Philip (Pilipo) Solatorio is well-known at the Molokai Ranch Wildlife Park for his rapport with animals. Most of the more than 1,000 exotic animals and birds in the park on the Hawaiian island of Molokai respond when Solatorio, a safari chief, calls them by Hawaiian names he gave them and eat from his hand.
Even more notable, however, is the rapport Solatorio, a member of the Kaunakakai Ward, Kahului Hawaii Stake, has with anyone with whom he is sharing the gospel.As the first stake missionary on Molokai, he has been blessed with more than 230 convert baptisms in his 14-year "mission."
As illustrious as his Church work is his civic service. He has been named "Honorary Mayor" of Molokai four times and, in 1973, was "Outstanding Molokaian." He won the Gov. James E. Burns Meritorious Award in 1971 for outstanding community service.
The island of Molokai is largely undeveloped. Not one traffic semaphore can be found anywhere on the island. There are no fast-food stands. It is thinly populated with only about 7,000 residents. For many years Molokai has fought recession as the neighboring islands of Oahu and Maui have sprouted major hotels and resorts. By contrast, Molokai has only one major resort. Two large pineapple growers have closed down operations in the last six years. And four years ago its largest ranch, the Molokai Ranch, which is adjacent to the Molokai Ranch Wildlife Park, lost its entire cattle herd of 10,000 to bovine tuberculosis.
But the island is slowly and gradually growing economically. The unemployment rate which was 14 percent in 1986 is a third of that now. Some 200 workers are taking advantage of a new ferry to Maui - the Maui Princess - to commute to jobs there. And the Molokai ranch, which accounts for a third of the island, has built its herd back to 8,000 healthy cattle. In addition, there is a home-building surge on the island.
Solatorio was born on the island in 1939 in Halawa, a lush valley between high mountains bordering on the eastern sea coast. About 36 families lived the old and rich Polynesian life there while he was growing up, depending on the sea and the little valley for their subsistence.
Solatorio happily fished, swam and hunted in Halawa Valley until he left in 1956 for a stint in the U.S. Navy. After his service ended, he resided in San Bernardino, Calif., where he met his wife, Dianna. They were married in 1963 and settled down there.
Not long after their marriage, they were invited by the wife of a friend to attend a "cottage meeting." En route with his wife, Solatorio stopped to pick up a six-pack of beer to take with them. As he and his wife approached the door of his friend's home, he felt impressed to not take in the beer. He returned the six-pack to the car and joined his wife at the door.
An older gentleman, an LDS patriarch, greeted them and then said to Solatorio's wife, "Someday you will be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Relief Society president in the Church."
Two weeks later Solatorio was baptized. The same night he went to find his buddies to share the gospel with them. All five of his former drinking friends joined the Church within one month. His major interest in life - missionary work - was underway.
However, his wife, who had a strong Protestant background, took a little longer to join the Church. About a year after his baptism, Solatorio turned to the scriptures and the words in D&C 82:10 caught his eye: "I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say . . . ." He phoned the local missionaries and asked them, "What is it I must do to get my wife baptized?"
They asked if he had tried fasting. His first response was, "We Hawaiians have to eat." But he humbled himself and decided to try it. After he went to work the next morning, he felt impressed to go home to his wife. When he arrived, she was on the phone to the elders, telling them she wanted to be baptized - that very night. It was 10 p.m. before all the necessary interviews and forms were completed, but she made it into the water before midnight.
Sometime after his baptism, Solatorio received his patriarchal blessing. He was told he would be a missionary to his people. In 1965 he returned to Molokai with the main purpose being to share the gospel with his family. He discovered that economic hardship had taken its toll on the island. Only one family remained in Halawa Valley.
His mother had been against the Church, but she joined the Church eight years after her son did. Other family members, neighbors and fellow islanders followed. One of his first planned missionary projects was tracting out his own neighborhood of 90 homes.
"I thought the least they can say is `no,' and if I don't open my mouth, I'll be held accountable," he recalled. Three baptisms resulted shortly with others following through the years.
Solatorio and his wife were sealed in the Hawaii Temple in 1974. Soon after, Sister Solatorio was called to be president of the ward Relief Society. Both she and her husband wept, remembering the 82-year-old patriarch at that first cottage meeting, who said she would one day be a Relief Society president.
In 1976, Solatorio was called as a stake missionary on Molokai. Later he served in his ward bishopric, then as ward mission leader. Along the way, he taught the first missionary discussion to his present bishop, George Tamura.
Priesthood leaders have praised his missionary efforts. These leaders include many of the presidents of the Hawaii Honolulu Mission.
Former mission president William O. Perry in 1987 awarded Solatorio the "Model Missionary" pin. In 1988, the next mission president, Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi of the Seventy described Solatorio as one of the best resources of the mission.
"He [Solatorio] is unique. He seeks and earns the trust and love of people - as well as his rare animals and birds. And he succeeds with both," Elder Kikuchi said.
And current mission president Waldo C. Perkins also shared his appreciation for Solatorio's missionary zeal.
"We are proud of his stake missionary record and glad to have him back as ward missionary leader. His record over the last 14 years is remarkable," said Pres. Perkins.
Solatorio has also won wide coverage from the media for his Wildlife Park success. Over the years, he has developed into a key figure in the tourist business on Molokai. He started out as a tour guide, showing visitors the island he loves so much. Later he joined the Molokai Ranch and when it established its Wildlife Ranch, he became the first and only trainer of its growing collection of exotic animals as well as safari chief, directing the four daily tours.
From a modest beginning of 100 animals, the wildlife park now has 1,019 animals. Included are giraffes, zebras, giant elands, East African crowned cranes, Indian antelope, oryx, greater kudu, sika and axis deer, rhea birds, turkeys, Franklin grouse and several herds of Barbary sheep.
Solatorio's favorite animals are the giraffes. Three adults and a baby replaced four which drowned in a gully flood in 1986.
"We're ohana [family] now," Solatorio said, with his flashing Polynesian smile.
For Brother and Sister Solatorio and their six children and seven grandchildren, the blessings of "ohana" continue to expand. They serve and help others - real Hawaiian spirit.