Alumni Celebrate Polynesian Cultural Center's 50th Anniversary
By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
- Several thousand alumni and spouses returned to the BYU–Hawaii campus and Polynesian Cultural Center September 1–8 for the center’s 50th anniversary of its founding on October 14, 1963.
Always vibrant and energetic, the Polynesian Cultural Center was pervaded by an unusual sense of excitement September 1–8, as several thousand alumni and their spouses from throughout the world converged on the Church facility and its adjacent Brigham Young University–Hawaii campus for the center’s 50th anniversary of its founding on October 14, 1963, next to what was then called the Church College of Hawaii on Oahu’s famous North Shore.
Its purposes today remain what they were back then: primarily to provide grants, scholarships, and employment opportunities for the students. Making up about two-thirds of the center’s workforce, the students help provide the dances, music, shows, food, and spectacle highlighting the Pacific island cultures including Hawaii, Samoa, New Zealand (Maori), Fiji, Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands.
“We’re really fortunate to have some of our alumni from the very beginning still able to join us,” said center president P. Alfred Grace.
“In fact, over this week we’ve had individuals over 90 years of age take the stage to perform for us. For many of them, this is their swan song. And they’ve really come home to a place that in their hearts and in their minds reminds them of some of the best times in their lives, a care-free time, a time when they were able to meet new and different people from around the world, a time when they met their eternal companions, a time when they started their families together, gained an education, and were able to begin their lives together.”
Brother Grace, who hails from New Zealand, is a product of the cultural center, where he began as a dancer in 1983. After graduating from the university, he rose through the ranks of sales executive, senior vice president, and chief operating officer. He assumed the role of president and CEO in February.
Polished and gregarious in bearing, he readily states he was not always that way.
“Back in 1983, you couldn’t get boo out of me,” he said. “But when you work at a place like the Polynesian Cultural Center, you can’t stay shy for long.”
Twin sisters Connie Barber Burke and Maryella Scharnhorst, fourth-generation Latter-day Saints born and reared in New Zealand but now living in Sedona, Arizona, look back on their period at the center, beginning in 1986, as a pivotal time of personal growth as well as a time to give.
“When you’re living in New Zealand and you’re surrounded by your own culture, you don’t appreciate it as much until you go into a different country,” Sister Burke reflected. Sister Scharnhorst agreed.
“We’re Maori, which is the native indigenous people of New Zealand,” she said. “We’re quite a close-knit community, very culturally minded, [and we] stick together. We didn’t really reach out. And coming here, we had no choice but to. We realized what we missed out on, getting to know such beautiful people. And from that, we’ve gained lifelong relationships.”
A spirit of missionary work and family history characterizes the students who work and have worked at the cultural center.
Asenaca Vuikadavu of Lomanikoro, Fiji, said she sometimes feels her ancestors’ presence while dancing. “It’s really comforting to know you can actually share the culture … and help preserve it.”