The death of Bethwel Henry in mid-December is truly the end of an era in the national development of the Federated States of Micronesia — and throughout the entire freely associated state area.
While making a list can be troublesome — someone who should be on it is frequently left off — it can be said without question that Henry was one of the three key players in the founding of the FSM. He was the last of the respected trio that included first FSM President Tosiwo Nakayama and Andon Amaraich, Micronesia’s lead negotiator during the first Compact talks and later its long-serving Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Henry, in his position as the decades-long Speaker of the Congress of Micronesia during the Compact negotiations and development of what would become the FSM government, was part of the triumvirate that put together the four-state confederacy.
Amaraich was a Chuuk district legislator for a decade before taking over as Micronesia’s lead Compact negotiator in the mid-1970s. Nakayama from Chuuk State and Henry from Pohnpei State were elected to the first Congress of Micronesia in 1965.
Henry’s stellar management of the Congress of Micronesia as its speaker segued seamlessly into his speakership of the FSM Congress once it took the place of the COM in 1978 with the breakup of the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that had included what are now independent countries of the RMI and Palau, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.
What was significant and unusual was the hand-in-glove relationship that defined the heads of the Congress and the executive branch: Nakayama and Henry kept the Micronesian government in step for decades as the leaders focused on establishing the Federated States of Micronesia. The unusual closeness of Nakayama and Henry, coupled with Henry’s respectful and humble leadership style, gave the FSM a cohesive leadership team for decades during its formative years.
“I consider myself very fortunate to know Tosiwo and Bethwel well personally and worked for them professionally for many years,” said Ieske Iehsi, a long-time civil servant in the FSM who not only worked with Henry in the government arena, but was Henry’s colleague as a senior pastor in Pohnpei’s United Church of Christ. Iehsi delivered the closing prayer at the state funeral held last month for Henry.
“The close bond between them as leaders and friends in the Congress of Micronesia when Tosiwo was Senate President and Bethwel was House Speaker and subsequently when Tos was FSM President and Bethwel was FSM Congress Speaker was quite remarkable,” said Iehsi. “I have never seen such an effective relationship of mutual understanding, support and commitment to progress between heads of branches of government anywhere.”
“I believe the Good Lord gave FSM a great leader in Bethwel who made so many contributions to the Trust Territory, FSM, Pohnpei State, Kolonia Town and Mwokilloa Municipal governments,” he said.
Born March 3, 1934 on Mwoakilloa (Mokil) Atoll, Henry personified the ideals of public service from early in his life. It wasn’t until three years after World War II ended that he was able to gain his start in school. But once he began, it is evident by his progress how Henry moved from one opportunity to the next, building a foundation of education and work experience that set him on an extraordinary journey of leadership in the islands.
He spent three years in school in Pohnpei, then was chosen by an education administrator on Pohnpei to attend Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu in 1951. He attended Mid-Pac for two years, returned to Pohnpei for one year where he worked in the Trust Territory District Administrator’s office as a translator, and then returned to Hawaii under the sponsorship of Robert Halverson, attending the Laihainaluna Technical High School on Maui. After this, he attended the University of Hawaii, majoring in political science.
In 1959, he was selected to join the TT High Commissioner as the Micronesian Advisor at the UN Trusteeship Council meetings in New York City — he was only the third Micronesian afforded this privilege at the time. Also in 1959, he began teaching at the Pacific Islands Central School in Pohnpei, one of two Micronesian teachers at the high school that catered to students from throughout the Trust Territory. Around this time, the Pohnpei District Congress was reformed into the District Legislature and he was elected by its members as its first presiding officer — well before he reached the age of 30. In 1965, when the US government established the Congress of Micronesia, the first body in this region to have some legislative authority after 20 years of American government rule, Henry was elected unopposed to represent his home atoll of Mokil as well as several other outer atolls and areas of Pohnpei. In the first year of the Congress, he was elected the Floor Leader. The next year, he was elected Speaker, a position he held until 1978 when the COM transitioned into the FSM Congress. He held the speakership in the FSM Congress for nearly a decade before losing a bid for the four-year seat from Pohnpei. After leaving the FSM Congress, Henry was the FSM’s Postmaster General from 1988 to 2007.
Iehsi said that founding fathers Nakayama and Henry “were true Micronesian statesmen who held a strong view of supporting comprehensive national interests over the competing parochial political interests that normally derail national unity and progress. They were both humble and bright, patient, highly respected and charismatic leaders who kept FSM together.”
FSM President David Panuelo noted his accomplishments, with a particular focus on his two decades as postmaster.
“His decades of dedication to the Congress of Micronesia under the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, to the FSM Congress as its first Speaker, and to the FSM Postal Services, allowed for our nation to emerge from a dream to a reality, and for our young government to enjoy continuity,” said a statement issued by FSM President Panuelo’s office.
He said FSM Postal Services were “reliable” as a result of Henry’s steady leadership. “In fact, of the bottomless list of accomplishments one can attribute to Bethwel Henry, one that has had a real-life effect on every FSM citizen was his assistance in ensuring FSM postal rates are the same as US domestic destinations,” Panuelo’s statement said.
The President’s statement added: “The FSM national government has been remarkably fortunate to have been blessed with Bethwel Henry’s service to the nation and its citizens, for he represented the virtues that the nation stands for and believes in. (He) spent every day of his life extending peace, friendship, cooperation, and love in our common humanity to everyone he encountered.”