Q. Who Are You?
I am a professional city planner who has practiced for over fifty years. I live in Honolulu with my husband, Ray. My three children (Reni, Kekoa, and Becky) and three grandchildren (Kolten, Pomai, and Kawai) live nearby. I have enjoyed living in Hawai‘i and coming to appreciate its history and culture for nearly fifty years.
In telling my story, you will see that I am attached to places and love exploring them and what makes them special or unique. I also like to find connections and similarities.
Education and early career
After Needham High School I went to Elmira College in New York for a year then transferred to Colby College in Waterville Maine, which was a wonderful fit. It challenged me intellectually, fed my passion for ice hockey, and joined me with a group of life-long friends. I majored in government, but more significantly, I had several jobs and internships during this time which both reflected my interests and helped to shape my future career in city planning.
The first was a summer job with the State of Massachusetts Department of Community Development, where I worked under a wonderful career woman, Connie Williams, who guided me to review whether there was sufficient “relocation” housing to support the urban renewal demolition programs that were so popular at the time. Connie also took me on weekly walking tours of the city and at the end of the summer gifted me with a book on the history of Boston which I still own. The second was an internship in the Washington DC office of Maine’s democratic senator, Edmund S. Muskie. Muskie has just run and lost the race for President, and his office had no interest in their allotted tickets to the Inaugural Parade for Richard Nixon, so I got to attend that (it was my first inauguration; my second was for President Barrack Obama). My third internship was with the Waterville Redevelopment Authority where I was assigned to interview the remaining holdouts still living in tenements along the Kennebec River and due to be demolished.
After graduation, I moved to Boston, sharing an apartment in Brookline with Colby friends, and working in the office of then-Mayor Kevin White. After a year in Brookline, I moved to the north End of Boston where I was within walking distance to City Hall, while living in an apartment directly across from the Paul Revere Statue and Old North Church. You might say, the statue was “in my face” and I was charmed by the social life in the plaza around it, mixing tourists with old Italian men playing chess. Undoubtedly, many meet-ups and deals were made on that plaza. I transferred to the BRA and worked under Marty Weiss on the Bicentennial Commission. I read everything I could about Boston’s role in the American Celebration which was being celebrated in 1975.
But I was restless and wanted more professionally. When I was turned down for a promotion at the Boston Redevelopment Authority for lack of a city planning degree, I inquired where to get that and immediately went home and typed out applications to MIT and Harvard. I was accepted at both and chose Harvard because they gave me a full scholarship! Good choice…I met my husband Ray there. He was from Hawaii and after we married in 1977, we made Hawaii our home, while still keeping roots in Boston.
My education was capped nearly thirty years later when I received a PhD in City Planning from the University of Hawaii. My dissertation was on “Managing Risk in Megaprojects” which focused on major public works projects costing over a billion and what could be learned from them.
Q. What are you Passionate About?
I love the written word, so…books in particular. My library is extensive and always in need of weeding down to make room for more. Since “semi” retiring, I have focused on writing daily, if not weekly, transferring from my more normal style of bureaucratic memos and reports, to more story-telling and sharing interesting anecdotes, and drawing parallels (similitudes?) among the places I see.
I enjoy travel and exploration of places in different setting. I have been to most states and a couple dozen national parks. I have been to Australia, Europe, and a little of Asia. In recent years, my husband and I like to choose two places and spend a couple of months between them.
I enjoy theatre, especially high-quality community theater. Locally my favorites are TAG and Diamond Head Theatre. I have enjoyed theatre trips to Ashland Oregon, New York City, London and try to sample local theatre wherever I travel. I like museums, and particularly seek out city museums. I love to find “models” of cities; these exist in many places. I love architecturally interesting bridges, waterfalls, and dining at restaurants with a view.
I have developed a crazy interest in Stone Circles (also called cromlech), those mysterious formations found in various parts of Europe that date to the 1200-700 BC period. Not a lot is truly known about these, but there is lots of speculation that they have purposes of gathering, worship, and often burials. I have seen stone circles in Scotland (Callanish are my all-time favorite); Ireland (Kenmare, Uragh, Dunloe); Portugal (Almendres Stones in Evora); England (Stonehenge of course, but also Avebury, Longh Meg, and Castelrigg). I am not through my quest to see more. Next on my list is the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands upper Scotland. Ray and I have some hilarious stories about finding these which are often in remote places where we run into cows, swamps, no trespass signs and other barriers. We often draw our travel companions into the mix. At some point, I will write a book about these alluring places.
On a humanitarian level, I am passionate about helping those in need due to poverty, abuse, or disability. In the public arena, I am deeply distraught about the current state of discord and divide in our national politics. On the local level my greatest concern surrounds the degree of homelessness, which has no place in our society in Hawaiian, and certainly not to the degree to which it currently exists. My financial donations are directed those who toil daily to make a difference for the less fortunate.
