The son of a shoe leather salesman, William Francis Quinn was born in Rochester, New York on July 13, 1919. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and received his education at St. Louis University High School’ then earned a Bachelor’s degree at St. Louis University in 1940.
World War II erupted shortly after Quinn began his legal studies at Harvard Law School. He was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy and rose to lieutenant commander while being involved in naval intelligence from 1942 until 1946. During his time in the Navy, Quinn was on his way to Saipan when he visited Hawaii for the first time.
Returning to Harvard Law after World War II, Quinn completed his law degree and graduated cu laude in 1947. He then moved to Hawaii after accepting a position with the law firm of Robertson, Castle & Anthony. In 1950, he was made a partner in the firm. Quinn would call Hawaii home the rest of his life.
A talented singer, Quinn loved the theater. When he first entered college, he struggled with the decision of studying law or trying out for Broadway productions. A wise adviser encouraged Quinn to obtain a law degree and consider singing and acting as his vocation. Quinn followed the advice and after becoming active in politics, he discovered he was able to combine both. When Quinn later became active in local elections, he walked his precinct, which stretched from Kahala to Waimanalo and sang a variety of Hawaiian songs. His love of and skill with the Hawaiian melodies played a major role in making ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’, the Hawaiian wedding song, very popular.
A well-liked speaker with Republican leaders, Quinn gave a Lincoln Day speech in 1949, warning the GOP not to become content. "The possibility that the Republican Party might become the minority party must never be discounted," he stated.
Beginning in 1957, Quinn worked on the Hawaii Statehood Commission with Congressional Delegate John A. Burns. That same year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Quinn to be Hawaii’s Territorial Governor.
One of the architects of modern Hawaii, Quinn was 38 when he later defeated Burns by 4,000 votes in a hotly contested case to become Hawaii’s first state governor. In 1961, he represented the country’s 50th state when he served as grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.
During the next election cycle in 1962, Quinn was challenged by Lieutenant Governor James Kealoha. The competition resulted in a split vote and awarded the title of Governor to Democrat John A. Burns. It would appear those in attendance at the Lincoln Day speech of 1949 did not heed Quinn’s words because Hawaii would not elect another Republican governor until 2002 when Linda Lingle won her election. Lingle’s opinion of the former governor was that of an "elder statesman who many looked to for guidance and mentorship. Governor Quinn played a pivotal role in our transition from a territory to America's 50th state."
During his time in office, Governor Quinn helped to establish land use laws, handled a strike in 1958 involving sugar workers and oversaw Hawaii’s recovery following the 1960 tsunami. Longtime friend Robert Fujimoto, president of HPM Building Supply, and Quinn’s campaign manager, said, “He ran too much of a straightforward office, and maybe he didn’t tell people what he was trying to do. His decisions were purely on the basis of what was good for the people. Most of the people around him were nonpolitical.” Quinn also pushed to develop other islands in addition to Oahu, which was becoming overcrowded.
William Quinn served two terms as governor, then lost his reelection bid in 1962. He returned to his law practice and later became president of the Dole Pineapple Company, one of Hawaii’s largest corporations. He served in that capacity from 1965 to 1972, then returned to practicing law and was named senior partner at the Goodsill Anderson & Quinn law firm in 1972.
The former governor made his last political run for office in 1976, seeking to occupy one of Hawaii’s two US Senate seats, but lost the election to Spark Matsunaga. Though he retired permanently from politics following this loss, Quinn continued to be a vital member of his community. He served as chairman of the board of the Honolulu Symphony and also chairman of the East-West Center board of directors, in addition to a number of other city and state commissions.
During March 2006, Quinn suffered a fall and never recovered from his injuries. He died on August 28, 2006 at the age of 87 from complications due to pneumonia and was buried in the “Punchbowl”, i.e., National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. History would show Quinn to be quite the visionary with respect to land-use planning. Concerned about what could happen in the future, he decried the overbuilding of Waikiki. “You could see what was going to happen to Waikiki, and I wanted desperately to try to control that,” Quinn stated in 1991.
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"He was a very inspirational leader and was faced with the monumental task of taking more than 100 departments and reducing them to 18 when Hawaii became a state."
John Henry Felix – Chief of Staff to Governor William Quinn