HONOLULU – Hiram L. Fong (search), a son of immigrants who overcame poverty to become a millionaire businessman and the first Asian-American elected to the U.S. Senate, died Wednesday. He was 97.
Fong, a Republican, died at his home with his wife, Ellyn, and daughter Merie-Ellen Fong Gushi at his side, said Maureen Lichter, spokeswoman for Finance Factors, a financial company Fong founded.
Fong had been hospitalized recently at St. Francis Medical Center in Honolulu but had gone home Saturday, Lichter said. She said she did not know the cause of death.
Gov. Linda Lingle (search) ordered all Hawaii state flags flown at half-staff at state buildings.
"Hiram Fong was a legend in his time," said Sen. Daniel Inouye (search), D-Hawaii. "He will always be fondly remembered."
Fong, once a poor shoeshine boy, rose from the slums of Honolulu to the U.S. Senate, where he served almost 18 years. He also served as president of nine companies.
"I'm symbolic of the opportunities afforded to a person in a democracy," Fong once said on the campaign trail.
Fong was elected one of Hawaii's first two senators in 1959, and remains the only Republican senator the state has had. He was re-elected twice and retired in 1977.
"Those of us who have been privileged to represent Hawaii after him owe him a deep debt of gratitude for the legacy he left behind for Hawaii in Washington," said U.S. Rep. Ed Case (search), the youngest member of Hawaii's all-Democratic congressional delegation.
Civil rights were a focus of Fong's Senate career. His amendment to a civil rights bill required auditors at polling places to assure minority voting rights, he said.
Fong also co-sponsored a 1965 bill assuring that Asians would be allowed to immigrate in similar numbers as people from other continents.
Fong was born Yau Leong Fong, the seventh of 11 children of Chinese immigrants. His father worked as an indentured laborer for a sugar plantation, and his mother was a maid.
His birth date sometimes is listed as Oct. 1, 1907. But an oral history, based on a translation of Chinese family records and conducted by a University of Hawaii librarian, lists his birth date as Oct. 15, 1906.
Early in his adult life, Fong decided to change his name to Hiram, "just because it was a good name." Most newspaper accounts embellished the story, saying he picked the name in honor of Hiram Bingham (search), one of the first New England missionaries to arrive in Hawaii in the early 1800s.
Fong began working at the age of 4, when he picked and sold algarroba beans for cattle feed. By age 7, he was selling newspapers and shining shoes on the streets of Honolulu.
Fong worked his way through college collecting overdue bills and guiding tourists at Oriental temples. He graduated with honors in only three years from the University of Hawaii in 1930, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1935.
"He was a great believer in the American dream because he was a product of it," said his son, Hiram Fong Jr., a former Honolulu city councilman.
He won a seat in the Territorial House of Representatives (search) in 1938, the same year he married high school sweetheart Ellyn Lo.
Fong resigned his House seat in 1942 when he was called to active duty with the Army Air Corps. He left two years later as a major and judge advocate of the 7th Fighter Command of the 7th Air Force. He later retired from the Air Force Reserve as a colonel.
He returned to Hawaii politics in 1944, serving four years as vice-speaker and six years as speaker of the Territorial House. Fong and other Republicans were dumped in 1954, the beginning of the Democratic Party's continuing dominance on Hawaii politics.
While out of politics, Fong concentrated on his law practice and business interests. He was founder and chairman of the board of the Finance Factors "family" of finance, insurance, realty and investment companies, and was a director of several other companies.
His burning passion after leaving public office was Senator Fong's Plantation and Gardens, a 725-acre commercial botanical garden he opened in Kahaluu in Windward Oahu in 1988.
Fong filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2003. He attributed the filing to a dispute with his youngest son, Marvin. Lawsuits filed between father and son were dismissed in December 2003.
Fong is survived by his wife and four children, Hiram Jr., Rodney, Marvin and Merie-Ellen.