Remembering Marks

Visionary leader of Kalaupapa passes away.

By Valerie Monson

KALAUPAPA – Outspoken rebel. Independent entrepreneur. Loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Controversial critic. Bookworm. Disciple of Father Damien de Veuster.

Richard Marks, who had more of an impact on modern-day Kalaupapa than any other individual, fit all of those descriptions. The 79-year-old Marks died Dec. 9 at the Kalaupapa Care Home with most of his family close by.

“We’ve lost a great one,” said Ben Young, a Kailua psychiatrist, member of the original Hokule`a crew and longtime friend of Marks. “Shortly after Richard died it began to rain and we had the flooding that affected every island and I was thinking of that old Hawaiian proverb ‘Kulu ka waimaka, uwe ka `opua – the tears fall, the clouds weep.’ When the rains fall with such force at the time of a person’s death, the Gods are mingling their tears with the tears of the mourners.”

Although Marks was best known to the general public as the guide for Damien Tours, the business he started with his wife, Gloria, in 1966, in the long run he will most be remembered for changing the course of history at Kalaupapa in other ways.

“Richard always stands up for what he believes is right,” said Gloria.

In 1967, that meant contesting the State of Hawaii’s outdated leprosy laws that treated patients more like criminals. Several years later, when Kalaupapa residents feared they would be forced out of their homes to make way for luxury development, Marks appealed to the National Park Service to step in to preserve the lifestyle for the current community and the history of Kalaupapa for future generations.

 “Richard’s biggest legacy is that he was always trying to get people interested in the history,” said Henry G. Law, the first superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historical Park who has maintained his friendship with the Marks family – and the rest of the Kalaupapa community — throughout the years. “He was always trying to save what was there. He took the time to talk to the old-timers so he could learn as much as he could.”

Marks was born Aug. 1, 1929, in Alabama Camp in Pu`unene on Maui, the son of Domingo and Rose Silva Marks. Few have suffered more from the government’s separation policies regarding people with leprosy than did Rose. When she was young, her mother, sister and brother were all sent to Kalaupapa. When she was a wife and mother, her husband and four children were all taken from her because of the disease – one daughter was allowed to return home because she had been misdiagnosed.

Still at home, but seeing his family being torn apart, Richard feared he was next. So, at age 15, he ran away to join the Merchant Marines which took him to Hong Kong. Each year, he would return to Hawaii to visit his beloved family, even sneaking down to Kalaupapa to visit his father. In 1949, during one of those trips home, he was diagnosed with the disease. He opted to be treated at the national leprosarium in Carville, La., but finally went to Kalaupapa in 1956.

“I always knew I’d end up here,” Marks said in an interview years ago.

By the mid-1950s, sulfone drugs to control leprosy had been at Kalaupapa for a decade and it was well-known in medical circles that the disease was hardly contagious and could only be transmitted after longtime contact with an untreated person.

Hawaii was starting to update its approach to leprosy, but basic human rights were still being denied at Kalaupapa. When Marks went public with his rants about the realities of life on the peninsula in 1968, it proved to be the catalyst that caused the State of Hawaii to abolish unnecessary laws the following year.

Because of his blunt way of speaking and his brash demeanor, Marks was controversial even in his own community. He acknowledged that he was often described as a “malahini” in those early years.

But that didn’t stop him from pushing on.

His idea of bringing the National Park Service to Kalaupapa took some getting used to by residents who weren’t sure of what another layer of government would mean. Eventually, the community backed the proposal in hopes of not only being allowed to spend the rest of their lives in their homes, but also to have their stories preserved and to keep Kalaupapa as a sacred place.

Even though Marks thought the park service was Kalaupapa’s best hope for the future, that didn’t mean federal officials were spared his occasional wrath.

“Richard would stand up and tell you if he thought you were doing something wrong,” said Law. “He’d come into my office and talk story. His complaints then were usually about the state, but, later on, he would complain about the feds, too.”

A faithful Catholic who promoted the canonization of Father Damien and later served as sheriff of Kalaupapa, Marks educated thousands of visitors over the years through Damien Tours. Richard not only served as the primary tour guide, but because of Kalaupapa’s isolation, he was also his own mechanic who would often work late into the night repairing his funky fleet of old buses with anything he could find – even banana sap, chicken wire or bits of old zori slippers – to plug the leaks, fasten the pipes and get the gears going.

In 2006, Richard and Gloria were presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award for small business owners on Maui, Molokai and Lanai by then Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.

Gloria plans to continue operating the tour, which is the only way that most people can visit Kalaupapa.

Services for Richard Marks are still pending. Masses will be held in both Honolulu and Kalaupapa with burial at Kalaupapa.


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