Public servant, medical miracle and island treasure Virginia Isbell remembered

  • Virginia Isbell blows the pu signaling the start of the Kona Crime Prevention Committee Police 2017 Officer of the Year Luncheon at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Former South Kona Councilwoman Virginia Isbell, right, and Kealakekua resident Glenn Yano, the namesake’s brother, untie the ceremonial maile lei at the blessing and rededication of Yano Hall in Captain Cook on Tuesday. (Laura Ruminski/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Virginia Isbell is seen in this 1950 photo. Isbell used to model when she still couldn’t walk after suffering bulbar polio. “She was in a walker, but she could at least use her beauty to pay her way through college,” daughter Iwalani Isbell said. (Isbell family photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Virginia Isbell first blew a baritone at age 5. In Hawaii, she was a regular for blessings and special events with her skill of blowing the pu. The pu (conch shell) was a Fijian type that she owned for about three decades. (Isbell family photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Virginia Isbell, a former politician, public servant and pillar of the Kona community, died Sept. 19 on Oahu. She was 87.

Isbell passed away peacefully at her daughter Mahealani Holzman’s home in Haleiwa, Oahu, said her youngest daughter, Iwalani Isbell.

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“She never compromised, she never lied, she never did anything to hurt anyone. She always had integrity and character,” Iwalani said speaking for her family from her home on Oahu. “She would always say, ‘All you have is your credibility — that’s it.’”

Known to many on the Big Island for her skill blowing the pu at ceremonies, Isbell’s life was so much more. As a public servant, she spent 18 years in politics — 16 at the state House of Representatives and two on the Hawaii County Council.

“My mom’s one miracle after another and God had a plan for her life,” Iwalani said.

Born May 8, 1932, in Chinook, Montana, Virginia, she was the fourth of five children reared by an Italian father and American mother, according to the 2018 memoir “Die to Live: To the Edge of Heaven and Back” published by Virginia’s son-in-law Gordon Noice.

The book, which includes an afterword by Virginia, recounts the story of her life and “journeys to the edge of eternity” having died three times and come back to survive life-threatening illnesses as it chronicles her faith to fulfill her purpose in life.

“Personally, they left me with a knowing that there is more to life than what we see, touch, taste, smell and hear. Whatever path you walk in faith, I am here (still!) to tell you that I’ve had a glimpse of Heaven, that there is a God who loves us, that there is something after we leave this earthly place,” she wrote. “Let that fill your spirit and give you peace.”

Her first brush with death came at age 5 when Virginia contracted scarlet fever. After what she described as an “out-of-body” experience in which she was told it was not her time, she returned physically and recovered.

A decade later, at age 16, Virginia fell ill again, slipping into a coma as Bulbar poliomyelitis, a paralytic form of polio that affects the muscles of swallowing and breathing. Again, her life flashed before her eyes during an “out-of-body” experience, but like years prior it wasn’t her time.

The polio had done its damage, however, leaving her paralyzed and with a hunch. Slowly but surely, she regained control of her body.

Her time in medical care led her to seek a career in the profession after she was able to sit upright. But, women doctors were unheard of at the time and nursing was too physical. Instead, the young adult went to school, learning typing to transcribe doctor’s notes.

She mastered her craft, and even held the record for speed typing, another attribute besides her stunning beauty that caught the likes of Donald “Don” Isbell, a young Army soldier.

Virginia and Don wed in 1953 and moved to Hawaii with their two sons, David and Daniel, in 1960 to escape Montana’s bitter winter. In Hilo, the family welcomed its first daughter, Mahealani, followed by Iwalani in 1963.

While eight months pregnant with Iwalani, Virginia had her third out-of-body experience after coming down with bacterial meningitis. She lost consciousness after arriving at Hilo Hospital as she told doctors she needed to carry her baby to full-term. As she watched from outside her body, she later recounted, the doctors prepared for a Cesarean section, when she was pushed back into her physical body before the procedure could get underway.

A few years later, the family moved to Kealakekua where a fifth child, Richard, was born.

Don was a teacher at Konawaena High School while Virginia raised the family and expanded her career as a public servant. The family immersed itself in the Hawaiian culture and ways.

Virginia entered politics “to make a difference and help the community,” Iwalani said. Her mother never compromised, she said, recounting a time when her mother was campaigning for office that she had to return checks from developers “trying to buy my mom.”

“I’m sure they didn’t like my mom because of that, but they were doing things that were not for the people, but for their own pockets,” she said. “That was the kind of politician that my mom was.”

Virginia represented West Hawaii in the state House of Representatives from 1980 to 1996. She lost subsequent runs for mayor and the state Senate before winning a seat on the Hawaii County Council representing Keauhou to Honaunau in 2004. She lost the seat by a narrow vote in 2006, and failed to win a state Senate seat in 2008.

“She was definitely a visionary. She switched parties to get things done,” Gordon, Virginia’s son-in-law, said of her move from the Republican Party to Democratic Party in the blue state of Hawaii. “She put a recycling bill on the table. She was looking at fair housing for Hawaiians way back in the day. While she had conservative views, she was definitely progressive in her vision.”

Maile David, who now represents the council district Virginia did in the mid-2000s, said “no words can adequately describe the countless lives that Virginia touched.”

“A dear friend of my grandmother Bernabella ‘Mama’ Abril, I am blessed with memories of Virginia in my personal life and honored to have worked and learned from her as legislator,” she said. “Virginia was a trailblazer, an inspiration and role model for women in politics. I aloha and mahalo Virginia for being an exceptional community advocate but most notably I admire her deep respect for the Hawaiian culture and traditions. I will think of Virginia with fond aloha whenever a pu blows.”

Councilwoman Karen Eoff echoed David’s sentiment, remembering Virginia as a “pioneer” and role model.

“She was a beautiful and extraordinary lady, ahead of her time, always advocating for the community and tenacious in her ability to get things done,” she said.

Virginia was also a substitute teacher at Konawaena, water safety instructor, paddler, piano teacher, pilot and volunteer for many organizations. In addition, she competed in a team composed of herself, Cowman and John Kunitake in the 2009 Lavaman triathlon.

She was among the first class inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame by the Hawaii County Committee on the Status of Women in 2004, and in 2012, she was recognized by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce with a Lifetime Service Award.

In 2015, she received an Outstanding Older Americans Community Service Award from the Hawaii County Office of Aging. That same year, she was honored by the Hawaii County Council for her “leadership and commitment to the people of Hawaii Island.”

“My life has always been one of having a good time. Do it well. Do the best you can,” she said Sept. 16, 2015, after being recognized by David and Eoff.

Virginia was preceded in death by her son, Daniel, who died at age 20, and husband, Don, who died at age 85 in 2016.

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She is survived by sons, David Isbell of Ocean View, and Richard (Jamie) Isbell of Tavarua, Fiji; daughters, Mahealani (Patrick) Holzman and Iwalani (Gordon Noice) Isbell, all of Oahu; sister, Rowena Sargent of Spokane, Washington; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren, plus one on the way.

A public celebration of life is planned at 9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, where her husband, Don, an Army veteran, is interred.

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