bus ride paid for with his hard-earned savings.

Henry Meets Frank
When he arrived at Yale, he was overwhelmed by the architecture of gothic buildings planted in the city. He had never seen or been surrounded by buildings like that. And it wasn’t just the buildings—the environment was different, the people were different and the food was different. He was homesick and thought he made a terrible mistake going to the Mainland. But eventually toward the end of the semester, things started falling into place and he began to feel not only comfortable but to love the place.

It was here at Yale that Frank and Henry first met. With few Asians at the school, Frank noticed Henry and asked if he was from Hawaii. Being a year ahead, Frank took time to show him around the school and occasionally dropped in to check on Henry in his dorm and to make sure he was doing alright. It was because of, and with, Frank that Henry first experienced skiing—as Frank’s guest.

After completing his undergraduate work at Yale, Henry applied for and was accepted at Harvard Law School. It was also here in Massachusetts that Henry married Joanne Holmes.

Law School was a mystery for Henry, although he enjoyed Harvard and the surroundings. The return to Hawaii was not to Hilo but to Honolulu as it was the site for the Hawaii bar exam.

In January of the following year (1955), the results of the bar examination were finally published and Henry was one of the fortunate fifty-five percent who passed. Frank then sponsored Henry before Hawaii’s Supreme Court for admission to the bar. Fortunate again was he when he landed a job as clerk to one of Hawaii’s Federal district court judges. From there, he went to the territorial Attorney General’s Office as a deputy and then to the City Attorney’s Office at the City and County of Honolulu.

During this period, Henry’s family had grown to five with one more daughter and a son. And during this time, he was regularly in contact with Frank mainly through a reading club started by Frank with a nucleus of Yale alumni who met monthly.

After years of governmental service, he went into private practice with Morio Omori, Matsuo Takabuki, and Dan Inouye who was at the time a Congressman. His association with that firm was cut short when Wallace Fujiyama asked Henry to help him in his firm since Fujiyama’s partner, Walter Chuck, had became ill and could not work. It was there that Henry was exposed to a variety of private law practice cases. Walter Chuck recovered from his illness and returned; the law group was now three and prospering.

It was the early 60s and the civil rights movement was shaking the entire nation. While there were a lot of Asians who lived in Hawaii, the majority of the top business people were Caucasians and there was a sharp line between the two.

It was during this period that Frank proposed to Henry they join together to form a law firm. This was not something Henry had ever considered. Although they were now in the same profession and equals as lawyers, the two men came from very different family backgrounds and social classes. “You know when that happened, when Frank proposed that, I really thought…Gee this is really adventurous for somebody like him to turn his back on that kind of thing (being a partner in a big law firm).” From Frank’s point of view, forming a law partnership with Henry was a promising challenge—based on their prior relationship, friendship, trust, and Henry’s personal qualities and abilities. That Henry was of Japanese ancestry was never an issue. In doing so, Frank being color blind was ahead of the times.

In 1963, Damon & Shigekane was formed as one of the first, if not the first, multi-racial law firms in Hawaii. At that time, major law firms in Hawaii had few, if any, Asian or woman lawyers and none as partners. Thus was born the firm of Damon & Shigekane in a little office in the Hawaiian Trust Building with three cubicles and a secretary to be shared by the two of them.