Vai's View: Vai's View: BYU-Utah game takes on special meaning for Uliti Uata, Tongan dignitary, grandfather

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 12:01 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Hebron "Loni" Fangupo (91) celebrates the win after the Cougar season opener with Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. BYU won 14-13.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Among the dignitaries expected at Saturday night's BYU-Utah game at LaVell Edwards Stadium is the recently elected Prime Minister of Tonga, Lord Tu'ivakano. He'll be accompanied by members of his cabinet, including Tonga's Minister of Health — the Honorable Uliti Uata. Minister Uata's grandson is BYU's senior defensive tackle Loni Fangupo, who transferred from USC. Grandfather has never seen his grandson play. Two summers ago, I attended the Fangupo wedding because he married my first cousin, Rebekah Wolfgramm.

It was Rebekah who initiated the transfer to BYU because of a burglar who tried to break in to their apartment last fall in south central L.A., while Rebekah was home alone. "She heard the door open and saw an arm reaching through the door but the chain lock kept him from getting in," Fangupo said. "She called me on the phone and I ran to the apartment with three of my teammates, but the guy was gone. That's when she said, 'We're outta here!' I called BYU and here we are."

Fangupo's grandfather, Minister Uata, is one of my father's closest friends and is one of the most compelling figures in modern Tongan history. He and Dad were classmates at Liahona High and married their high school sweethearts about the same time. As young married couples, they became best friends. But they gradually lost contact when we immigrated to the States and the Uatas chose to stay in Tonga.

It worked out for both families. Our immigration was successful and the Uatas became enormously successful in Tonga.

Minister Uata is widely considered to be Tonga's first millionaire, a true rags-to-riches tale.

Minister Uata's parents died when he was just a boy, leaving Uliti and an older brother to fend for themselves. After burying their parents, the two boys continued living in the family hut on their own, farming yams as their father had done to get by and to pay Uliti's tuition at LDS-owned Liahona High.

Administrators at Liahona assisted Uliti by giving him jobs at the school, according to my dad, which included work in the mail room. His responsibilities in the mail room occasionally required going into Nuku'alofa to retrieve packages, so an American administrator taught Uliti how to drive a car — something most Tongans couldn't do in those days.

At that time, the Church shipped tons of building materials to Tonga for chapels and schools under construction. Because he was one of the few Tongans who could drive a car and was bilingual, Uliti found himself working for the Church, where he was eventually put in charge of getting all of the Church's shipments through customs.

In that capacity, Uliti learned basic business principles of supply and demand, accounting, marketing, and sharpened his negotiating skills in getting the Church's supplies through port and customs.

Uliti and his brother managed to save enough money to open a small general store that grew into a chain of stores throughout Tonga, then restaurants. But like many business tycoons, Uliti Uata made his fortune on a hunch and a gamble. Public transportation in Tonga included ferrying people from island to island, on ships that were dilapidated and dangerous.

Uliti saw an opportunity to improve inter-island travel by doing it better than the government, so he used his stores as collateral on a loan to buy a ferry. His boats were safer, more reliable and ran on time. One ferry became two, then three and before you knew it, Uliti Uata was a shipping magnate.

He was a savvy businessman but had a reputation among Tongans as benevolent, especially in times of crisis such a funerals. He'd allow senior family members to travel for free with the rest at discounted prices; his stores did the same kind of things. He employed thousands of people in Tonga.

"My grandfather is one of the hardest working men I've ever been around," Fangupo said. "I like to think my work ethic comes from him."

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