My heroes are generally females who had to battle great odds yet emerged with winning personalities: Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, and entertainers Tina Turner, Cher, come to mind.
My most treasured value is Honesty and Trust. This comes directly from my mother who instilled in me that honesty is the basis of everything. In my own life, I learned that honesty can be the touchstone for deciding whether or not to do something. When unsure of how to handle a difficult situation, start from the unvarnished truth, the rest will emerge naturally and lead to the right outcome.
Q. Why did you write a book about statues in Hawaii?
During the years when I was living and working in Boston, I read a lot about that city’s history. In 1970 a book came out about Boston’s statues by Katharine Knowles and photography by a famous architect, Walter Muir Whitehill. I remember the cover having the statue of Paul Revere on a horse, that statue was right across Hanover Street apartment where I was living. What fascinated me was not only the descriptions, but why they were erected. I have rarely seen a similar book elsewhere, although its attraction was so obvious.
In the second decade of the twenty first century, there was a lot of controversy about statues. This accelerated after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Statues were toppled, or removed by government officials for safety and to prevent damage. An entry in the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia has over 200 entries for statues removed around the world. This was hard to miss, and understanding the reasons behind it became a hobby. It was a story I wanted to write, but I felt it was not my story. I started wondering about the role of statues in Hawaii. That was the birth of the idea for this book.
For a few years, I roamed the island looking for statues and taking pictures of them in their setting. I did research on-line and by asking persons who were familiar with the statues what was their story. I was startled to discover so many statues. Sometimes the owners or artists led me to others. This occurred right up until the end and my editor was patient when I squeezed in later discoveries such as the two at Pearl Harbor and the two Shinran Shonen statues. People pass statues by every day giving very little thought to them, they are part of the landscape. But I was convinced that others, like myself, would be interested in their “stories.” The trick was to make it interesting and I felt strongly that large color pictures were important.
When Covid lockdown came in March 2019, I had plenty of extra time on my hands and wrote out the first draft of the book. I decided to hire a professional photographer to improve the quality of my pictures, and invited Renea Stewart to be part of the project. Renea captured the setting as well as sculpture details over a six-month period in 2021. By then I had a publisher and was eager to bring together the writing and pictures. It took me another six months to gather all the permissions of owners and sculptors to use photos of their statues in this way. By the fall of 2021, we were ready to do the layout and send it to the printer.
I was born in Boston and raised in a small affluent suburban (bedroom) town to the west called Needham. The current population is 32, 091 (2020 census). It grew continuously starting in the 1930s and by the time I graduated from Needham High School in 1966, the population was around 27,000. Growth stabilized after that. Demographically, the racial makeup is 92% white and 65% married couples with children. Needham uses the old-style town government with a representative town meeting held annually.
Needham’s public school system is regularly rated among the best in the state.
Needham lands had been the territory of the Algonquin-speaking tribe related to the coastal Wampanoags for over 8000 years. The Needham land was purchased from the Indian tribal leader of the area, William Nehoiden, for 10 pounds in cash, 40 shillings of corn, and 40 acres of land. It started being settled in the 1640s as part of the Dedham Grant. It broke off and incorporated in 1711. The town was named after a town in Suffolk, England.
Needham remained largely agricultural until 1853 when the first rail line came to town connecting Needham to Boston. Gravel from Needham was railed into Boston to help fill Back Bay. Major industries began, including the most famous, William Carter Company which made knitted garments and underwear. In the 1950s, the construction of Route 128, “America’s Technology Highway” brought new capital and innovation to the greater area; Needham’s Industrial Center was the first such center in the country.
I am the second oldest of eight siblings. My parents met and grew up in Needham as did my paternal grandmother. My mother, Justine Sturtevant Dinneen, was skilled as a secretary, but she was primarily a stay-at-home mother. A lady with ideas of justice ahead of her time, she would have fit well in today’s world.
My father, Joseph Francis Dinneen Jr., was a reporter, city editor, and later managing editor of the Boston Globe, Boston’s largest newspaper. Among other things, he had a weekly column in the Sunday paper called “Across the City Desk.”
His father, Joseph Sr., was a daily columnist in the Boston Globe highlighting politics and crime in Boston and gained national attention for his stories of the 1950 $1.2 million Brinks robbery. He wrote several books, including biographies of Popes Pius XI and XII, Boston politician James Michael Curley, and the Kennedy Family. His book “Anatomy of a Crime” which was made into the movie “Six Bridges to Cross.” I guess we always felt writing was in our Irish blood, as my aunt said “We came from a literary clan.”
