The Honorable John de Avila Mangefel, former Micronesian Senator, first Yap State Governor, driving force behind the FSM's Constitution, and greatly beloved leader passed away in Yap on Wednesday evening, April 11. He was admitted to Yap Memorial Hospital more than a month ago due to mouth cancer. His condition steadily deteriorated and he was not able to recover.
Perhaps it's easy to say about a person after he has passed on that he was universally loved but in the case of Mangefel it does seem to be true. A native of Yap he was not just loved and respected by his own people, he was revered across Micronesia and beyond.
When we asked FSM's second President, Mr. John Haglegam if he had any particular memories of Mr. Mangefel that he wanted to share, he smiled a knowing smile and the stories began to flow. "John was quite different from other Micronesian leaders," he said. "He can get his point across in a very humorous way. The famous Lord's Prayer; people still talk about that one and the things he said…He could say the most outrageous things and people wouldn't get mad at him."
Haglegam said, "He once told me a story about when he was a student." A professor hired him to clean up around his house. He worked and sweated and did a good job and the professor paid him. The young Mangefel was hungry and went to a restaurant and asked the waitress if the restaurant served pig. Of course he meant pork but Mangefel said that he looked terrible and smelled worse and was sure that the waitress, from the look she gave him, thought that he was asking whether or not they would serve him.
Giff Johnson, in an article he wrote for Pacific magazine in February of 2005 said, "Mangafel (sic) is different. His down-to-earth style- he is usually clad in rubber slippers, a T-shirt and shorts, with a well-traveled betel nut bag clasped firmly under his arm-can lead those who don't know him to underestimate his acumen." Many people underestimated him.
Former President Haglegam said that Mangefel was once invited to have dinner with the Governor of Guam at the Hilton. As is the security procedure, the governor entered the private room and a police officer was stationed at the door to guard it. Mangefel arrived in his zorries, T-Shirt, and shorts.
The police officer didn't know who he was and must certainly have thought that he could not be the governor's invited guest. The officer told him that it was a private party with the governor and he couldn't enter so Mangefel turned around and left. The governor was understandably upset at the officer and sent him to find Mangefel.
Senator Resio Moses who was Governor of the State of Pohnpei at the same time as Mangefel was Governor of the State of Yap and later was his boss at the Department of Foreign Affairs said, "He was a great statesman with a great sense of humor… He was a real leader; a great statesman of Micronesian vintage and probably equal to the best."
Moses said that in 1983 a Micronesian contingent was scheduled to appear before Senator McClure's committee in the U.S. He was nervous about it not knowing what to expect but not Mr. Mangefel. He made the committee laugh and everyone in the room instantly felt better. Mr. Mangefel had the true statesman's penchant for putting people at ease.
He was not just a court jester. There was wisdom in all that he said. Though his early education was interrupted by World War II and much of what was left was given him in the shade of coconut trees due to the bombing of school buildings, the Bachelor's Degree in English Literature that he earned in 1963 at the University of Hawaii at 31 years of age served him well as both an orator and as a writer.
In 1967 he left his position as Yap Superintendent for Elementary Schools to run for a seat in Micronesia's Congress House of Representatives. In the short biography he wrote that appears in a book he co-authored with Dr. Michael Caldwell the first copy of which came off the presses on the 12th of this month, he said in his typical humble style that he was "luckily elected". In 1974 he was once again "luckily" elected for a Senate Seat and it was during that time that he says he "was involved with the group whose work resulted in the creation of the FSM, as well as first FSM Compact of Free Association.
In 1979 the Yap leadership asked him to run for the position of Governor. At his inauguration the honorable John Mangefel stood dressed in "thus" the traditional Yapese loincloth. He said to the assembled business suit wearing audience, "Yap should not be carried away in the tide of foreign influence, but should preserve its own culture and traditions handed from our ancestors. We should go about building our country in ways that are closely in tune with our traditions."
He said that the necktie was the "most insidious evil perpetrated upon the people of Micronesia in the past 400 years" in a proposed bill to outlaw "this nefarious invention" and called it "offensive to the morals of the people of Micronesia" and an article of clothing with "no redeeming social qualities."
Mangefel was not a man to stand on artifice and cared deeply about Micronesia, traditional island values, and unity. He wanted to be certain that the agreement between the United States and the FSM would not result in a deterioration of the islands' traditional values saying to the U.S., "I can put my canoe on your carrier but you can't put your carrier on my canoe."
Perhaps his most famous oration occurred on the 8th day of the first special session of the Sixth Congress of the Senate of the Congress of Micronesia. It is difficult to choose what to print and what not to print. The entire oration speaks volumes about the man and appears still to apply and so it appears in its entirety here.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced. The Honorable John A. Mangefel will be missed by all of Micronesia. Truly a great leader has died but he will be long remembered. Dr. Caldwell is in possession of most of the notes and the draft of his work on part of Mangefel's autobiography.