By Camila Chaudron ’08
“It came as a complete surprise,” explains Dr. Ernest Takafuji ’62 on learning that the Punahou Alumni Association had selected him as the 2014 recipient of the Samuel Chapman Armstrong Humanitarian Award. There are many parallels between Armstrong’s career and Takafuji’s: both were military men born in Hawai‘i and both became deeply committed to their communities through service.
“Frankly, I didn’t know much about Armstrong before I was informed of the award,” Takafuji admits. In true scholarly fashion, he purchased and read Armstrong’s biography. In it, he learned that Armstrong attended Punahou from 1844 – 1859, went on to graduate from Williams College and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Armstrong then founded Hampton University, a teacher’s school for freedmen in Virginia, just two hours from Takafuji’s current home outside Washington, D.C.
Armstrong’s passion for education is equally matched by Takafuji’s dedication to public health: Takafuji has made enormous contributions to the area of biomedical research, where his work continues to safeguard public health and security.
Takafuji graduated from the University of Hawai‘i – Manoa and then obtained his Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. After earning his medical degree from the University of New Mexico, he joined the U.S. Army, beginning a 30-year career in the military. During this time, Takafuji specialized in the field of infectious diseases, and chemical and biological warfare. The day after his retirement ceremony from the military in Honolulu, he boarded an airplane back to the East Coast to begin his service with another government organization: the National Institutes of Health.
Currently, Takafuji is the director of the Office of Biodefense Research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of NIH. There, he helps develop countermeasures against chemical, biological and radiological threats and serves on various advisory boards dealing with preventive medicine and environmental hazards.
Though he has traveled to over 70 countries and all seven continents, Takafuji still calls Hawai‘i home. He is an active member of the PAA Mid-Atlantic chapter and the University of Hawai‘i National Capital Region Chapter, and president of the Hawai‘i State Society of Washington, D.C. He sings and plays the guitar and ‘ukulele and his wife, Carol Leolani, teaches hula and ‘ukulele. Takafuji enjoys sharing the history and the culture of the Islands in the Mid-Atlantic region, organizing events and programs that promote Hawai‘i on a national level.
“I have a continuing passion for serving my country that can be traced back to my early years at Punahou, so I’m so honored that the School chose to recognize me in this way,” he says.