Franklin Odo, a third- generation Japanese American, renowned scholar, historian, activist and pioneer of Asian American studies, died Sept. 28.
Odo, 83, was the first Kaimuki High School graduate to attend Princeton University and made significant contributions to the fields of Asian American and ethnic studies throughout the country. He also received both the President’s Award of the Japanese American Citizens League and an award from the Organization of Chinese Americans in 2008, and the Association for Asian American Studies Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
Odo was born May 6, 1939, in Honolulu — the oldest sibling among his two sisters and brother. His parents owned a general store during the Depression. But when World War II ended, his parents decided to become farmers, according to Odo’s son, Jonathan.
Odo spent much of his youth farming and taking care of his younger siblings, whom he often cooked for. He enjoyed sports and was particularly proud of having been an Eagle Scout, Jonathan Odo said.
After graduating from Kaimuki High School, Odo completed his bachelor’s degree in Asian studies before going on to Harvard to complete his master’s degree in East Asian regional studies. He then returned to Princeton to complete his doctoral degree in Japanese history.
In his early career Odo taught at a handful of colleges in Los Angeles while advocating for the creation of more Asian American studies and ethnic studies programs and departments. He moved back to Oahu when the University of Hawaii at Manoa established its ethnic studies program in 1978, when Odo took on the role as the program’s first director.
From there, Odo served two years as president of the Association for Asian American Studies and was a board member and then chair of the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts for several years. In the 1990s he also held visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Columbia University and Princeton University.
From 1997 to 2010, Odo served as founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program in Washington, D.C., and became the first Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History. He also spent a year as interim chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress before resuming teaching at Amherst College.
From 2015 until his death, Odo taught at Amherst College, where he worked with students and colleagues to more than double the number of professors and courses offering Asian Pacific American studies. Amherst College’s recently formed Asian American Alumni Fellowship Network has since announced a senior thesis prize in Odo’s name.
Those who knew Odo say that his advocacy and mentorship are huge parts of his legacy.
“He liked to share what he knew and help other people learn things,” said his good friend Chris Conybeare. “Even though he could be very firm as an activist or an advocate, it never came across as arrogance. … He was firm about it, but he was welcoming to you and your ideas.”
Throughout his life Odo volunteered his time with numerous organizations, including the 1882 Foundation, Asians United to Raise Awareness and the Honolulu Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. His testimony to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was instrumental in memorializing the Hawaii wartime experience and ensuring its inclusion in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
He also more recently advised the National Park Service on representing the history of Japanese incarceration and edited its 2021 theme study series on Asian American and Pacific Islander historic landmarks.
Gerald Kato, an acquaintance of Odo’s and a fellow staff member at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, described the scholar’s work as groundbreaking.
“He was very instrumental in communicating to the rest of the world Hawaii’s history and culture, the diversity of people — Native Hawaiians, Asian Americans from Japan, China, Korea, South Vietnam and across the Pacific,” Kato said. “He had a great appreciation of what the diverse cultures of Hawaii were all about.”
Conybeare and Odo became fast friends after working together on a documentary for a television program that Conybeare oversaw called “Rice and Roses.”
“He could transmit this enthusiasm about appreciating hidden history and how you could find it from talking to the people themselves,” Conybeare said. “He helped me learn to appreciate Hawaii’s history and culture, as well as the history and culture of Asian Americans.”
Being a good father was also an important aspect of Odo’s life, Jonathan Odo said. He remembers his father as kind, nurturing, instructive, hardworking and always encouraging his children to think critically on matters.
“It was natural for him to think about trying to connect and interact with people in a way that they really understood,” his son said.
In the months leading up to Odo’s death, the impacts that he had became apparent through the community’s outreach to his family, said his son.
“He really wanted to change the world for the better,” Jonathan Odo said. “That’s a life well lived when you were able to have such a wonderful and profound impact on so many people. And I know that’s something that he really was proud of as well.”
Franklin Odo is survived by wife Enid, with whom he had just celebrated 59 years of marriage; sons David and Jonathan; daughter Rachel; brother Alan; and four grandchildren.
The family is scheduled to hold a private memorial service and asks that in lieu of flowers, people consider donating to the University of Hawaii Foundation’s Franklin S. Odo Fund to continue his legacy there.
Linsey Dower covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member of Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.