One of the six original TESOL graduates at what was then called the Church College of Hawaii, alumnus Lesā Lefa’asisina Ropeti Fa’afetai, otherwise known as Ropeti Lesā, passed away on March 4. In what his colleagues and friends said was his quiet, humble way, Lesā left behind a legacy that epitomizes the vision on which BYU–Hawaii was built.
“One doesn’t have to be loud or showy to make an impact,” said Mark James, a retired professor in the Faculty of Education & Social Work, who knew of Ropeti Lesā through Alumni Services.
“[Ropeti Lesā is] a good example of someone who, through righteous living and rigorous academic preparation and years of application and commitment, can benefit other people.”
His wife, Phyllis Lesā, said her husband knew he wanted to go to America for his schooling, rather than take the scholarship he was offered in New Zealand, after being taught by missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Western Samoa in the early 1950s.
“His whole heart was there [at CCH]. He loved President McKay,” said Phyllis Lesā, who further explained how the former president of the Church and founder of CCH had visited and promised blessings that impacted the saints in Ropeti Lesā’s home country of Western Samoa.
“And when he got to Church College of Hawaii and saw that big mosaic of President McKay in the lobby … he knew he was in the right place.”
The duty to fulfill a prophetic vision and the beginnings of TESOL
President David O. McKay’s vision, first realized at the flag raising ceremony depicted in the mosaic at the entrance of BYUH at the front of the McKay Complex, was of a higher learning institution that would gather students from around the world and prepare them as leaders for their respective countries.
“That was the goal. We were committed to going back. We were committed to giving back to the many who sacrificed so we could go to school,” said Juanita Nalani Benioni, another of the first six graduates in the TESOL program and former classmate to Ropeti Lesā.
Benioni added how students from the Pacific at the time felt a sense of duty in returning to their home countries to serve because of the scholarships that made it possible for them to attend CCH.
“When we went [to CCH], there was a huge focus on going back to where you came from to serve. It wasn’t only to serve, but to teach others, to teach the younger [generation]. We had that responsibility, and we wanted the young people we taught, who would be the next students at Church College of Hawaii or BYU, to have it easier than what we went through.”
At that time Dr. Alice Pack, former Church College of Hawaii faculty member and alumna, was starting a brand new program (then called TESL) geared towards teaching English as a second language, and Phyllis Lesā said her husband was recruited to join the program after his counselor saw a knack for language in him.
After graduating from CCH, Ropeti Lesā accepted a teaching position at Mapusaga High School in American Samoa, which later became the American Samoa Community College, and was where he spent the majority of his professional career as a teacher, coach and administrator.
“[Ropeti Lesā’s] contributions are huge … It’s just a classic case,” said Mike Foley, another of the first six graduates in the TESOL program and former classmate to Ropeti Lesā. “Definitely ‘genuine gold.’”
Maryann Mapu, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts and the Faculty of Education & Social Work, along with her sister, Rowena Reid, an assistant professor in the Center for Learning & Teaching, Distance Learning, Faculty of Sciences, and Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, both had Ropeti Lesā as their teacher at Mapusaga High School and now both sisters teach at BYUH.
In regard to the vision of BYUH, Mapu remarked, “That’s exactly what [Ropeti Lesā] did. He came and got an education and then went back and served his people, and in doing so fulfilled BYUH’s mission.”
An early knack for academics and athletics
Ropeti Lesā spent most of his early years away from his immediate family on the shores of a Western Samoan Peninsula catching sand crabs using a small rock and breadfruit leaves, shared Phyllis Lesā. One of seven boys out of 10 total children, Ropeti Lesā came from a family that had blood ties to all five of the major Samoan titles.
“He always wanted to go to school,” explained Phyllis Lesā. “His mother had the foresight to see that education was the best way for this titled family to go.”
Phyllis Lesā said her husband’s mother changed his birth certificate, making him two years younger than he was, so he could get into a private school. A 14-year-old who did not know any English in a class with 12-year-olds, Ropeti Lesā did well in school and was fluent in English by age 15.
Benioni explained she and Ropeti Lesā were both recruited to join the TESOL program around the same time but knew each other before as they were both English majors.
“He was really unusual because English was his second language, but he had such a great command of the English language. He was very well-read. Truly a scholar, a very serious academic, but he was dangerous on the rugby field.” In addition to playing rugby, friends and faculty shared their memories of Ropeti Lesā’s love for tennis and golf and his overall natural athleticism.
“I never saw him struggling with any of his class work … He never complained that it was too hard,” said Benioni. “He told me something one time. He said, ‘You can learn anything, just with some people it takes longer. You can excel in anything you study. Some people are just going to take longer to learn it.’ That was his attitude, this very positive attitude.”
The son of a chief and a girl from Magna, Utah
Benioni said she remembered being a little scared the first time she met him as a freshman because he was tall and quiet.
Phyllis Lesā added she remembered her husband as “well-sought-after, tall (6’2”), good-looking, with an air of confidence about him.
“I didn’t find out until later that he was the son of the high chief. And I’m sure that’s where his confidence came from because his mother kept telling him, ‘Don’t forget your name.’ It wasn’t, ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ It was ‘Don’t forget your name.’ He was confident, but humble. He never lauded what I call ‘royalty.’”
The two met through a mutual friend in what Phyllis Lesā said was “purely by accident.” And when he eventually asked her to marry him, she said she would have to think about it.
“He took me by surprise, for one thing. And secondly, I was concerned because it would be a mixed marriage. The year that we got married is when they took away the ban on mixed marriages in the United States,” she said, adding she was aware of his goal to return to his home country.
“I fasted and prayed for four days to make sure I was doing the right thing. Every prayer I got the answer, ‘Yes, this is the right choice for you.’ So when I told him ‘Yes,’ in my mind I was telling him, ‘I’ll go wherever you want to go.’”
The Lesās ended up spending more than 40 years in Samoa, and it became as much of a home to her as was her original home of Magna, Utah, Phyllis Lesā shared.
Together they raised 12 children, Phyllis Lesā explained, some of whom were the sons of Ropeti Lesā’s brother who passed away prematurely. She said she remembered sitting at a window overlooking their long, rambling porch in American Samoa, and hearing a voice that said, “Take care of my boys.”
When her husband returned home from the funeral prepared to ask his wife if she would be willing to take in three more boys, Phyllis Lesā said she was ready with the answer before he even asked.
Phyllis Lesā said of her husband, “He never wanted the recognition, the praise, the glory that came with his titles. He just wanted to do what he could to help his people. “And of all the titles [Ropeti Lesā] had, he preferred ‘dad.’ But next to ‘dad’ was ‘teacher.’”
He just wanted to do what he could to help his people.
Ropeti Lesā’s funeral services were held in Provo, Utah.