John Clark



Original air date: Tues., Aug. 31, 2010


Keeping Hawaiian Stories Alive


In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox talks story with a true Renaissance man. John Clark relates how learning to surf at a young age led him to become a waterman, lifeguard, fire fighter, historian, and writer. The author of a series of books on Hawaii’s beaches, John Clark took the innate curiosity that we all have and hunted down the source and mo’olelo, or stories, behind the names of Hawaii’s surf spots and shoreline landmarks. Find out how this descendent of a sea captain is doing his part to keep Hawaiian stories and characters alive.


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One of the guys that I interviewed was a man named Kerr. He was born back in the 1890s, so he was a surfer as a young child. By the time he was already ten years old, he was already surfing in Waikiki. And Queen was still alive at that time, and she had a home called Hamohamo, which is right where the Pacific Beach Hotel is. And she had a pier that ran out from her home, that went out into the water. And she would sit out on her pier, and she would watch the surfers, which were right out in front of her. Anyway, this guy and another friend of his, she would ask for them; she would ask them to go out and surf, just so she could watch surfers while she was sitting on her pier. He and his friend named the spot Queen’s. And that’s Queen’s—


That’s Queen’s Beach?


That’s Queen’s Surf.


Oh, Queen’s Surf.


[CHUCKLE] Queen’s Beach is a little further down the road. So anyway, that’s Queen’s Surf that’s almost now—it’s almost straight out from the Duke’s statue.


We’re surrounded by water, so it’s only natural that many of us play and work in the ocean. But as we’re enjoying our beaches and reefs, how many of us are curious enough, and persistent enough, to learn the background of our favorite fishing or surfing spot, what its name means, who’s responsible for naming it, and what role does it play in Hawaii’s history? Next, on Long Story Short, we’ll meet a man who’s combined a love of the ocean with an insatiable curiosity.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. When you think of a name, do you ever wonder what’s behind that name? For instance, why is a place called Toes, or Snipes, or Gums? How about the name John Clark; a relatively simple name, only two syllables, but the simplicity of the name hides the complexity of the man. He served in the Army. He was a lifeguard at Sandy Beach, waterman, and firefighter who worked his way up to Deputy Chief of the Honolulu Fire Department, author of a series of nonfiction book about Hawaiian waters. Somehow, it seems only natural that this complex man, with a simple name, is a descendant of a sea captain.


His name was William Carey Lane, and he came here in the 1850s. And in 1853, there was a smallpox epidemic that was going on in Honolulu. So he was here. He had decided to make his home in the islands. And he was asked to take some medicine to a Hawaiian couple down where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is. So he did; he met their daughter, he married her, and ended up making Hawaii his home.


But he planned to do so, even before he met—


Met her


—and fell in love.




Was he at the end of his career, or did he just decide, Heck with my career, I’m staying?


He—exactly that. He decided that he didn’t want to go to sea anymore. And he really loved Hawaii, he decided to make it his home. So he married her, they ended up having twelve children, six boys and six girls. And the first Clark that came to Hawaii married one of the six girls. So anyway, going back to that marriage between the sea captain and Kahooilimoku—that was her name, I’m fifth generation from that marriage.


You seem to concentrate your fascination and your—




—passion where the sea intersects with the shoreline.




The coastal areas, not the deep sea that your—




—your ancestor loved, or once loved. You love that, where water and land connect.


Yes; exactly right. My mother likes to say that she and my dad had me swimming even before I walked. They took me and put me in the ocean before I was even a year old. So that connection for me and the ocean and the beach has always been there from the very beginning. And that was really reinforced when I learned how to surf. I started surfing when I was eight years old. And—


Who taught you? Or did you learn yourself?


Oh, no, not at all. My dad was in construction here in Hawaii, and one of the guys he worked with was a man named Clarence Maki. And Clarence was an avid surfer—actually, an avid surf photographer as well. So anyway, he and my dad were talking one day, and Clarence just told my dad that he’d be willing to teach me how to surf. He did, and I’ve been a lifelong surfer since.


What was your upbringing like? Where’d you grow up, and what was it like?


I grew up at a place called Kaalawai, which is over between Black Point and Diamond Head. It’s a little community there.


Were you right on the water?