Q. What do you do and have done?
My career has been in city planning, which I have practiced both as a public servant and as a consultant in Boston and Hawaii. A city planner is trained to examine physical setting, space and form (as opposed to designing individual buildings which are the purview of architects or designing infrastructure which is typically done by engineers. The planning discipline looks at big picture: setting vision and goals, examining data relevant to form, formulating alternatives, comparing alternatives according to established criteria, and then recommending a preferred alternative and establishing an implementation program for it.
City planning has a wide-ranging scope starting with housing, transportation, and street scape which were my earliest interests. That quickly and naturally broadened to historic preservation, environmental protection, and public health. The list is almost endless, depending on the assignment. The most obvious product of city planning is the preparation of PLANS, such as the General Plan, Development Plans and Neighborhood Plans of a city or county. I have worked on all of these. And I have been guided by a strong belief that the best plans are those that emanate from robust public involvement, no matter how messy that can be.
My public sector positions have included: Executive Director of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization (OahuMPO) when we prepared the first long range joint city/state transportation plan known as Hali 2000; Deputy Director of the State of Hawaii Department of Transportation (where I helped successfully lobby for H-3 highway); Assistant Secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation & Construction (where I oversaw freight rail and high speed rail programs); and finally my longest stretch (1994-2004) as Director of Planning and then Director of Transportation for the City & County of Honolulu. The excitement and diversity of public sector work is unparalleled, equally sprinkled with episodes of elation and deep disappointment, and long long hours.
I have continued my interest in public affairs by serving on the 2018 Honolulu City Charter Review Commission, and currently serving as Chair of the Honolulu Rate Commission. I have also been on the boards of Seagull Schools and the Ronald McDonald House.
After leaving government in 2004, I worked briefly at Marathon Group, a business conglomerate in Hawaii that owns BEI (selling controlled chemicals) and HT&T (selling heavy trucks). I credit President and friend Mark Tilker with teaching me the dollars and “sense” of business.
In 2009 I started with SSFM, International, a Hawaii based consultant company with presence throughout the Pacific. SSFM focus is on civil and structural engineering, project management, and construction management. I led the Planning Group at SSFM for a decade and now continue in a consultant status. During that time there were many highlights.
Q. What is the general and personal connection between city planning and statues? What is the importance, if any in your opinion?
As I have said elsewhere, a major element in city planning is place making. Where people live, work, play, and interact. Often, but not always, statues are found in gathering places such as parks or plazas or beaches or important buildings. They are prominently placed to make a statement, to draw attention, to represent something. As markers of history, they are among the elements that give definition to a place.
The sponsors of statues want to memorialize a person or an idea for future generations. That is why they are made of permanent materials such as bronze or stone. The materials, the scale and even the base are chosen to elevate the subject in relation to the viewer. Sometimes the attitude towards the subject of a statue may change with time, there are various ways to address this, such as through removal, alteration, or new interpretive materials.
Q. What was the writing experience like?
It starts with the research. I love to do jigsaw puzzles. Some people like to work on the border. Some people are challenged by focusing on a single color (like a blue sky), finding how the shapes work together. But my favorite part is to work on sorting the pieces according to colors, moving them around on the board to find the patterns and starting to build the pieces into larger and larger units, then finding where they intersect.
This is how I experience the research for the statues book. Find a topic, try to learn everything about it and piece it together. I might work on 4-5 sections at once, going back and forth. My delight comes with finding the intersections and commonalities. At some point an outline for how to present the various sections starts to emerge. That is the most exciting part. Following the jigsaw analogy, it is like completing the border. For this book, it was sorting the statues according to categories of Royals, Religious, Musicians & Entertainers, and International Figures. The most challenging part of the research was finding who had commissioned the work.
One of the unexpected delights was learning more about the statue artists. About half of them were still living and they were amazingly open to being interviewed. They had put so much time into studying their subjects and getting just right the story, the clothing, the articles in their hands. They were such interesting people with some have become friends. I enjoyed learning about their works in other places, although there was not room in the book for all of that.
I enjoyed interacting with the early readers, all of them friends from different parts of my life, and persons whose writing I respected. Their input helped re-shape and improve the book writing. The editing and publishing process was totally new experience, and I learned a lot from working with Mutual Publishing. Along the way, I started attending Kauai Writers Conference which was a total immersion. My first experience with them was attending a three-day annual conference with published authors as the teachers. When Covid forced them to convert to a virtual format, I attended weekly sessions on writing.
Author and Award-Winning City Planner
“Cheryl Soon’s Reflections in Stone and Bronze is a remarkable, well-researched, fascinating, and entertaining account of Hawaii’s history through its statues. The brilliant amalgam of the sprawling networks of prominent personalities honored in stone and bronze forms a story-telling time tunnel from 1884-2018. It’s a must read of Hawaii’s controversial political, religious, multiethnic, economic, and social history.”— Peter Apo, Musician and former Government Official