Sitting behind the front desk in a green and white mu‘umu‘u, half-hidden by the newly installed point-of-sale touch screens, volunteer Dorothy “Dottie” Suiso looks a bit old-fashioned. She eagerly strikes up conversations with visitors in a quavering voice, generously offering her knowledge of the galleries and grounds.
“Dottie is a good sport,” says director of volunteer and visitor services Vicki Reisner. “She has taken the journey with us as we moved from cash registers to computers, and from membership cards to POS systems. As we grow, she grows.”
Suiso has grown with the changing museum for more than 20 years. At the museum’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Brunch on April 26, she was one of 60 volunteers celebrated for their selfless help in every area of the museum, as docents, library assistants, shop cashiers, textile conservators, and more. Dottie will get her special recognition for reaching that 20 year mark next year.
Suiso prefers the Visitor Information Center, lending a hand every Tuesday afternoon. “I like to converse with visitors,” she says, “find out where they are from, and—after they have looked around—how much they enjoyed it. We get talking and sometimes we get a connection about where we are from, and what our favorite work is.”
Originally from southern Indiana, Suiso developed her social skills through a teaching career that spanned four decades.
“I graduated from Indiana State Teachers College—now Indiana State University. They had a placement bureau where all graduating seniors could go and say where they wanted to teach,” Suiso explained. “I had a good friend that was from Kona, and she lived in the dorms. I kept saying, ‘I don’t want to stay in Indiana. I want to go some place else.’ So she convinced me to come to Hawai‘i. When I went to the placement bureau and said, ‘How about Hawai‘i?’ they said ‘Fine, we can get you a job there.’”
She started at Honoka‘a Elementary School on the Big Island in 1952. “Then I came over to O‘ahu where there was more activity, and taught at ‘Ewa Beach Elementary School, where my husband-to-be was the vice principal. Then I taught at schools along the leeward coast, including Wilson Elementary School. I used to teach music, P.E., art—all of it,” Suiso said.
Aside from being a vice principal, her late husband Reuben Suiso also founded their famous family business Makaha Mangoes 50 years ago with the planting of a single mango tree behind their house in Mākaha. Her son Mark now operates the company. Another son, Ben, is a fire captain on the west side. In total, Suiso has four sons, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Sheʻs often at exhibition openings and other member events on the arm of one of her offspring.
When she retired from teaching, Suiso used to ride the bus every week from Mākaha to volunteer her time at the museum. Now living in Honolulu, she has the time to also take classes in watercolor painting at the Art School. Though she mostly paints landscapes inspired by Hawai‘i’s scenery, she’s embarked on ambitious projects like duplicating Gauguin’s Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach. That work hangs in the Impressionist gallery, her favorite place to point out on the museum map.
As the museum moves forward, volunteers like Dottie Suiso maintain a continuity that is crucial to its success. “Dottie knows how to handle people from all walks of life,” says Reisner. Time and experience grant skills that even sophisticated computerized systems can’t replace. More than that, Reisner says, “Dottie just has that twinkle in her eye that everyone loves.”