Oh, no, no. We were back up towards Diamond Head Road. But anyway, that’s where, really, that I learned to surf in Waikiki, but that whole Diamond Head-Kaalawai area was my backyard.


What was it like? I don’t know that area, except to walk along it. What—




—was it known for?


Actually, Kaalawai was known for several things. As far as traditional Hawaiian resources go, it was an area known for limu, for seaweed. There’s a lot of limu there—or there used to be. There used to be wawaeiole, which is a thick, green limu, and then a finer one that

everybody calls ogo now. But we used to call it manawea, limu manawea.


Did you gather that for salads?


Yes, we did. So those two, I find them every once in a while when I go back there to surf. But not too much. But there were also octopus there. People would come spearing for octopus. And there’s a seasonal fish that used to run through there, the mullet. And they would start off in Pearl Harbor in schools of thousands, and they would just start flowing around the island, and they’d run all the way down the coast, all the way around Makapuu Point, and then head up towards the windward side.


Does that still happen?


No, not like before. We don’t see those mullet runs before. But the throw net fishermen, when they would run, and it would be in the fall, when the anae, the mullet used to run through there, the throw new fishermen would come from all over the island to throw net on the schools.


Did you go down to the beach every day?


Almost. [CHUCKLE]


What was your routine? Before school and after school, or after school?


No, only after school. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] ‘Cause lot of folks came to school with their hair dripping wet.


Yes; no, that wasn’t me. [CHUCKLE] But I did surf a lot after school. And like I said, that was my backyard, all those spots. I surfed a lot.


What kind of boards did you surf on, as you went along?


I started off on balsa. So I started surfing in 1954, and that’s just when the foam boards are starting to make their appearance, mostly in California, and they’re just starting to make their way to Hawaii. We don’t actually get a foam surfboard factory here, which was the Velzy Factory, until 1960. So those first six years of my life, or my surfing life, anyway, from ’54 to ’60, I was riding a balsa board. So it was what we used to called a Malibu. It had a kick in the front, and it was just a single fin. And of course, no leashes.


And there are two of your surfboards behind you. Tell—




—me about those boards. They look like they’ve seen a lot of action, and—




—and they’ve been cared for.


Yes, they are. Those are called alaia’s, and the alaia’s are traditional Hawaiian surfboards. Anyway, one of them, the one with the round nose, is made out of redwood and pine. And the other one is made out of all traditional Hawaiian wood; it’s wiliwili with koa strips, stringers. So anyway, the alaia’s are boards that I still ride ‘til this day, as opposed to a regular surfboard. And—


No fins?


No fins at all. So they like to side slip; they don’t a line quite like a regular surfboard does.


And they’re not that long.


No; they’re only five-feet-two, both of them. And they’re very thin too; they’re only three-eighths of an inch.


What size waves are they best on?


They’ll ride anything up to like double overhead waves. Just gotta get out there and fly. [CHUCKLE]


And what’s the story of how the boards were made?


Besides board surfing, besides learning how to surf on a surfboard, I’ve also been a paipo rider all my life. And one of the guys that I ride paipo with builds paipo boards. So when I started researching my book on traditional Hawaiian surfing, I wanted to know what it was like to ride a traditional board. So I just asked my friend—his name’s Bud Shelsa; I asked Bud if he would build me an alaia board, and he did. So we started off with the one with the round nose, and then I got to know that board. And then I decided to try something a little different, shape wise, and we went with the second one, the one with the wiliwili and koa.



In the Hawaiian culture, moolelo, storytelling was crucial in passing down the history of the Hawaiian Islands from generation to generation. In today’s world, the moolelo behind many of Hawaii’s beaches and landmarks would be forgotten and lost without people like John Clark.


So you were an early swimmer, an early surfer?




But those skills are different from collecting and writing about swimming and surfing, and coastlines. How did that all come together?


It actually started with surfing. When I got into my teens and I started surfing around the island, when I got a driver’s license and my friends did too, we started surfing all the different spots around the Island of Oahu. And I actually got interested in the names of all these different spots; where the names came from, what the story was, the moolelo behind the names. And I just started just collecting these as I went along over the years. So anyway, in 1970, when I got out of the Army, I became a lifeguard at Sandy Beach. And as I sat there on my tower, I decided that I was gonna do something proactive to try and reach people and before they got in the water, and got in trouble. So I started writing about Sandy Beach, I started writing about water safety. But when I read this material over, I thought it was really boring. I thought no one would be interested in it. So all this stuff that I’d gathered about surf spots and names, and where the names came from, I decided to combine that information with the water safety stuff. So I just rolled it all into one, and I ended up with a book.


