Astronomers, others take Clintons on Maunakea tour

  • Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii
    Hillary and Bill Clinton at the Maunakea observatories.
  • Photo courtesy of University of Hawaii
    Former President Bill Clinton, UH Hilo student Mitchel Rudisel, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, astronomer Mark Chun of the UH Institute for Astronomy, Waiakea High student Alicia Chun and UH Hilo astronomy chair Marianne Takamiya.
  • From left, Maunakea ranger Tommy Waltjen, former President Bill Clinton, Maunakea Support Services general manager Stewart Hunter, former University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy director Guenther Hasinger, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, chief Maunakea ranger Scotty Paiva (in back), and Office of Maunakea Management director Stephanie Nagata. (University of Hawaii/Courtesy photo)

HILO — At least nine astronomers, students and Office of Maunakea Management staffers had a rare opportunity in early January to lead Bill and Hillary Clinton on a tour of the Maunakea summit.

The former U.S. president and former secretary of state were on-island at the time and had requested to visit the mountain.

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“We received a call from the Honolulu Secret Service asking if it would be possible for the Clintons to come up as civilians,” Maunakea Support Services General Manager Stewart Hunter said. “We felt, as long as it could be arranged and they would not have to limit public access or close the road or interfere with anything else, we’d be happy to help them.”

The tour began in the late afternoon Jan. 8 as the Clintons were debriefed about the mountain’s history and cultural and scientific significance while they acclimated to the altitude at Halepohaku, said Stephanie Nagata, director of OMKM.

Hillary Clinton “indicated to us they always had wanted to go up to the mountain but they never had an opportunity to go,” Nagata said. “So they had this trip to Hawaii and took advantage of their stay here on the Big Island to go up to the mountain. They always had been very interested in astronomy.”

The Clintons were shown culturally and geologically important sites at the summit, including the Adz Quarry and Lake Waiau, Nagata said. They also toured the W.M. Keck Observatory for an opportunity to see “the inside of a large telescope facility,” she added, and they watched the sunset from the summit.

Nagata said she found them “very friendly, very engaging and very interested.” She said leading a summit tour for a former U.S. president and secretary of state is “not common.”

The Clintons’ tour ended with a return to Halepohaku for stargazing via two 9.25-inch telescopes.

University of Hawaii at Hilo astronomy chairwoman Marianne Takamiya said the Clintons were shown Orion Nebula in the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy and the Rosette Nebula, along with other objects that are relatively easy to spot. She said the Clintons stargazed for almost an hour before they descended the mountain to make a dinner reservation.

“They had a ton of questions,” Takamiya said. “They were so thankful we were doing this. I liked the fact they were so relatable and humble and thankful to all of us, especially to my (UH-Hilo) student (who was present). We saw them on the way up and then again on the way down, and President Clinton re-recognized my student and was very friendly, and I thought that was very touching for my student.”

Takamiya’s 14-year-old daughter, Alicia Chun, a freshman at Waiakea High School, also got to meet the Clintons. Alicia said she was waiting in a car during the stargazing portion of the tour when she received permission from Secret Service personnel to join.

Alicia said she fondly remembers speaking to Hillary Clinton and adjusting the telescope together with the former secretary of state.

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“That was pretty cool,” Alicia said. “We looked at clusters of the stars together. I thought they were really nice and I also learned a lot. It was a great opportunity.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.