After three decades serving the Big Island community specializing in orthodontics and pediatric dentistry, Dr. Ronald H. Hirata, D.M.D, M.S, says, “It’s time.”
The soft-spoken 76-year old Honaunau resident, whose dental career began well over four decades ago in addition to his 20-year service in the U.S. Air Force and Army, will close his quaint business nestled near the heart of Kailua Village, across Alii Drive from the Royal Kona Resort on Feb. 23.
“I decided it was time when my staff said they wanted to retire, which was probably a couple of years ago,” said Hirata. “But we wanted to make sure that we took care of all the treatments for our orthodontic patients that we started out with. So, our timing depended on them being done.”
Hirata is well-known for his genuinely kind, down-to-earth, good ol’ fashioned country doc persona, who always made sure every patient felt important — every patient was a priority. To his knowledge, he is currently the only dentist in the state specializing in both orthodontics and pediatric dentistry.
When asked what he will miss most, Hirata didn’t hesitate.
“The patients and my staff. I will see them, but I see them all the time when we are here. I know it’s going to be a little different as I really enjoy their company,” he said. Hirata’s staff includes long-time office manager, Cynthia Slutz, who is also his first cousin, and dental hygienist, Carol Macatiag.
Throughout the years, Hirata cared for hundreds of island keiki, many of whom are generations of children from the same families. He watched as they grew into young adults, and later, brought their own kids in to see him. His natural ability to offer treatment and care to children as young as 2 often meant long days, a hectic schedule, and time away from his beloved coffee farm. But he always came to work with a smile.
“You have to love kids,” said Hirata, who has four children with his wife, Sandra. “Kids are the most real people, they tell you like it is — they cry, they grumble — so I like working on kids. And there is a real need here. I find that people are afraid of working with kids — I think it’s because they don’t understand kids.”
Hirata’s Honaunau roots
Born and raised on a coffee farm in South Kona, Hirata attended Honaunau Elementary School before graduating from Konawaena High School in 1962. From there, he attended the University of Kansas where he also joined the U.S. Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) and received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering.
“I was in ROTC at the time I was going to college at Kansas University,” he said. “That’s a program which the Air Force paid for part of my tuition at Kansas University for two or three years. So, when I graduated, I had a commitment to serve in the Air Force. I wanted to be a pilot and they allowed me to get a pilot’s license when I was in college. So, I was all primed to become a pilot.”
He then worked for Lockheed California — a popular American aerospace company for about a year before deciding he wanted to further his education and career in medical or dental.
Hirata attended dental school at Washington University in St. Louis for three years. After, he remained in the Army to serve as a dentist as that was part of the commitment for the Army paying for his dental school.
“So, for half of my 20-year career in the military, I was a dentist in the Army,” he said. “For several years, I was a general dentist, then they sent me to specialty school in pediatric dentistry from 1982 through 1984. I chose to apply for pediatric dentistry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in Kansas City, Missouri.”
Assignment in Korea and Ellison Onizuka
After graduating with a specialty in pediatric dentistry, Hirata was assigned to Korea with the Army for three years to treat soldiers and their dependents there. While in Korea, Hirata said he heard about the tragic passing of Ellison Onizuka, who was one of seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
“I knew him as he also went to Konawaena and he was two years younger,” he said. “He was a quiet guy and smart. We used to see each other a lot because we were both in the 4-H Club, a club that focused on growing things and farming.
“Ellison was also in the Air Force the same time that I was. We talked every so often. Being a pilot, I also applied to be a part of (NASA’s) astronaut program but that year, the program was full and they were not accepting anyone. NASA has an ongoing astronaut program that you can apply to and if you are in the Air Force, it becomes more accessible. So, I remained just a pilot. Had I been accepted, I probably would have been on a different path but as it turns out, I did my Army obligation and then went into dentistry. So, I never got close to being an astronaut.
“While I was not aspiring to be an astronaut I thought, hey, if I can get in, I’ll try and see what happens and that is why I applied. It is what life is all about. If you are interested in something, you got to try. If you don’t try, then the answer is no. But if you try, you never know, things can happen. I really enjoyed my career as a pilot. As a child while picking coffee, I would look up and see planes go by and I thought wow, that would be good to do. Especially those jet airplanes, they seem pretty macho with their loud rumbling sounds.”
While Hirata said he didn’t watch the Space Shuttle Challenger live on Jan. 28, 1986, when he heard about the tragic loss, he was extremely saddened by the news.
