The Librarian From Beverly Hills

A slice of Hawaiiana.  The true story of a librarian from Beverly Hills, California who moved to the Big Island of Hawai’i approximately one year before Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan.


“Hawaii was almost like a foreign country when I moved here,” shared Betty Bowman, who arrived in September 1940.  The blond, blue-eyed 28-year-old had been working at the City Library (at that time located in the City Hall) in Beverly Hills, California, when she heard about an opening for a Children’s Librarian on the Big Island.  She told herself that, if accepted, she’d stay for just six months.

“I came here for an adventure,” she laughed, “and found a paradise for single girls.”  Describing Hawaii as “heaven before the war,” she fell in love at first sight with a half-Hawaiian man.  James Pierre Bowman and Mary Elizabeth Bond (Betty’s birth name) were married January 1941.  Four children were born to them, and eventually they had eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

“The old days were such fun,” Betty reminisced.  “The first time I flew into the Big Island, it was raining like crazy in Hilo.  Two women came out to the plane with umbrellas.”  She added, “Hardly anyone flew back then.  You could travel by boat from Hilo to Honolulu for only $8.00 and that included a cabin.  For $5.00, you had a mattress on the deck.”

Betty began working at the Hilo Library, and her position included servicing the schools in both east and west Hawaii.  Three to four days a week were spent on the road.  The librarians, who were “sent out in pairs like missionaries,” utilized puppets along with literature.  They worked from early morning until they were pau (finished) which was sometimes quite late.  A young man of Asian descent assisted them by driving an old Ford book truck with a side that lifted up like a lunch wagon.  Sometimes a territorial car with a running board also doubled as a moving library.

“On Hilo side, we’d travel first to Pa’auilo, and then to Volcano.  Then we’d drive to Puna.  If it was raining, we’d drive into the school’s garage and open up the side of the truck to the children and teachers.”

Traveling to the west side of the island was decidedly more arduous.  Because of the four-hour drive from Hilo to the Kohala coast and the rustic trails that led to the schools, the traveling librarians usually spent the night upcountry at the old Waimea Hotel.

Betty’s adventurous nature surfaced when talking about their forays into Waipio.  “It was a good, fun trip.  Each of us had two gunnysacks full of books, and we would drive to the plantation at Honoka’a where two horses would usually be saddled and waiting for us.  It was a little spooky because of the narrow trail leading down into Waipio, but we would ride slowly, visit the school, and then spend the rest of the day racing our horses!”

Sometimes Betty and the other librarian would walk down the trail with their gunny sacks – a 1½-hour trip.

“There was quite a settlement down there in Waipio.  There was a four-room schoolhouse located by a river, and a couple of churches.  The 1946 tidal wave destroyed a lot.”

Servicing the schools in the Kona area was much easier as they were mostly in walking distance of each other, some just two or three minutes apart.  However, the old Kona Road, as she called it, was “very narrow and only half-paved.  They had run out of money and hadn’t finished it.”

Another hardship was the lack of public restrooms.  Many times they used the time-honored tradition of campers who are forced to utilize trees or bushes as cover for an outdoor latrine.  Small country schools had outhouses:  There was a bowl of water to wash the hands.  There was also a bucket of water and a dipper “and everybody drank out of it.”

On Saturdays they visited plantations until noon.

Betty, who had attended Reed College in Oregon, Pomona College in California, and the University of California in Berkeley, had graduated with a Masters in Library Science.  She wasn’t prepared for what she called the “verbal shorthand” in Hawaii.

“The pidgin was so prevalent when I first came, I could hardly understand a word!” she laughed.  “There were times I wished I was back on Beverly Boulevard.”

Keeping up on national and international news wasn’t easy, either.  Ships arrived from Honolulu only twice a week and the newspapers were already out of date.  Sometimes they were mailed to the island.  Air travel was arduous compared to today:  It took 2½ hours to fly from Honolulu to Hilo on a 12-passenger plane.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed December 1941, everyone was frozen to their jobs.  “I had married Pierre January 30, 1942, during wartime, and remained working in Hilo for three more months.  He was working for the Kohala Sugar Co., and it was a six-hour trip by bus from Hilo to Kohala to visit him on the weekends.  On Saturday, I would take the bus at noon to Kohala and return to Hilo Monday morning.  Sometimes he would drive to Hilo to stay with me on the weekend.”

“A college friend who had married Pierre’s brother had taken me to a luau and introduced me to Pierre.  When I first saw him, it was love at first sight.  He had curly dark hair and brown, mischievous eyes.  When you’re 29, you’ve been around the block a few times and know what you want.”  Pierre’s father was English and Scotch-Irish, a colonel who had served in the Army in Ohio.  His mother was “pure Native Hawaiian.”

Betty’s eyes surely sparkled when she remembered her next encounter with Pierre.  It was on one of the days that a ship from the mainland arrived, which was considered a requisite social outing.  “Everyone congregated at the pier, kind of like friends and family meeting at the mall or the beach.  Just as my friends and I were ready to leave, there was Pierre at the other end of the pier.  I told my friends that I  had a ride.  Not really knowing what would happen next, I waited until the crowd had thinned out.  That’s when Pierre came over to me and asked if I had a ride home.”  As they say, the rest is history.

They were married a few months later at Christ Church in Kona.  Betty was 29 and Pierre was 32-years-old.  The plantation gave them a two-bedroom house to live in and a one-week honeymoon before she returned to Hilo.

Just a few months later, in April, Betty moved to their house in north Kohala and began working at the Bond Memorial Library.  At that time, it was open only three afternoons a week.  She stamped the books and a custodian swept the floor.

“I got pregnant right off the bat,” Betty remembers.  She gave birth to three girls and one boy (Barbara, Kimo, Maile, Lani) and at the age of 13 or 14 they were all attending different boarding schools.

After Betty and Pierre’s first daughter was born, Betty taught girls’ P.E. for one year at the Kohala Elementary and High School.  As employees of the Kohala Sugar Co. rose to higher positions, they were given larger houses.  The Bowman family lived in the house in the Union Mill area the longest:  a two-story, six-bedroom prefab from New England with high ceilings.  They purchased it in the 1960s for $19,000.  After residing there for 50-years, they sold it in 1992.

Betty worked off and on as she raised her children.  In the mid-50s, she taught one of the first Hawaiiana classes and one of the first sex education classes at Kohala High School.  She retired in 1974.

During their retirement years, Betty and Pierre did some major traveling.  They flew to Guatemala to visit a nephew, and they cruised on the Inland Passage in Alaska.  They also traveled across Canada on a train.

Pierre retired in 1970.  He passed away in 1995 at the age of 85.  “He was a darling,” Betty fondly remembered.  Friends and family still comment on the fact that he was the love of her life.

 Betty passed away in January 4, 2004 at the age of 92.  The legacy of Pierre and Betty Bowman is a blessing to all those who knew them.  As her children are known to say, “No one ever left our parents’ house hungry, or without a smile on their faces and with laughter filling their insides.”

(Written by C.E. Chambers and purchased by the “Waimea Gazette” in 2004.  Matt Pearce was the owner/editor.)

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