Farewell to trailblazer Evelyn

Caption:
Evelyn Konou, center, during her tenure as the first Commissioner of Education in the RMI in 2016. She was joined by the late Alfred Capelle, left, and then-Education Minister Wilbur Heine. The occasion was the handover by Customary Law and Language Commission Chairman Capelle of the Marshallese Reference Grammar book to the Public School System. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Evelyn Konou died on the evening of December 1 surrounded by her husband Daniel (Dan) and children Konou, Nina, Daniel and Nemokan at her home in Pearl City, Hawaii. The cause was complications from intestinal cancer. She is also survived by her 12 grandchildren who were with her at home and with her at Thanksgiving this year.

More than her many accomplishments in government, Evelyn, 72, was proud to be Marshallese, encouraging caring for each other and the extend family, and learning the rights and responsibilities of Marshallese culture. For example, she promoted speaking Marshallese at home so the grandchildren would learn Marshallese. Her roles as compassionate, caring mother, grandmother and wife are deeply missed. She regretted the prospect of not seeing her grandchildren graduate from high school and college.

Evelyn was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, breaking new ground for women throughout a long career in public service. She was an original member of the constitutional government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands taking effect in 1979. She was the first, and for many years the only, female Member of Nitijela (parliament). While not a member of the Constitutional Convention, she was nevertheless a passionate, successful advocate for the strong Bill of Rights in the RMI Constitution.

Born on Majuro in 1948 at the Navy clinic in Laura, Evelyn grew up initially on Jaluit and her family moved back to Majuro just before the 1957 typhoon. Her late parents are Nina Matauto of Jaluit and Selvenios Konou of Majuro. Due to the virus and medical treatment, she was not able to return this year to her house in Delap.

Evelyn’s early education was at Uliga Protestant Elementary School including from the Rev. Miss Wilson. Marshalls Christian High School at Rongrong was her next step following by a transfer to Marshall Islands High School where she graduated with honors. While she started at the Trust Territory Nursing School on Saipan, she won a scholarship from the Kwajalein Yokwe Yuk Women’s Club to attend Maunaolu College on Maui where she earned an AA degree. This was followed by US International University in San Diego (BA, Political Science and Economics), and Stanford University (MA Education). She started her career as a teacher at Marshall Islands High School in 1974. She soon became an elementary education administrator and was elected to the pre-constitutional Nitijela from Ralik Rak.
In the first half of her 16-year Nitijela career representing Jaluit, despite being a member of the loyal opposition, she persuaded the US Congress to fund the Jaluit Dock. She opposed the Compact of Free Association as inadequate, not the best deal available, for example because of its underfunding nuclear claims. In the second half she served terms as Minister of Health and Minister of Education, becoming the first woman in Cabinet.
In 1996 she chaired the Public Service Commission, later becoming the non-resident ambassador to Taiwan.

She returned to Education as the principal of Delap Elementary School. Under her leadership, DES became the first public elementary school in the country to gain accreditation with the US Western Association of Schools and Colleges. After DES, she moved to take up the principal position at Marshall Islands High School, helping to get the RMI’s largest high school WASC accredited as well.

She became the first Commissioner of Education under a revamped law governing the Ministry of Education and public schools. She held this role until cancer struck in 2017, only to return in 2020.

She expressed satisfaction with her recent collaboration with Biram Stege and Anna Lehman successfully challenging in court the RMI government’s law that blocked postal ballots from overseas voters. The lawsuit, filed 2019, resulted in the RMI Supreme Court declaring the law unconstitutional, which will return the right to vote for Marshallese living overseas.

Arrangements for celebrations of her life to be held in Honolulu and Majuro are pending and complicated by the corona virus.

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