The Footprint Girl

PART I
“The Journey”

In the beginning, it had nothing to do with the footprint in the sidewalk – very few people even knew it existed. In the end, this tiny piece of Kalaupapa’s history would be the centerpiece of a celebration, and the little girl who’s small feet were pressed into the wet cement on Sept. 10, 1932 would be welcomed back home, seventy years after leaving.

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In 1925 Robert “Doc” Cooke of the wireless department for the Mutual Telephone Company of Honolulu was sent to Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement, or “Leprosarium” to attempt to install radio receivers that would enable the “leprosy” patients of the Kalaupapa Settlement to hear radio. All previous attempts had failed.

 Often called “the loneliest place in the world”, the settlement was cut off from the rest of civilization, save for the occasional supply ship and mail plane. Doc successfully installed the receivers, and consequently won the respect of the patients of Kalaupapa, who considered him a Kahuna of unusual power. So when a successor was needed to replace the out-going Superintendent, John D. McVeigh, Doc was suggested and agreed upon. He and his young bride Wilhelmina moved into the Superintendent’s house and within a few years had two children: Edna Leslie Cooke (“Abbie”) and her little brother Allister Bennett Cooke (“Biffie”).

 Doc was born in Kentucky in 1887 and came to Hawaii while Chief Electrician with the navy on the submarine the USS K-7. A quiet and fair man, good at settling disputes and counseling those with grievances, Doc was an avid reader and letter writer who learned to speak Hawaiian fluently while at the settlement.

 When electricity came to Kalaupapa, he refused to use his stove until the patients had stoves as well. Wilhelmina was born in Hawaii and had grown up with some of the locals who eventually came to the settlement as patients, and so felt completely at home in Kalaupapa. She started the Ladies’ Social Club to raise money for “talkie” movie shows and dances, and to teach the women of the settlement to cook and sew. The patients loved them both, and appreciated what they saw in their faces: kindness, compassion, and no pity.

 At that time, the law required that when a patient gave birth her baby had to be sent away after one year, either to be raised by family or to be adopted. Wilhelmina would help to dress the babies and take them down to the boat, sometimes eight or ten of them, and see them safely to their next destination. As heart-wrenching as it was, the women of Kalaupapa knew that she felt their pain: she had given up her babies too.

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We don’t know if there was a formal directive, or if Doc and Wilhelmina just decided their children would be better off away from Kalaupapa, but in 1932, when Abbie was 4 and Biff 3, they were sent to live with Wilhelmina’s parents at Kamakai, near Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Their little hearts were broken and they would never understand why they were sent away. Even as adults the scars run deep.

Wilhelmina would sail to Kamakai to visit the children every few months, Doc less often, but it wasn’t enough for the children, especially Biffy, who was inconsolable for days after his mother left. In 1939, due to Doc’s failing health, an early retirement and life pension of $200 a month was voted upon by the legislature. But not long after, while Wilhelmina was visiting the children on Oahu, Doc died of a heart attack in the Superintendent’s Quarters. He was mourned by all. To read more about Doc’s story and time at Kalaupapa, go to “Doc’s Story”.

 Doc and Wilhelmina had begun building a house in Kalai, Molokai that they had planned to move into with the children. When Doc died, Wilhelmina turned it into a hotel and built a smaller house to house her parents and the children. Then in 1945 she packed up her children and headed for the mainland, settling in Santa Barbara, California. There she delved into the business world with real estate, stocks, and various business ventures. She remarried in the late 1950’s, but her new husband died tragically a few years later. She died on February 14, 2000 at the age of 97. To learn more about Wilhelmina and the gift of the Kalaupapa photo album, go to “The Beginning”.

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Biffie (or “Biff” as he would ever after be known) grew into a handsome man, and married his high school sweetheart Peggy. He got a job with the Associated Telephone Co. (like father, like son) and joined the National Guard. He was called to duty and stationed at Camp Cooke (no relation) in California until he went to fight in the Korean war in the winter of 1952. When he returned from the war he went back to work for Associated Telephone, which eventually became General Telephone Co. He and Peggy would have a daughter, Coleene.

