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Living in the shadows of the temple: Alumnae Jean Okimoto shares what life was like when BYUH first started

Jean Okimoto in a black and white photo from the late 1950s wearing a striped shirt and white pants standing by the front door of a house.

When Jean Okimoto first stepped foot on the BYU–Hawaii campus, she described the close-knit community as a few small portables for gatherings and learning, full of lively weekend activities. In the Lanihuli House where she lived, Okimoto taught her roommates how to make sushi she had previously learned to make from her mother’s restaurant in Kauai.

From flooding that led to canceled class and boogie boarding in the streets to a dorm mother cooking their meals for them, Okimoto said she fondly remembers her days at CCH. She said she felt like she was part of a family.

Okimoto, born in Hawaii in 1938, was part of the first group of students to attend BYU–Hawaii, then the Church College of Hawaii, in 1955. The BYUH website says only 153 students were enrolled that year.

“Let’s say we were the pioneers. We were the very beginning of the CCH. We had a lot of challenges, but we had a lot of happy experiences. ... We were really the foundation. We started from the basic,” Okimoto said.

Cherished memories

Okimoto remembers a dorm mother, Sister Enos, who would cook for the students who were living in the boy’s dorm, which was on a nearby street. She said she would even teach others, especially the cooks in the cafeteria and other dorm mothers, how to make the meals. “She was a good cook,” Okimoto said. She made stew, spaghetti, hamburgers and stir fry. “She’s a good cook so she can fix anything,” she said.

Riley Moffat, retired BYUH geography professor and senior librarian, also knew Sister Enos. He said, “Mom Enos, as she was known by all, was a wonderful lady. I was able to be her bishop during her last years. I wish they would name the new dining facility after her: ‘Emily’s Place’ or ‘Mom Enos’ Place.’ She was like an institution here for about 20 years.”

Okimoto said Sister Enos was also a talented musician. “Mom Enos played the piano really well, and so they had a dance” and she played instruments. “We had some very outstanding professors, teachers and a wonderful president, and they were always willing to help students. Because it was a small enrollment, you could get to know them personally,” she shared.

Some of the professors would even take in some students to live with them, she said, because they were looking for housing on their own once they moved out of the dorm. “I even lived with a professor and their family later on. It was nice. I would introduce some of the island kinds of food [to them.]” She said while living there, she would help with the housework and pay rent.

Okimoto said she has memories of associating with many different students because they all lived and studied together. “I remember so many people because it was a small group that you meet with. ... We got to know almost everybody.” She said some of the students would go visit family or friends on the weekend. While some would stay, and they would do activities together.

She told her roommates that growing up, her mom had a restaurant on Kauai, so she learned to make sushi by watching her make it. One weekend she said she offered to make her roommates sushi. “It was a fun time because we had to keep ourselves busy on the weekend with things to do and fun places to go,” she said. Okimoto said she worked throughout her college career so she could support herself. “But when I graduated, I made sure I saved money for my mom. I bought her a plane fare and had her come up for my graduation.”

There was a store close to the Lanihuli House that had a big fountain in the front, she said, where you could order ice cream. She also remembers a post office near the store, another building for Sunday school and one with benches outside where they could watch movies or spend time with other students.

Okimoto described how the boy’s dorm was on a nearby street. It had a concrete slab out in the front they often used for school activities, like dances, such as a preference ball where the girls asked the guys, she said. They also enjoyed Halloween parties, crab hunts and movie nights.

She remembers that area being decorated for the activities. Additionally, she said the community would occasionally throw out fishing nets and see if there was any fish for the tourists, but they would only occasionally have fish.

The students used to enjoy field games on the grassy area near the boy’s dorm house. Okimoto said it was mostly the boys who participated at that time, and they would play basketball and volleyball, with tennis coming later on. “We were so active,” Okimoto said of her and her classmates. “We even sang for the Church College of Hawaii,” Okimoto recalled. “We had a choir, and we sang at the [Honolulu] tabernacle in town. It was kind of fun because from the country you go into the city.” She said they would travel to different places to sing.

“We also had some fun luaus and parties in Laie while we were there.” Okimoto said these luaus, which were fundraisers, were in a green building by Hukilau Beach and were the beginnings of the Polynesian Cultural Center. She said these parties were attended by community members, tourists and students. They sold plate lunches, pounded poi and had singers and hula dancers put on shows.

Okimoto said there was a variety of classes offered at CCH, such as business, psychology, music, choir, math and physical science. She recalled a friend of hers who said the students tried to make a C behind the school, similar to the Y on the mountain at BYU in Provo, but she is not sure exactly where it was or if it is still visible.

