HONOLULU (AP) — Loretta Fuddy, the Hawaii Health Department director who became involved in a national controversy over President Barack Obama’s birthplace, died Wednesday in a small-plane crash off Molokai. She was 65.
She was acting director of the department starting in January 2011, until Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed her to the position in March of that year. The following month, Obama and his personal attorney wrote letters to Fuddy, requesting two certified copies of his original birth certificate to make public in an attempt to end claims he was born outside the United States.
Fuddy approved an exception to a 2001 policy prohibiting photocopies of an original birth certificate.
“We hope issuing certified copies of the original certificate of live birth to President Obama will end the numerous inquiries related to his birth in Hawaii,” she said in a statement at the time. She said she viewed the records and that they “further prove the fact that he was born in Hawaii.”
Fuddy was traveling in a small commercial plane with eight others that crashed in the waters off Molokai’s Kalaupapa peninsula on Wednesday. She was the only one who died.
Several hundred department employees, the governor and some of Fuddy’s relatives gathered in the department’s parking lot Thursday to share memories.
“Today, our leader, our mentor, our friend is no longer with us,” said Gary Gill, a deputy director for environmental health. He called her a spiritual person who led with vision and compassion.
A niece, Kimberlee Rene Fuddy-Greer, said her “Aunty Loretta” loved her job and the people she worked with.
Abercrombie said Fuddy’s death after a visit to the former leprosy settlement of Kalaupapa is symbolic of the kind of people she dedicated her life to: “Those most abandoned, those most left out, those most marginalized.”
She lived in Honolulu with her cat, Flint. She enjoyed singing in the choir at Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa and spending time with her grand-nieces and nephews, according to her health department biography.
Her cheery voice could still be heard on an outgoing message at her home phone number Thursday. “Ho, ho, ho, Santa’s on the go and so am I,” she said in the message, which a health department spokeswoman confirmed to be Fuddy’s voice. “Hope you’re enjoying all the hustle and bustle of the season. Have a happy holidays!”
Prior to directing the health department, Fuddy was chief of its Family Health Services Division. She had nearly 40 years of experience in health and human services.
She was raised in Kaimuki and graduated from Sacred Hearts Academy. She earned degrees in sociology, social work and public health from the University of Hawaii and Johns Hopkins University.
Tom Matsuda, interim executive director of Hawaii’s health insurance exchange, worked with Fuddy, who was on the board of the exchange.
“I cannot even begin to convey what a terrible loss this is for Hawaii,” Matsuda said in a statement. “I worked closely with Director Fuddy on the Affordable Care Act and came to know and respect her as a passionate advocate for public health and a warm, caring human being.”
Fuddy led the department as it transitioned its marriage license system to allow gay couples to wed under a new law that took effect this month.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard noted that she worked with Fuddy on a variety of public health matters, including alleviating “the threat of dengue fever and radioactive contamination from the Japanese tsunami.”
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs called her a “progressive leader who was a strong advocate for improved services for children and people with disabilities,” CEO Kamanaopono Crabbe said in a statement.
“She was a champion for equity and Native Hawaiians who suffer many health disparities,” Crabbe said. “Her legacy will be long and the foundation she leaves will help the people of Hawaii for many years to come.”
Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report.