Abbie (or “Leslie” as she now preferred to be called) grew into a beautiful young woman, with Doc’s large brown eyes and dark hair. She studied commercial art at Woodbury College in Los Angeles, worked for a while in various commercial art jobs, and for a short time had her own business. One day, feeling listless and bored, she saw an Air Force recruiting poster in a window and went in to join up. At 5’5″ and 110 pounds, she was told she was too small. She spent a week trying to gain weight and went back in. They told her she was still too small, but that the Army would probably take her, and so in 1951 she joined the Women’s Army Corp.

One day a WAC friend of hers told her about a young Staff Sergeant named Gene Mayer who was looking for someone to give him dance lessons so he could take his girlfriend out dancing. Leslie loved dancing and was very good at it, so she met with him. They were married on May 31st of 1952, six weeks after their first date. In 1955 they were living in an apartment in White Plains, NY when Leslie gave birth to their first daughter, Jean Marie (me). Leslie Ann and Andrea Lynn would soon follow. Gene didn’t want his family to live the “Army life” – moving every year or so, and so he accepted a permanent post at Vandenberg Air Force Base (formerly Camp Cooke) in Lompoc, California where our family would stay until all the chicks left the nest.

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Leslie became a successful local artist, best known for her brown-toned paintings of local historical buildings and barns, and from time to time she would substitute teach at our local school, Los Berros Elementary school. She was always up to something: President of the Art Association, Vice President of the Community Council, etc. “THINK BIG” was her motto. I spent a lot of time in my early years trying to tell her how to be a “normal” Mom (I was a big “Donna Reed” fan): wear aprons, bake cookies, stay at home…but she just couldn’t get the hang of it.

Then when I was in the 6th grade, the class next to mine was going on a field trip to Sacramento to meet our Representative. They would also be visiting San Francisco, which I had read about but never seen. They would take two students from other classes along with them: the two who could earn the most money. I really wanted to go. My THINK BIG mother made hundreds of candied apples and sold them at the snack stand at lunchtime. I went north to Sacramento, and my lectures about “normal” Moms went south.

Gene left the army at Vandenberg AFB in 1980 to start his own business repairing cameras and, after all their girls left home, he and Leslie moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where Leslie dove into the art scene and Gene operated L&N Photographic Repair for ten years. They moved to Arkansas in 1993, but to this day, if a photographer in Santa Fe learns that I’m his daughter, they will go on and on about what a wonderful man he is, and will I please “say hello” for them. He is often told he looks like Sean Connery and indeed, with his gray beard and ponytail he looks like he stepped out of “The Medicine Man”.

Several years ago Leslie noticed that her vision was becoming blocked by a black spot in the middle of her line of sight. It was the beginning of Macular Degeneration. Soon she only had peripheral vision, and eventually she lost the sight in her left eye completely. She had told me she wanted to see Kalaupapa “one more time before I die”, and I desperately wanted to make that happen, but for years my attempts to make a connection on Molokai had proved futile. As her vision worsened, my husband and I decided to just go ahead and buy the tickets, figuring we would somehow find a way to make it happen once we got there. At least we could take the Father Damien Tour and see the main sites of Kalaupapa as tourists.

When I told my parents about the trip we were planning to give them as a Christmas gift, Leslie was overjoyed, and details about her days at the settlement started coming back to her. She remembered the day she and Biffie had their feet pressed into the wet cement sidewalk out front of her childhood home, the Superintendent’s Quarters. She said she hoped they were still there and that we could see them. She remembered a little stretch of beach where her father swam with her on his back, and trips up the Pali on horseback. Somehow, we just had to make this happen.

In August of 2002, after determining to throw caution to the wind and go ahead and make the trip in January, I put the first pages of this web site up in a last-ditch hope that someone who could help me make a contact on Molokai would find it. Miraculously, a few months later the help I was looking for arrived in the form of a sunny blonde with a big smile and an even bigger heart.