Speaking of names, Sandy Beach—




How more basic can that be?




Does that have a Hawaiian name, or a history that’s more interesting than the words, Sandy Beach?


So the area where Sandy Beach is, is called Wawamalu. And if you go out and look at the old highway bridge out near the entrance to the Hawaii Kai Golf Course, you can see the name Wawamalu; it’s still on the bridge out there. But anyway, the name Sandy Beach actually came from the ulua fishermen that fished at Bamboo Ridge, which is over by the Blow Hole. And they would fish at Bamboo Ridge, and they would just call the beach next door … the sand beach. They’d call it Blow Hole Sand Beach; that was one of their names. Anyway, Blow Hole Sand Beach got edited down to “sand be”—Sandy Beach, and nowadays, the kids just call it Sandy’s. Simple.


There are so names that make you wonder. And there are also more than one name for a place.




So you had to figure out which is the more appropriate. And then, there are probably different versions of how things came to be named the way they are.


Yes, there are. So that’s something that I’ve done all my life, just collect all of these stories, and then just kind of balance the stories one against the other, and try to come up with what I think is the original version, the original moolelo for that place name.


How do you go about finding the moolelo? I mean, how do you do it? You show up at a beach, you’re curious about it, and then what?


Well, because I’m a water person, I guess I can talk surf speak, or I can speak the language. And I just talk to guys or girls in the water, and I say, What do you call this spot? And, I mean, where did the name come from? So I just pick up stories as I go. And I also go through literature. People besides me have written about surf spots and about beaches, and just different places. So I gather all this material, and I just kinda sift through it, and come up with what I think is the legitimate story behind the name.


Do you try to find people who are living there, or associated with the beach a long time ago?


Oh, yes.


You go away from the beach to find the story?


Yes, I do. In fact, that’s one of the things that I’ve done religiously over the years, is going to the communities and talk to the kupuna; the people that were born and raised there, that know the area, that know the names. And the Fire Department was wonderful for that. Because everybody has a fireman in their family, or everybody knows a fireman. So I would ask the guys at work. I’d say, Oh, you’re from Kaaawa. Do you still have family out there? Can I go talk to your grandma or your auntie, or whatever? And then you get the ripple effect. So I talk to the grandma in Kaaawa, and she says, Oh, now,you gotta go talk to my sister in Punaluu. Or, You need to go talk to my dad, who’s out in Laie.

And did you know you were gonna put the information into books? Did you have that idea to begin with?

No; I never did, you know. Just going back to Sandy Beach in 1972; I never thought that I would ever put all of this information into books, into what turned out to be an entire series of books. They were just things that I was interested in, you know, I gathered the information.


And you were methodical about it. You thought, back in 1972, to take down names, and commit—




—it to paper.


Yes. I really valued the information that people gave me, and I thought it was important to recognize them, to honor them for, confiding in me and helping me with what I was after. So I did. That’s something that I’ve done all these years, is acknowledge everyone who’s contributed to my work.


Can we take some surfing sites that lots of people know—




—but they may not know the origin of the name.




For example, along Ala Moana and Waikiki, there are all kinds of surf breaks.




And people know the names, but they might have forgotten the reason. Some—




Some, you can tell, some not.


Sure. Well, if you want to start at Ala Moana, first of all, you have Magic Island. And there’s a spot out there that’s called Bombora’s. And Bombora is actually an aboriginal word; it came from the Australian surfers who came here to Hawaii. And somebody just tagged that name for the surf spot out there. You move—the next spot down, going west now, is Baby Haleiwa’s. That’s named, because that spot breaks just like the surf spot Haleiwa on the North Shore. It’s got the same right with a pocket on a shallow reef on the inside. So that’s for a geographical comparison. And then you hit Courts, which is named for the tennis courts—


Which are right across.


