Yoshi Honkawa ’55, member and former chair of the USC Price School of Public Policy Board of Councilors, will celebrate three major milestones this year: his 90th birthday, his 59th wedding anniversary and his induction into Modern Healthcare magazine’s Hall of Fame.
“Everything falls into developing relationships, and the relationships have to tie to two things: trust and loyalty,” he said. “That’s my philosophy.”
Honkawa will be formally honored on March 23 at a gala in Chicago. He joins 95 health care luminaries who have been inducted into the magazine’s Hall of Fame since 1988.
A nationally recognized leader in health administration and policy, Honkawa boasts a distinguished 50-year career, highlighted by his work as an executive at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and his efforts to shape health policy at the state and national levels.
Through it all, he maintained an unwavering dedication to service and leadership at USC — a commitment he’s kept to this day. In particular, Honkawa has mentored generations of students, offering countless hours of his time, wisdom and experiences.
USC Price alumna Laura Padilla, who is now vice president of compliance, marketing sales, service and administration at Kaiser Permanente, first met Honkawa in 1995 as a recent college graduate.
“He asked me what I wanted to do, and he asked me why I didn’t want to be a CEO,” she said. “I learned to stretch myself. I began to have a larger vision for what I was capable of and could achieve.
“He provided me with access to others as I needed it to have opportunities in my career,” Padilla added. “He is a kind and generous spirit who is not afraid to make an investment in people and see it through the long haul.”
Honkawa’s path to the Hall of Fame began in Billings, Mo., where he was born the youngest of four children of Japanese immigrants. His father had ambition, saving enough money to open a small restaurant but died young of a heart attack. His mother assumed the responsibility of raising the children.
“How I am today is because of them,” Honkawa said, referring to his parents. “My mother molded us. She instilled true family values for me and my three siblings. And she helped my father run the restaurant.”
Added Honkawa: “My father had an outgoing personality. He built relationships with workers, customers and suppliers in the area to build his business — I guess those genes translated to me.”
Not long after Honkawa enrolled at the University of Washington, the attack on Pearl Harbor sent the nation into a panic, and shortly afterward, he returned to Montana.
He spent two years in the service before moving to Los Angeles in 1949 to give his mother the opportunity to participate in a larger Japanese-American community. It was in Pasadena, Calif., where he met his wife, May, at a social event hosted by a boys and girls group.
“It was a volleyball function, and May was playing on the other side,” he said. “I ended up on the same side she was, and it was love at first sight on the volleyball court.”
The GI Bill facilitated the process of earning his undergraduate degree in business administration from USC in July 1955, and he married May — as he had promised — on campus at the University Methodist Church the following month.
He began his professional career in health care at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, where he worked as the comptroller and assistant administrator, then as the associate administrator. He negotiated contracts enabling USC’s medical residents to give care at the county hospital, joined the Board of Councilors at the USC School of Medicine (now the Keck School of Medicine of USC) and made the motion at a board retreat to build the university hospital.
Health policy and planning
In 1969, he became the director of fiscal and hospital program planning at the Los Angeles County Department of Hospitals. He next served as deputy director of finance and legislative services at the then-newly created Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
In 1975, he joined Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, first as the director of finance, then as vice president for government and industry relations and finally as consultant for health care advocacy.
Over the course of his career, Honkawa also helped inform health policy and planning decisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
He was appointed by Gov. Ronald Reagan to chair the State of California Advisory Health Council, which helped underserved communities gain access and resources to medical facilities and personnel.
Honkawa went on to serve as a member of the California Health Policy and Data Advisory Commission, having first been appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian and later reappointed by Gov. Pete Wilson. The commission provided much-needed data to guide the direction of health care policies and solutions.
At the national level, he served by appointment of President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on Health Planning and Development, which he subsequently chaired.
It was the relationships he developed at the Advisory Health Council that led to one of the highlights of his illustrious career. In the late 1970s, he secured a $90 million state-guaranteed loan to cover the construction costs for Cedars-Sinai, which had created a single facility to unite what had previously been two hospitals: Cedars of Lebanon in Hollywood and Mount Sinai in the current location in Beverly Hills. He worked at Cedars-Sinai until his retirement in 2001, calling the experience “a labor of love.”
Less stress, more success
Honkawa emphasized the importance of having a job that’s a source of enjoyment rather than stress.
“If you enjoy something, it’s fun,” he said. “When you look at people, you can see just by looking at their foreheads that stress has been there. Stress creates a bad marriage, creates family problems, creates problems with co-workers, everything. I try to tell my mentees that.”
Among his many contributions to USC, Honkawa and his wife in 1995 gifted their beloved 20-acre avocado farm to USC Price — at the time, still known as the School of Policy, Planning, and Development — to fund the establishment of the Yoshi and May Honkawa Endowed Graduate Fellowship, which Padilla and many others have held.
He currently serves as a member of the Friends of the USC Libraries Board and is a Presidential Associate. He previously was a member of the USC Board of Associates and has received honors from USC Price, the USC Alumni Association, the USC Health Services Administration Alumni Association and the USC Skull and Dagger honor society. His wife has devoted her time to the boards of Town and Gown of USC and the Keck Hospital of USC Guild and is also a member of the Presidential Associates.
At the seventh annual USC Price Guardian Awards gala in 2013, Dean Jack H. Knott surprised Honkawa by naming him the first recipient of the newly minted “Honkawa Lifetime Service Award.”
“For decades, Yoshi has dedicated his time, his energy, his expertise and resources in support of USC Price and its mission,” Knott said. “His exemplary contributions have enriched the school immeasurably.”
A strong advocate for greater diversity among health care leaders, Honkawa served as a founding board member of the Institute for Diversity in Health Management, helping minorities secure opportunities to move into middle and upper management.
He has chaired many other boards and committees, including the American Hospital Association, the California Hospital Association, the Visiting Nurse Foundation and Visiting Nurse Association of Los Angeles, the Hospital Council of Southern California, the Federation of American Health Systems and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. He served on the national Policy Council for AARP, and he was also involved with the United Way, the American Heart Association and the Foundation for the Junior Blind.
In addition, he has volunteered since 2007 with the B’nai B’rith International, for which Honkawa is a strong supporter of the organization’s humanitarian efforts in the United States and across the world.
He has garnered awards from the American Hospital Association, the California Hospital Association, the California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Partners in Care Foundation and Wise Senior Services.
“Part of our philosophy, my wife and I, is that the key is to always give back,” Honkawa said. “The act of giving and supporting our causes becomes a great personal satisfaction for us.”