“Being an astronaut, Ellison became much more worldly,” Hirata said. “He was able to come back to talk with the kids and inspire them to do what they dream of. He really blossomed after leaving Kona and inspired so many. And that happens naturally with kids who leave Kona. They finish high school, then go to college, and when they come back you think, wow, they really have grown up.”
Returning to Georgia as a pediatric dentist
After three years in Korea, the Army stationed Hirata in Georgia.
“As a pediatric dentist, I saw so many kids needing braces — they needed orthodontic treatment,” he said. “So, I applied for a two-year orthodontic residency and I got accepted to the University of Florida. At the time, I thought I had enough time to retire. I had 20 years in the Military counting both the Air Force and my time in the Army.
“But what happened was, I had five months left of service before I could retire. So, my dental commander allowed me to work out a deal. I could attend graduate school in orthodontics in Florida during the week, and then on weekends, drive back to Georgia to fulfill my military duties treating patients in the Army. For five months, I drove 321-miles twice per week — a 6-hour drive each way — commuting back and forth on Fridays and Sundays.”
After his five-month commitment was complete, Hirata was able to retire from the Army and continue the remainder of his orthodontic residency through 1990 without having to worry so much about commuting back and forth. After receiving his orthodontic specialty, it was time to move back to Kona.
Moving back to Kona and purchase of Alii Drive business location
Hirata moved his whole family back to Kona in 1991, starting his practice in pediatric dentistry and orthodontics of October of that year, working one day a week at Dr. Leslie Au’s office in Kealakekua and another at Dr. David Doi’s office in Waimea. Later, Hirata opened his own office in Pottery Terrace and operated there until 1994.
While Hirata said he rarely watched television, one day he happened to see a commercial ad of the sale of the popular Japanese restaurant, Kanazawa Tei, located on Alii Drive.
“After lengthy negotiations involving the sale of the place, it turned out that I was able to buy it. It’s a great location and the timing was perfect. They were anxious to sell and I was anxious to buy. I bought the land, building, and the apartment buildings in the back, and I had to renovate the whole place. So, since 1995, I have been here ever since.”
Professional and personal philosophies
As a specialist in orthodontics and pediatric dentistry, Hirata’s philosophy has always been to use the least amount of medication as possible and to have a parent present in the treating room.
“The bureaucratic philosophy of how to treat children is entirely against mine,” he said. “As a pediatric dentist you should be able to handle the children much better than the general dentist. Lots of dentists end up sedating children, which can put them in danger. I also believe that you should always have one of the parents present, especially for the young children as they will feel more secure and calm. Who as a two-year old wants to be in an office by themself? Knowing their parents are there, makes a child feel better,” he said. “That’s just my philosophy against the bureaucratic philosophy of having the parents wait outside or in another room.”
On a personal level, Hirata strongly believes that kids born and raised on the Big Island are just as good as any city kid growing up in Honolulu.
“When I went to school with kids who attended Punahou School (a private college preparatory school located on Oahu), I knew they were no better than me,” he said. “You don’t have to go to a private school to make it. Of course, those who attend private schools and who are taught in a privatized way will always have an advantage. But, if you have the motivation and gumption to get there, you can do it through a public school system — there is no question.”
Upon retirement, Hirata plans to dedicate his time to his coffee farm, as well as enjoying fishing and swimming.
“I won’t have any free time,” he laughed. “I will be doing a lot of farming, and growing whatever grows on my coffee farm — bananas, mangoes, oranges — because the space is there. Finishing projects that I never had time for and doing the reading that I like to do. But I love farming, the dirt is where it’s at. I want to go and dirty my hands.”
Hirata humbly stated that while he doesn’t have any special awards, he recalled spending a year as a pilot in Vietnam and learning much of the war there. When asked if there was anything he would like to be remembered for, Hirata was quick to respond.
“Nothing. I don’t have that aspiration to be remembered for something. I feel that you have to enjoy what you are doing. If you can get some technical training — it doesn’t have to be college — and find something you enjoy doing and be of some productive service that allows you to feel good, then that’s what you need to do. What I have done during my career has made me feel good and that’s the reward for me.”
Hirata said he feels grateful to have served his country and community, and concluded by giving youth on the Big Island some sound advice.
“Kids growing up here should know that they can do whatever they want to do. It’s just the matter of making up your mind and know that you got everything here in terms of school and whatever training you need, to attain that which what you want. Kona is really a good place to grow up. There aren’t many distractions, not like the big city. We have clean air, the beaches — everything here that you need and it’s safe,” he said. “I want to encourage kids that they can do whatever they want to do. If they work hard and look into what they have to prepare themselves for — and be willing to work hard — they will make it. Anyone from Kona who is willing to put in the time can do it!”