Exactly right. Straight in; that’s your landmark. You go a little further down, you hit Concessions, right out in front of the food concession. So anyway, all of the spots, they all have a story, they all have some reason that they were named. A lot of the names come from just geographical location.


There was one near where I grew up, Niu Valley, called Snipes. Do you know the origin of that?


Yeah; Jerry Lopez told me that story. Snipes are birds.




And the snipes were the little seabirds that were running back and forth on the beach at low tide, just foraging for food.


There’s another surf spot called Gums. What’s the story there?


[CHUCKLE] Okay; Gums is out on the North Shore, and Gums is at Ehukai Beach Park, right next to the Pipeline. Anyway, Randy Rarick told me this story.


Who grew up in Niu Valley, by the way.


Who grew up in Niu Valley, and who surfed at Snipes, and he named Toes too, by the way. Randy is the one that came up with that name. But anyway, getting back to Gums. Randy said that there was a surfer out there who had false teeth. And one day, he got hit in the mouth by his board, and he lost his false teeth.




So everyone was teasing him about coming in toothless. So the spot just got tagged Gums.




Which it’s been ever since.


There’s also Yokohama Bay, which folks on the Waianae Coast have now taken to calling by its original Hawaiian name.






Keawaula; exactly right. So anyway, back when it was called Yokohama, the train, the OR&L train used to run from Honolulu around Kaena Point to Haleiwa, and actually beyond. The train actually ran up ‘til 1947. But anyway, there was a camp out there, um, of repairmen who were mostly Japanese workers. And their job was to repair the tracks. So Yokohama was one of the ports where a lot of the Japanese came from, when they came to Hawaii. So that name just kinda got tagged with them, to that particular bay, Keawaula Bay.


And why was it called Keawaula? There must be a reason for that.


There is.


That Hawaiian name.


[CHUCKLE] Well, the name Keawaula is actually three words in Hawaiian. It’s ke, which is, the; awa is harbor; and then ula is red. So it means, the red harbor. And there are squid in the Hawaiian Islands, besides octopus, now—these are the true squid, and they school. And when they come into a harbor and they’re schooling, and they’re mating, they turn red. And so it looks like the water turns red, because the schools are so massive. So anyway, that’s the moolelo behind Keawaula, is because of the squid schools that used to come in there seasonally.


You know, we were talking a lot about …




—things you can see, you know, surf sites.




But … I live on the North Shore, and—




—I’ve always lived around or among surfers.




And … it appears to me that there’s a whole world out there that a lot of us don’t see, but it’s as real as anything to those who are in the waters a lot. So many people know the underwater landscapes just as well as they do the streets of—




—the town.


Yes. Well, you’re actually making a very good point. Surf spots are ocean parks. And that’s how surfers see them. So if you think of your favorite park, or your favorite golf course, or the tennis courts where you play tennis; to a surfer, a surf spot’s the same thing. That’s his park, that’s his area where he does his recreation, his activities. So you’re right. The surfers know the ocean bottom, they know all the quirks, and the currents, and what happens if it’s high tide and low tide, whether it’s summer or winter. All of that stuff plays in, and they know their spots just as well as golfers know their golf courses.


No matter how random life is, sometimes people become who they were destined to be. In the case of John Clark, he channeled his love of surfing, his career as a firefighter, and his passion for historical research into leadership of the Hawaiian Historical Society.


I’ve always liked English. I’ve always been a very good reader. A voracious reader, actually. So I thought I would be an English major, and that’s what I started off doing up at UH Manoa. But as I got into it, I realized that I really didn’t want to be a teacher, which is pretty much where you have to go if you’re an English major. So I switched; I switched my major to Hawaiian Studies, which was what I was personally interested in. And at that time, I was already in the Fire Department, so I didn’t have to worry about my degree being my profession.


I see.


I already had my profession. So I got a degree in Hawaiian Studies.


How did you go, all of a sudden, from water to fire?


[CHUCKLE] I was a lifeguard for two years; that was from 1970 to 1972. And my roommate at that time was a guy named Aaron Young, and Aaron was working for Hawaiian Tel. So anyway, Aaron decided that he wanted to be a fireman, and after he got in, he said it was a really good job, it was a good lifestyle, and he encouraged me to take the test, which I did. And one of the reasons I did is because at that time, there wasn’t any upward mobility in the lifeguard service. If you were a lifeguard, you were a lifeguard pretty much for life. So there wasn’t too much chance of me moving up in the ranks, getting higher pay; you know, that kinda thing.