The Journey

 On December 3rd 2002, after a few frustrating years of trying to make a connection at Kalaupapa, I got an e-mail from Valerie Monson, a reporter for the Maui News. She had been writing articles about Kalaupapa for 14 years and had come across my new website while doing research, and was intrigued by my mother’s story. She wondered when we would be coming to Kalaupapa and if she could interview us and oh yes, if there was anything she could do to help…? I was jumping for joy.

On January the 19th I met Valerie Monson for lunch on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Val and I arranged to meet at Longhi’s restaurant in Lahaina at 1:00. I arrived a little early and got a table by a window. I knew her the moment she walked in the door. She was exactly what I had come to expect from our e-mail correspondence: sunny, warm, capable, and very certain our visit to Kalaupapa going to be a great event.

I still have the e-mail in which she asked if I knew that my mothers’ footprints were in cement by the State Kitchen. She had found them there by accident and had always wondered about the “Footprint Girl” as she called her: what her life had been like, and where she was now. I told her my mother had just recently told me about the footprints. Now we were finally talking face to face and we talked for hours about the people of Kalaupapa, my mother and uncle, Wilhelmina, Doc, and the footprints in the sidewalk. Most exciting of all, Val had organized a “Welcome Back” ceremony and party for The Footprint Girl!

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We were going to be able to stay two nights at the Visitor’s Quarters because Father Joseph Hendriks had agreed to sponsor us. There is no restaurant there, so we had to bring food for two days.

 My parents were flying into Maui on Wednesday the 22nd, and on the 24th we would fly to Kalaupapa, where Val would be waiting for us. It was finally happening!

 January 24, 2003. Our flight was at 7:00am, and I hadn’t been to the Kapalua Airport before, so I set my alarm for 5:30am, then proceeded to lie awake, listening to the wind as it increased in force with every minute that ticked by. By 5:30 it was howling, by the time we drove up the hill to the airport at 6:30, it threatened to knock us off our feet as we carried our boxes of supplies into the terminal.

 A business man was the only other traveler in the small terminal, and as I tried to convince myself it really wasn’t too windy to fly, I heard him on his cell phone telling his office that they had cancelled his flight due to a small craft advisory warning.

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My parents looked perfectly calm, but then so did I. We smiled, took photos, watched the windows flex and bend; palm fronds skidding down the runway. My stomach was begging me to call the whole thing off, and I was considering whether this trip was worth dying for. I decided to wait until I talked to the pilot before making any drastic decisions. And maybe he wouldn’t even show up. Maybe Val would call my cell phone any minute to tell me the pilot said “Only a suicidal maniac would fly in this weather!”. Yeah, that’s it.

A small cardboard airplane (I swear, that’s what it looked like that day) pulled up on the runway outside our gate. A suicidal maniac in a leather bomber jacket hopped out and walked sideways in the wind to the building. He wrenched the door open and said (smiling, and with a British accent): “Hi! I’m Nik, with Paragon Air. Are you going to Kalaupapa?”

He sounded sane. As we shook hands, I said: “Nik, tell me you fly in this kind of weather all the time.” He casually waved my worries away with his hand: “Oh sure”. We grabbed our boxes of food and our overnight bags.

As we walked out on the runway, the plane got bigger and I could see that it was actually made of metal. Things were looking up. Then I saw that Val was waiting in the plane for us. Don’t ask me why, but the fact that she was flying with us erased any of my remaining doubts and fears.

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We climbed into the 6-seater and were off. As soon as we were airborne I could see that Nik was an experienced pilot who knows his plane and skies. He probably went home that night and told his wife that the day was “a bit breezy”.

 I have flown in small planes in calm weather and felt more turbulence than I did on that stormy day. Flying just below the dark clouds, rain pelting the windshield, the ocean churning below us, the sun broke through the clouds onto the water and I felt a great, swelling sense of adventure.

CONTINUE ON TO PART TWO