WHAT SENATOR BALOS MEANT TO THE PEOPLE OF BIKINI
By © Jack Niedenthal
I knew Senator Henchi Balos for 16 years. I worked with him, I flew thousands upon thousands of miles with him, and I had the good fortune of being able to watch and listen to him as he represented the people of Bikini in the Nitijela, the governing body of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
Because of my job, as Trust Liaison and budget officer for the People of Bikini, the senator and I found ourselves on numerous occasions on the opposite ends of certain financial, and at times, political issues. It was the role of the senator to bring a constituent to my office when they were having various kinds of money, health or travel related problems. It was my role to say whether a) the request folded into one of the many rules our trust funds have and was therefore allowed or not allowed, or b) whether or not we even had the funds during a particular stage of a fiscal year to provide the service the senator was requesting for one of our people. Needless to say, Henchi and I argued quite a bit, not because we didn't like each other, but because we had different functions to perform for our citizens.
And that brings me to what I believe was one of the senator's most endearing qualities: The ability to forgive someone and move on understanding that the heated discussion involving a particular issue is not to be dragged down to a personal level. He and I would have a barnburner of an argument in the morning, and then in the afternoon we would be playing softball together on a team that he coached. Perhaps we would be at a meeting in the U.S. mainland somewhere, have an argument, and then later fly back to the Marshalls on the same plane where we would sit beside each other and talk as if the earlier problem never occurred. For myself, having the ability to challenge an elected public official and feel no threat of repercussion to my job as a result of this enabled me to perform better. Because he was able to treat me like this, I was easily able to respond in kind not just toward him, but toward others. He certainly made me a better man because of this, and I know he showed this attitude repeatedly toward other officials, whether from the U.S. or the Marshall Islands.
When Johnny Johnson, the long time political foe of senator Henchi Balos, spoke at the Henchi's funeral it was hard for him to control his emotions. I felt, again, this to be a great compliment to the senator. It didn't matter what side you were on, you had to respect this man for the integrity of this behavior he showed even towards those who were diametrically opposed to him.
Many times, during our trips to the United States, we found ourselves meeting with U.S. Interior Department Officials, who have oversight responsibilities with our Resettlement Trust Fund. Though the Bikinians enjoy a very healthy relationship with these officials, some of these meetings, again because of Interior's role with our trust fund, could meltdown fairly quickly. Usually the duty of hammering away for our side fell to the senator. About ten years or so ago, the senator and an Interior official, Larry Morgan, had an altercation. Upon hearing of the Senator's recent death, Mr. Morgan wrote:
"I specifically recall one occasion in which the Senator and I had a misunderstanding. I felt so humbled when he learned that I would be passing via Majuro on Air Mike en route to Honolulu and personally came out to the Majuro airport at 2:30 in the morning to make amends and present me with beautiful black coral display which I later presented to the Department for permanent keeping and enjoyment...I was honored to know him and have had the privilege to work with him. My prayers are with the Senator's family, and the Bikini community."
Indeed, in my opinion, the senator was at his absolute best while in Washington, DC. His graceful, calm demeanor and voice opened many doors for the people of Bikini. I know our attorney, Jonathan Weisgall, certainly appreciated having a spokesperson for the people of Bikini who could articulate their problems in such a levelheaded, well thought out fashion. He was welcomed to the offices of many high U.S. government officials, from the Vice President of the United States George Bush in 1983, and more recently, to the offices of U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy, Daniel Akaka and Frank Murkowski.
Upon the senator's death letters flooded our offices from all corners of the earth. Our people were very appreciative of this. Now, with the senator buried, those of us involved with Bikini have no choice but to move on. Some might say that the death of the senator cast a long, almost permanent shadow over us and that it will be hard for anyone to follow in his footsteps. One thing I know about the people of Bikini from personal experience, however, is that we live our lives at high noon; because of our situation, we can't afford to experience the doubt and the confusion caused by a shadow falling over our lives. We will move on, we will endure and continue to struggle to fight for the day to day needs of the people of Bikini: the memories of Senator Balos and what he taught us will provide us with the initiative to keep our shoulders to the proverbial wheel, just as he would have wanted it, just as he would have expected us to do.
Return to the Senator Balos Tribute Page
View Pictures of the Government Memorial Service for Senator Balos
The Burial of a Hero, The Hon. Senator Henchi Balos
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The historical information within this site, while constantly updated, is drawn largely from the book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, Second Edition, published in September of 2001 by Jack Niedenthal. This book tells the story of the people of Bikini from their point of view via interviews, and the author's more than two decades of firsthand experiences with elder Bikinians.
Copies can be purchased from this direct ordering link at Amazon.com, or you can also buy and download the Kindle edition.