And in the Fire Department, it’s just the opposite. They’re a big organization, lots of mobility, lots of room to get promoted.


And lots of different aspects of the work.


Yes; including ocean rescues. The Fire Department here does ocean rescues. So that’s something that I did as the years went along, too.


And when you ended your career after thirty-three years—


Oh, yes.


—Deputy Fire—


Fire chief.






Far away from the water.




And even fires, right? You were in an—




—executive role.


Yes. So the last seven and a half years of my career were as the Deputy Fire Chief of HFD. But even that was good, too. During that time, I went and got a master’s in public administration. And I really took that job seriously, of being a public administrator of a first responder agency.


You’ve spent a lot of time gathering information, writing, and taking—




—care of the publication of books. Why do you do it? Do you make a lot of money from it?


Oh, no. It’s all for love. [CHUCKLE] Just real quick; the royalties are very minimal from the sales of all of my books. And the royalties that I do get, I just channel them back into the research, and all of the field trips that I do for the current projects that I’m working on. So there’s no money in it. But I really enjoy doing it. I think that I’m capturing pieces of Hawaiian history that other people haven’t. And the feedback that I get from people that read my stuff tells me that I think I’m touching some bases out there. Maybe not making a homerun with everybody, but I’m touching some bases, and people seem to appreciate what I do.


Sometimes on a mainland trip, I go to one of these, say, LA subdivisions, you know, malls. And you don’t—




You don’t see any distinguishing characteristics, or landmarks.




It’s just paved.




I think it would be really hard to live in a place like that.


That you can’t relate to somehow; yes.


What’s the history? I don’t know. [CHUCKLE]


Right. So that’s something that I’ve tried to do for Hawaii. So if you live in Lanikai, you know where the name came from, what it means, you know the history of the area. If you live on the North Shore, why Sunset Point is Sunset Point, and you know why Rock Piles is Rock Piles, and all the rest of it.


I notice that you’ve been the president of the Hawaiian Historical Society—




—for years.


Yes; for six years. [CHUCKLE]


Why? What do you enjoy about that?


The Hawaiian Historical Society … does what I do. They preserve Hawaiian history. And that’s something that I’ve been doing all of these years, is telling history, telling Hawaiian history through the beaches. So to me, it’s a perfect fit. The Hawaiian Historical Society has a library, they have an archive. They’re one of the key resource research centers here in the Hawaiian Islands. And I’m a part of that. I’m a part of the journal that we’ve put out. In fact, I’m one of the editors of the Journal of Hawaiian History. So it all plays in, it all ties in, and it all works out really well for me.


Even if it’s land history?


Yes; even if it’s land history. [CHUCKLE]


So the next time someone asks you where the name Snipes came from, or why Queen’s Surf is called Queen’s Surf, pass on the moolelo. Then, tell them that you heard if from the guy slipping down the face of a double overhead on the alaia surfboard. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


Is there a favorite surf site name that you’ve come across? I know they’re probably all like your children, but is there a favorite one?


Actually, I enjoy all of them. I like all of the names and all of the stories. But I’ll tell you this real quick. The spot that I get asked the most often about, over any spot in the Hawaiian Islands, is a spot out in Makua that’s called Pray For Sex. And Pray For Sex actually comes from another surf slogan from the 60s, which was Pray For Surf. Somebody just change one word in the slogan there, and they actually wrote it on a rock out there. So you can go out there right now, and see Pray For Sex; it’s still written on that rock.


And what is another name for that surf spot? Is there—




Is there another name for it?


It’s actually more of a little bodysurfing spot out there. The rock that it’s written on has a Hawaiian name; it’s called Pohaku Kulalai. And there’s actually a little marker out there that explains that. But people still know that ‘til this day. And every time I talk to people about surf spots, they always ask me about that one.


