The Polynesian Cultural Center and Laie Community Association’s annual Kupuna Luncheon, held at the PCC’s Gateway Restaurant on July 19, honored Patoa Tama Benioni for being one of the first students from the Cook Islands at BYU-Hawaii and performers at the PCC. His wife, Juanita, said Patoa was a true pioneer who paved the way for other Pacific Island students to come to BYUH.
In order to keep him from knowing the luncheon was in honor of him, Juanita said she lied to him the day before to keep it a surprise. She said, “He wanted to go to the Cook Islands Expo, so he was here for most of the day.
“I had to make all these promises and assurances to his doctors that we’d have a rest day today, and so this [was] his rest day.”
Going to college was a dream Patoa had since he was a little boy, said Juanita. She said he stopped going to school after sixth grade and went to work instead of continuing his education.
Uncertain about his academic future, she said it all changed when LDS missionaries came to the Cook Islands to a build a chapel, and he heard about the Church College of Samoa high school from them.
“As a Cook Islander, he didn’t speak Samoan, he didn’t have any connections, he didn’t have any money. He found his way to Samoa, no passport. I don’t know how he got through. I guess it’s his smile,” she said.
When he got to the airport, she said all he knew how to say was “the Mormon mission home.” The bus driver then dropped him off at the mission home where he met up with the mission president, Howard Stone.
“The story goes that every Sunday in their stake, the stake president would get up and say, ‘We have a young man who wants to go to school here. He has no place to live,’” said Juanita.
He was eventually taken in by Mariaha Peters, who was also present at the luncheon. She and her husband, Patrick, found him “sitting on a breadfruit tree at the mission home. They didn’t know him, had never seen him before, didn’t know if he was an axe murderer or whatever, and took him home. From that moment on, he became their son,” said Juanita. “When he talks about mom, it’s Momma Peters,” she added.
Patoa was able to graduate despite having to take difficult courses. “He had to take hard classes like Algebra II, even though he never took Algebra before,” she said.
After graduation, Peters asked him what the next step in his life would be. He said he wanted to go to the Church College of Hawaii. Juanita said, “When he came here, there was no Polynesian Cultural Center. Parts of the Church College were still under construction, so he had the opportunity of working in the pineapple fields.”
While standing in line to register for classes, a few founding faculty members, including Jerry Loveland, singled out the Polynesian students, according to Juanita. “They hand-picked young Polynesian women and men to become part of what was called the Polynesian Institute.”
She said he was selected to be one of the first dance instructors and part of the Polynesian Panorama, an experiment to see if Polynesian music and dancing could sell to tourist groups. After its success, he then helped to start the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Patoa graduated from CCH, and Juanita graduated the following year; she stayed out of school while he was a student. “He told me, ‘When I graduate, you will not work. You will go to school and you will finish.’ Sure enough, he graduated on a Friday night in 1969. That next morning at 6 a.m., he was on the job building the Rainbow Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village,” she said.
In 1970, Juanita completed the promise and graduated with a degree in teaching English as a second language. The couple then moved to American Samoa for 10 years where he was contracted by the Department of Education. He became the director of vocational education and she taught high school English.
They would return to BYUH in 1980 where Patoa became the assistant director at BYUH Physical Facilities. One of his projects included building the Cannon Activities Center. He also went on to serve in the Laie Community Association. They later went to Utah in 1993 so he could transfer to BYU to work at Physical Facilities.
“In 2012, it was time to come home,” said Juanita. Patoa retired and they moved back to Laie.
She added, “Wherever we lived, my husband said, ‘We need to go home.’”
Juanita concluded her speech thanking various attendees, the PCC, and LCA for honoring her husband. Patoa then spoke and acknowledged Mariaha Peters.
Speaking for only three minutes, he acknowledged Tony Haiku, his first boss at the PCC who sent him to cut coconut leaves so Samoan sisters in the Samoan village could make the fence around the PCC.
Patoa exemplified his humor throughout his short speech. He said, “I lied my way through college, I lied my way through high school, but I made it through Algebra II.”
NOTE: This article's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Sept. 2017 Print Issue.