Executive helped enrich the look of Honolulu and many lives within
By Susan Essoyan
Robert Richards Midkiff, a philanthropist and business executive known for his community service and for pioneering profit-sharing in Hawaii, died Wednesday at 94.
“He did more than most people would accomplish in three lifetimes,” his daughter Mary M. Fiedler said Friday. “He was inspiring to be around, so cheerful, so optimistic, so resilient.”
Midkiff died at Kahala Nui. A gifted storyteller, he suffered a stroke in 2006 and lost much of his verbal ability but worked his way back to social conversation, his daughter said.
With deep roots in Hawaii, Midkiff held top positions in several companies, as owner and president of American Trust Co. of Hawaii, chairman of Bishop Trust Co. Ltd. and president of American Security Bank. But his contributions reached far beyond the world of finance.
He helped found the Friends of Iolani Palace, the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Downtown Improvement Association and the Waikiki Improvement Association. He served as president of the Hawaii Theatre, restoring that historic structure, and led the Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to early childhood education.
“He was a visionary, he did great things for the community and he will be missed,” said Ed Carter, whose friendship with Midkiff dates back decades.
“He was always optimistic,” added Carter, who was hired by Midkiff to head Bishop Trust. “We were a good combination because I was a CPA and a more conservative type, and Bob was always looking for another challenge.”
Midkiff left a lasting impression on the heart of Honolulu. He joined then-City Councilman George M. “Scotty” Koga to co-chair the committee that selected the design for the state Capitol. He was involved in planning the Honolulu Civic Center and helped spark a renaissance downtown.
“He got merchants together and was instrumental in creating the Financial Plaza of the Pacific,” Fiedler said. “He raised millions of dollars to restore the Hawaii Theatre and turn it into the cultural jewel it is now.”
The state Senate honored him with a resolution in 2001 that lauded his impact on the Aloha State.
“The people of Hawaii owe a debt of gratitude beyond what words can express to Mr. Midkiff,” it said. “He has been a leader and a mainstay in the development of modern Hawaii since statehood. He will be memorialized in the history of Hawaii as a towering figure in business leadership and community participation.”
Midkiff won the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Small Business Council of America in 2006, and the following year received another national honor, the Fred Rogers Leadership Award in Philanthropy for Children, Youth and Families.
He and his wife established the Bob ’38 and Evanita Sumner ’39 Midkiff Early Childhood Endowed Fund at Punahou School, where they and their children went to school.
“He had such a positive attitude and an unswerving commitment to the idea of early education and the importance of the early years,” said Liz Chun, former executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance. “He embraced the needs of the whole child.”
Midkiff helped broaden the alliance’s focus from education to family support, health and safety.
“We must start right by training parents to be better parents,” he said in an interview with the University of Hawaii’s Center for Oral History. “They should read to their kids, tenderly hold them, love them and stop beating them on the head.”
Midkiff had a light touch and was known for cracking jokes. They were even compiled into a book, “Uncle Bob’s Heavenly Jokes,” which was sold as a fundraiser for the Good Beginning Alliance.
He and his wife, Evanita, often threw parties at their Kahala home, where they rolled up the rug. They loved opera, jazz and Hawaiian music and even took disco dancing classes, inviting their friends to join them.
“You wouldn’t want to get in his way when he was dancing,” Carter said. “He was a very energetic dancer who moved all over the floor. You’d try to keep out of his way.”
Midkiff traced his roots back generations in Hawaii. His great-great-grandparents, Amos Starr and Juliet Montague Cooke, arrived in the islands as missionaries in 1837 and founded a school where they taught the royal children of Hawaii. His father, Robert E. Midkiff, served as a trustee of Kamehameha Schools and Punahou School.
Born Sept. 24, 1920, Midkiff graduated from Punahou School in 1938. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with high honors from Yale in 1942. He completed Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Advanced Management Program in 1962.
World War II had broken out while he was a senior in college, and Midkiff enlisted in the Army. He served on the staff of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in the Pacific, as a second lieutenant.
After the war he returned to Hawaii. His first job was as a delivery boy and clerk at Hawaiian Trust. Eventually he became its vice president. He later joined AmFac, where he helped develop Kaanapali Resort as its vice president of public relations and planning.
“He changed jobs several times, but he was confident that things would work out and they did, they always did,” Fiedler said.
Fiedler said her father made the best of any situation. When he was stuck at home with chickenpox along with his kids, she said, “He read the entire profit-sharing manual, which had just come out.”
He become president of American Security Bank, and then he founded his own company, American Trust Co. of Hawaii, which handled pension and profit-sharing plans. Known as the “Father of Profit Sharing in Hawaii,” Midkiff actively promoted employee stock ownership plans, here and nationally, as a director of the Profit Sharing Council of America.
“With the passing of Bob Midkiff, we lost an individual with tremendous business acumen and a man who understood the value of giving back to the community,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, pointing to his leadership on behalf of Hawaii’s keiki and its working people. “Bob knew that employee ownership created the opportunity to increase production and profitability.”
Midkiff, whose wife died in 2011, is survived by Fiedler and his other four children, Robert R. Jr., David W., Robin S. and Shelley S. Midkiff; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Services will be held Dec. 13 at 8 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, followed by a reception at the Pacific Club. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to Punahou School for the Midkiff Endowed Fund, to KCAA, to the Hawaii Theatre or to another charity.
Star-Advertiser Assistant Business Editor Dave Segal contributed to this report.