Oswald ‘Oz’ Stender, a courageous reformer and humble public servant, dies at 90

Oswald "Oz" Stender
Oswald "Oz" Stender(Hawaii News Now)
Published: Feb. 23, 2022 at 7:44 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 25, 2022 at 2:17 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Oswald Kofoad Stender, fondly known as “Oz” to friends and admirers, is being remembered as a courageous reformer who challenged the most powerful institutions in Hawaii, while maintaining a gentle humility throughout decades in business and public service.

Stender died at home Wednesday, according to his family. He was 90 years old.

“He was exceptionally humble and gentle spirit, but fiercely courageous,” said retired University of Hawaii Law Professor Randy Roth. “He did things that a lot of people wouldn’t do, and he did it many times during his life. I admired Oz A great deal.”

Stender and Roth were key figures in the upheaval over violations of trust at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate in the late 1990s and reform of the trust and management of its primary mission ― the Kamehameha Schools.

“Oz was a very. Honest man,” remembers Toni Lee, a leader of the Kamehameha alumni during the upheaval.

“He was very ku pono and very transparent. He loved his school. He loved his people. It was not about Oz, ever. It was about the people and how could he make it better.”

The five Bishop Estate Trustees controlled one of the richest charitable trusts in the nation, as the largest private landholder in the state.

Stender was appointed to the board in 1990 and was immediately struck by lax internal controls and the lack of focus on the mission – to educate the Native Hawaiian children.

The trustees were immensely powerful and influential, and included a former State Senate President, Richard “Dickie” Wong and former Speaker of the House Henry Peters.

They were each paid nearly $1 million a year, based on the increase in value of the Estate’s assets, and were appointed by the justices of the Hawaii Supreme Court, which raised concern about whether the court would ever challenge actions of the trustees.

The trustees, despite their salaries, also increased their personal wealth by personally investing in enterprises in which the estate had invested, which Stender saw as a direct conflict of interest.

Stender, a 1950 graduate of Kamehameha, had come to Bishop Estate after 32 years at the Estate of James Campbell, also a large landowner, where he served 14 years as CEO and then a senior advisor to the Campbell board of trustees.

For the next seven years he tried to influence improvement internally, but finally reached the point where he had to break with the other trustees and bring reform from outside. 

That’s when he approached Randall Roth, a professor of trust law at the U.H. William S. Richardson School of Law, ironically named after another former Bishop Estate Trustee.

Roth told Stender that as a trustee he could be held legally accountable for violations that occurred while he was there.

“And I said, you maybe shouldn’t be talking to me before talking to your own lawyer,” Roth recalled.

“And to his credit, he said the consequences to him weren’t important; said what was happening at the trust was too important to let his personal interests get in the way.”

They came up with a strategy to bring together four respected Native Hawaiian elders, former Federal Judges Sam King and Walter Heen, former Kamehameha Schools administrator Gladys Brandt and Catholic Monsignor Charles Kekumanu, to blow the whistle on the trustees in an article entitled “Broken Trust,” published August 9, 1977, in a special edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The response was powerful and immediate, set off multiple investigations and brought out in the open long-simmering and suppressed anger of Kamehameha Schools alumni, who were seeing how the conduct of the trustees had damaged the precious educational institution.

Toni Lee said Stender’s courage in taking on the institution inspired her and others.

“The alumni didn’t even want to touch any of it,” she said. “When he came forward, you yeah, again, we were a group of people that always loved our school.”

Stender cooperated in the investigations led by Hawaii Attorney General Margery Bronster. They led to a court order removing all the trustees and multiple reforms, including a new selection process for trustees, a new salary structure and appointment of a CEO.  There was also renewed commitment to improving and expanding the educational mission, bringing many more Hawaiian Children from all over the state into Kamehameha Schools programs.

“It took a lot for him to come forward and to face the whole problem and tell the story,” Lee said. “And that was good, because if not for him, you know, we may not be where we are today.”

Stender also served as an OHA trustee for 14 years and as a chief executive officer for the James Campbell Estate early in his career.

In 2009, Stender received the Honolulu Forever Young award.

In an interview back then, he said among his many accomplishments was creating a scholarship fund for Kamehameha Schools drop-outs, and supporting a budding musician who went on to international fame, Israel Kamakawiwoole.

The Stender family asked for privacy and said a memorial would be scheduled later.

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