Moffat said this white block letter C was located “on the hillside to the south toward Hauula.” He said several years later, around 1970, some students turned the letter into a peace sign and the hillside where it is located used to be a good place for sliding on ti leaves after a rainstorm.

The Victorian-style, two-story Lanihuli House girls dormitory had a two-story hexagon-shaped tower on the front of the house and lanais around the first and second floors. Palm trees are on either side of the house with grass, hedges and more foliage in the front yard.

Looking to the temple

While Okimoto attended CCH, she lived in the girl’s dormitory called the Lanihuli House. One of her most cherished memories of living there was when she could see the temple as she walked up to the dorm. “It was so beautiful because the temple would always be lit up. ... Living in the shadows of the temple was so inspiring.

“Somehow you feel closer to the Lord being so close to His house, His temple.” She advised current BYUH students to stay strong in the gospel of Jesus Christ and said attending a church college offers great opportunity to increase spirituality. “That’s what’s going to build your foundation.” She said living near the temple helped her feel the Holy Ghost more in her life as she looked forward to going to and getting married there.

Additionally, Okimito said the education she received at CCH helped prepare her for her future as a teacher because she had the opportunity to meet students from different places around the world, including the different islands of Hawaii. She said this interaction helped lay “a good foundation” for her and her classmates to be able to graduate and then go on to serve others.

A black and white arial view of the Laie Hawaii Temple and its grounds and the surrounding town in the early 1930s-1940s.

Pioneer days

Describing her experience as the first group to attend CCH, Okimoto said, “It was in the pioneer days. It was growing pains.” One of the biggest signs of these growing pains was that campus was composed of temporary buildings called portables.

Okimoto said the biggest difference between CCH and BYUH today is the temporary buildings became permanent structures, which allowed a much larger enrollment. She said later on, they also built dorms down by the new college buildings to accommodate more students, most likely freshman, while the upperclassmen stayed in the Lanihuli House.

She said these growing pains also came in the form of frequent flooding of campus. Okimoto said, “When it rained a lot, we got flooded. We had to walk in the water to get up the stairs into the building. When it floods, we had to be very careful [and] carry our shoes or lift our clothing to walk around.

“Sometimes the water would go up to the third step, there was maybe five steps. Then school was called off because of the flooding. And then the boys would come with their bodyboard or little surfboard or boogie board, and they would go floating around because it’s flooded in that area.”

She said the Lanihuli House was located on a corner close to a chapel, which was in the back leading towards the temple. There is a faculty home now on the site of the old house. From the inside of the house, the roof was very high. She described the house as big and round.

The inside of the Lanihuli House had four bedrooms. The bedroom Okimoto slept in was “a bigger room with several beds and a lot of people.” She said despite there being about four girls per bedroom, living there did not feel crowded. She said there were people from both the mainland and from the Hawaiian Islands.

Old World War II army barracks were moved onto land in Laie for classrooms and more in the first days of BYU-Hawaii in the late 1950s when it was called the Church College of Hawaii. There are four barracks set on the property facing each other creating inside them a square filled with grass. A line of parked cars are on the right side of one of the barracks, and the Laie Hawaii Temple set up higher on a hill can be seen behind the buildings. The barracks are at the crossroads of two dirt streets.

The house also had a dining area. She said the showers were in a separate building in the back of the property along with temporary wooden housing that reminded her of military barracks.

They used to have class in the chapel near the house, Okimoto explained. “Next to the chapel, they used to have a nice grassy area where they used to have some activities for the students.”

The college campus had a registrar’s office, classrooms and a library. To get into the library, students had to walk up some steps and across a porch area. She also described an egg farm nearby.

Okimoto said the most difficult part of living in the Lanihuli House was that it was far from town. She said if she wanted to go to Kaneohe, she would have to take the bus or catch a taxi. She said there was a guy on campus who would offer to take people to and from town so they could shop and visit the city. However, when she was reminiscing with a friend, she said she realized they had so much fun living there they really didn’t mind the difficulties.

She recalled a friend she had in Honolulu who would come pick her up. She said she was grateful because it would give her a chance to see him, his family and her other friends and go to church at the downtown tabernacle.

According to the Ensign Peak Foundation, the Lanihuli House was torn down in 1958 because of termite damage to the home and to make room for the expansion of BYUH.

Okimoto later went on to attend BYU in Provo where she received a degree in education and met her husband, Howard Okimoto. They were married in 1960. Jean Okimoto went on to work as a teacher in various places, such as Murray, Utah, at the Kahuku school, in Kauai and in California. She now resides in Kaneohe with her husband. She has three children, two sons and a daughter. One of her sons has three children, all boys, and the other has four children. Her daughter, who unfortunately passed away in 2007, while giving birth to her last child, has seven children. The Okimotos have 14 grandchildren who live throughout Hawaii and the mainland.

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