Forty years ago retired Honolulu neurosurgeon Dr. Bill Won bought a tiny Imperial Chinese porcelain vase at a Denver antique shop, paying just a few hundred dollars. He describes it in exquisite detail: the perfect pomegranate shape; the pale sky-blue glaze; the delicate structure so tiny it fit in the palm of his hand.
Last year Bill sold that vase – his favorite – for more than $130,000 at a Christie's auction in New York. It was part of the sale of half of his world-class collection of Chinese antiquities that began modestly enough during college and medical school days. Even later, after Mainland medical meetings, while others went golfing, he'd go antiquing.
That auction was an important milestone for the Wons for it enabled creation of the Dr. William and Dr. Margaret Lai Won Financial Aid Fund – a $100,000 endowment for Punahou students needing tuition assistance.
"We know the importance of education," said Bill. "Of course when you're growing up you don't realize how expensive it can be. Our grandchildren are at Punahou and now we can afford to offer some help to others."
Punahou has been a lodgepole for their family since their only son started kindergarten more than 40 years ago. He graduated in 1984 and now three of his four children attend.
"We come from humble beginnings," said Margaret Lai Won, "and we know a lot of people need financial aid, so it's wonderful to be able to offer that."
Both doctors, the Wons met in San Francisco in 1960 on a blind date when he was returning from a tour of duty as an Air Force physician in Japan, and she was doing her medical residency. "We were both island people and both in medicine," she says, "and both ethnically Hakka Chinese." They married in New York while Bill was doing four years of specialty training in neurosurgery. One of Honolulu's foremost brain surgeons, he practiced from 1965 to 1996.
"Bill's practice of neurosurgeries meant a lot of emergencies so I requested hospital practice," said Margaret, who grew up in Tahiti where her father had emigrated. "I worked at the Kaiser semi-urgent walk-in clinic."
Now in their 80s, the Wons are more involved with Punahou than ever. As "Yeh-Yeh" to his grandchildren, Won is on campus every day. "I'm the afternoon chauffeur," he chuckles. With a daily schedule – "down to the minute" – fastened inside the car, he picks up and delivers grandkids to a round of after-school activities, while Margaret – "Nai-Nai" – cooks dinner for their extended family of eight.
When their son, a risk management consultant, and daughter-in-law, an associate professor of geriatrics, came back to Hawai'i seven years ago, they and their young family moved into the lower level of the Won family home.
It has given Bill and Margaret another life role – nurturing a new generation in the family home where their only child grew up, and watching their grandchildren thrive at Punahou. "We were empty-nesters for 20 years," says Won. "This is all a blessing."