Isle leader tough on health issues
By Michael Tsai / email@example.com
As manager and chief engineer of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply and later state health director, George Yuen worked to keep health and safety at the forefront of public policy during a time of unprecedented growth in Hawaii.
Yuen died June 7 at the age of 94.
At a private service Sunday, friends and family remembered Yuen as a highly principled man unafraid of making unpopular decisions for the greater good.
Yuen grew up in Nuuanu and graduated from McKinley High School.
As a child, Yuen would accompany his father in delivering fruit to residents in the Nuuanu area. Among the regulars were the Cooke family, who befriended Yuen and helped direct him to the University of Michigan.
At Michigan, Yuen earned degrees in civil, structural and sanitary engineering. Yuen’s daughters said his abiding love for his alma mater was apparent even in his last days as he recorded the Wolverines’ football schedule to memory.
Yuen returned to Hawaii in 1947 and found work as an engineer for the Board of Water Supply. He moved steadily up the ranks, eventually becoming manager and chief engineer in 1969.
In 1973 Yuen left to become the director of the state Department of Health. Yuen found himself in the crossfire of a political battle when he tried to relocate Hansen’s disease patients from Hale Mohalu to Leahi Hospital due to unsafe conditions at Hale Mohalu.
Yuen abided by then-Gov. George Ariyoshi’s decision to cut off utilities and medical care to a group of Hale Mohalu residents who refused to leave the facility, drawing criticism from Mayor Frank Fasi, a challenger to Ariyoshi’s re-election.
Yuen’s children said his stance was based on his belief that the dilapidated facility was unfit for residents and could not be influenced by public perception.
Yuen was also at the helm during the heptachlor scare of 1982, when a pesticide used to protect pineapple crops was detected in locally produced milk products. Yuen acted quickly to order all such products removed from shelves, but the issue lingered for years as questions of government and private industry culpability were debated.
In the mid-1980s Yuen joined close friend John Mink (husband of the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink) in founding Mink and Yuen Inc., an engineering company that specialized in hydrology and hydroecological studies in the Pacific area.
In addition, Yuen served as trustee of the Choy Hee Yuen Estate and founded real estate company GALY Partners. He also served as president of the Lung Doo Benevolent Society, president of the United Chinese Society and junior and senior warden of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral.
Yuen is survived by his wife Eugenia; daughters Lenora Peters, Georgia Yamashita and Laura; and three grandchildren.
Our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased