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The Best Mistake: 66 Years Ago, Ken Stover Boarded The Wrong Ship And Found Aloha — Part 2

Dora and Ken on their Wedding Day (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)

In Part 1, we’re introduced to Ken and Dora Stover and how they first met. In this part, we learn about the challenges a biracial couple faces.

APRIL FOOLS’

“Ken was a good-looking young man and so nice,” Dora recalls with a smile. “He would come all the way to Waikīkī from the barracks to pick me up!”

Dora repeatedly insisted that he may pick her up, but not at her home: “Ken wanted to walk me to the door, but I didn’t want him to see my house.”

The Ohtas’ home, built during the sugar cane plantation era, consisted of four wood walls with exposed two-by-fours. The building lacked drywall or stud walls, common for Hawaiian plantation buildings of that era.

Young and stubborn, Ken disregarded Dora’s first request for him never to follow her home and became quite familiar with the Ohtas’ small two-bedroom house in Waikīkī. With her parents in the first bedroom, Dora and her six siblings overflowed out of the second bedroom and onto the living room floor.

Dora and Ken on their Wedding Day (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)
Dora and Ken on their Wedding Day (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)

At a time when biracial couples were not really accepted by society, it was difficult for Ken and Dora. Initially, his mom was against the relationship. Dora’s parents were reluctant as well.

“He had to get to know my father, and my mother approved eventually,” Dora attests. “We dated for the next two years.”

Eight months before transferring from Hawai’i, Ken even approached her family about possibly marrying his beloved Dora, and their response changed everything. Dora’s parents agreed to send her to California once Ken lived there so the couple could travel across the country and get married.

When she arrived, Dora was surprised to find that the vehicle Ken had bought for their cross-country trip was in no condition to make the journey. Furthermore, Ken simply couldn’t afford to fix his clunker of a car when it broke down, so they would have to travel by bus to Pennsylvania, where they planned to wed.

“It took us almost a week to get there. It was the first time I ever saw snow!” Dora says, recalling the trip’s highlight.

Dora and Ken were married in Pennsylvania in 1960, on April Fools’ Day, which was a suitable date considering Ken’s foolish but fortunate decision on a tarmac in Oakland had brought Dora into his life.

THE BACK OF THE BUS

If being a Japanese-American on O’ahu during World War II was tough, being a Hawai’i-born, Japanese-American in the 1960s was tumultuous, especially in Kentucky, where the newlyweds landed when Ken received another transfer.

“In Kentucky, I had to ride on the back of the bus because I was not white,” Dora recounts. “When others found out I was Japanese, they were not very kind. And when they found out I was from Hawai’i on top of that, they mocked me, asking if I lived in a grass shack. I may have had an outhouse growing up, but I did not live in a grass shack!”

“At first, I wore a muumuu everywhere on the mainland, just like I did in Hawai’i,” says Dora, who was accustomed to wearing a vibrant, flowing muumuu around town like the other women of Waikīkī. “But I got embarrassed because people asked me if I was wearing a nightgown. It was bad enough that no one could understand me because I spoke Hawaiian Pidgin English. So I stopped wearing my muumuus.”

“I didn’t feel like such a minority as a child,” Dora says, recalling how she grew up surrounded by so many other Japanese families on O’ahu. “But after Ken and I got married, we were living in Kentucky, and I didn’t have any friends at first.”

I got embarrassed because people asked me if I was wearing a nightgown.

Eventually, Ken and Dora became dear friends with an African-American couple: “But when we all tried to go out to a restaurant, they wouldn’t let us in. So, we just went somewhere else. Ken didn’t care,” Dora shares. “That’s how he was, even when we lived on O’ahu, and people said offensive things to him because he was a white man dating a Japanese-American.”

While the unexpected level of prejudice on the mainland coupled with Ken and Dora’s youth tried them, it deepened their bond.

Dora and Kenneth Stover (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)
Dora and Kenneth Stover (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)

“Ken and I were just kids when we got married and he was behaving as kids do, going out for drinks with his buddies at night. That’s when I got really homesick for Hawai’i, and I told my father-in-law that I was going to go back home,” says Dora. “Ken’s Dad had a talk with him, and things got better, and I stayed.”

Ken and Dora soon had two babies, Kenny and Steve, and found happiness as a little family in what felt like a foreign country to Dora. Then, Ken was transferred to Germany in 1961.

“There I was, this minority, alone in Kentucky with two little sons that were called derogatory names at school because they looked Asian,” he says.

However, as Dora proudly noted, Kenny stood up for his younger brother. She too dug deep into the reserves of her strength for her sons and eventually for her daughter Janice when she was born.

A PLACE OF ACCEPTANCE

Ken finally returned from Germany, and the family made the long trek back to their beloved Hawai’i at last.

Their stay on O’ahu, however, would be short-lived.

After Ken helped open Honolulu’s Hale Koa Hotel, he received a phone call informing him that his father had fallen ill. The Stovers packed up again, returning to Pennsylvania to be with Ken’s Dad. While living there, all three Stover children graduated from high school. Later, Kenny would leave the mainland behind for a life on Hawai’i Island, while Steve and Janice remained on the U.S. East Coast.

“Hawai’i was always where Ken and I were meant to be,” notes Dora. “Was it easier to be Japanese in Hawai’i than on the mainland? Yes. But really, it’s easier to be of any heritage here.”

THE STOVER FAMILY, BACK IN HAWAI’I

Thirty-eight years ago, Dora and Ken returned to the island of O’ahu for good. They put down their roots in Mililani Town, about 23 miles from where Dora grew up. With the days of being sent to the back of the bus behind her, Dora is accepted and respected by her community.

Dora, Ken and grandson Kenneth Patrick (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)
Dora, Ken and grandson Kenneth Patrick (Photo courtesy Sara Stover)

Now, family and neighbors stop by to admire the fruit trees that have taken root. Tending to the trees and gardens they have planted over the past three decades, the couple sends guests home with freshly picked fruit and Japanese candies.

Was it easier to be Japanese in Hawai’i than on the mainland? Yes. But really, it’s easier to be of any heritage here.

At 82 and 83, Dora and Ken continue to invest substantial time in maintaining strong trees and a healthy garden, and they enjoy the fruit of their labors. Dora and Ken have grown up together like the lychee, mac nut, tangelo and lime trees they planted side by side.

From the warmth of sunny Hawai’i to the chill of snowy Pennsylvania in winter, the Stovers have weathered the storms of diverse cultures and climates. They have harnessed any adversity they endured, using it to cultivate strength and model the value of acceptance of all for their children and their community.

All because Dora offered her hand to a young soldier who boarded the wrong ship.

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