Layla Dedrick



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 3, 2010


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Layla Dedrick, Pacific Business News’ 2009 Young Business Leader of the Year. Layla is C.E.O. of Bella Pietra, a natural stone company, and she runs her business on values that are part of her Hawaiian heritage: Kuleana (responsibility), Malama (caring for), and Kupono (doing the right thing in the right place). She talks with Leslie about her journey from her childhood in Waianae, to attending Kamehameha Schools, to teaching special needs children, to running a highly successful business with her husband.


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My parents’ business; they owned a gas station in Maili, right on Farrington. So we were either at home, in the service station, grease monkeys running around, and right across the street was the beach. And that was our playground. So my memories of Maili are very much about the ocean, and that is still a really strong connection for me.


Born and raised on Oahu’s ruggedly beautiful Waianae coast, Layla Dedrick grew up in a family business. Before she turned 40, she would establish her own business and win recognition as a business leader. It’s her second career. First she was a special education teacher. She says that special-ed background has helped her tremendously in business…because she knows how to set clear expectations and give positive feedback. Layla Dedrick’s “Long Story Short” is next.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short”, we’ll meet Layla Dedrick, C-E-O and owner of a natural stone company, Bella Pietra…and the 2009 recipient of the “Young Business Leader of the Year” award, from Pacific Business News. Layla Dedrick is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and she’s a former public-school teacher. With her husband Andrew, she founded Bella Pietra in 2001. The first year out, their business brought in revenues of 600,000 dollars. By 2008, the revenues were up to 11 million dollars. At that point, the economic crisis slowed things down. Through it all, Layla Dedrick looks to her Hawaiian upbringing and she remains committed to doing business in a culturally correct way.


I think one of the other things that I think about Maili is a kind of…not just natural, but a ruggedness in the natural environment, as well as the people. It’s a hot, dry place by climate, economically has been and still is depressed. So a very kind—I think resoluteness about that affects how you grow up there. Our family business being very public—I mean, it was a service station and repair, so everybody in Waianae at that time literally drove through my family business. It made us very aware of the role that you play in the community. It’s real easy to look at Waianae and see the negative, but I learned from early on that you need to be a positive influence in the community in however you choose to do that.


You mentioned the community was depressed economically, and your parents owned a business.




That must have been tough for them to operate the business and they must have been asked for credit a lot, is my guess.


I still remember to this day an old cash register, the kind you punch the buttons and, cha-king, and it opens the drawer. And in one of the drawers that didn’t have dollar bills in it was an old beat-up Casio watch and a little, very small, tiny diamond ring back sitting the drawer. And those were collateral that they had taken from people who say, Well, you know, if I don’t fix my car, I can’t drive to town and go to work, but I can give you this, can you fix my car. And my parents would do that, and they’d put it in the drawer, and they were supposed to, you know, come back and pay cash. Those are the kinds of things they did, because they knew that’s something little they could contribute.


Did you always hang out at the service station? Did you work there?


I did. I’m the last of six children. We stood out a little bit in the community, because there were all these hapa Haole girls working in this dirty, grimy service station and pumping gas, and fixing tires.


Can you fix a car these days?


Not anymore. It’s more computer than car nowadays. But I did pump gas and help my mom fix tires, and that kinda thing. It was great life experience.


Back in the days when—


For sure.


—gas was pumped for the customer.


That’s right. Yeah, no automated anything.


After attending Maili elementary, Layla Dedrick enrolled at the Kamehameha schools, like her older sisters before her. Just getting to the Honolulu campus in Kapalama was a daily challenge.


Was it a bus ride for you?


It was a bus ride.


That’s a long—






Up at four-thirty, five, at the bus stop before six behind Tamura’s Supermarket with Clancy the bus driver, who was the bus driver for my sisters. And that was—it was a long ride in the dark in early morning. And then getting home at four-thirty, five-thirty in the afternoon. That was a big change, having pretty much grown up all of my days, my social activities and schooling in Waianae. Soon, I think maybe about my tenth grade year, started to get an inkling of, I better not waste this. You know—began to see the opportunities that Kamehameha offered. And then just fell in love with the whole experience, academically, involved in sports.


You did sports even though you had to take this bus ride home?


Well, from tenth grade, I started driving.


I see.


So my mom’s rule was, if you want a car, give me a reason that you need a car. If you’re just gonna go to school and come home, ride the bus. But I was starting to be interested in sports, swimming and water polo and with sports, again, leaving home at four or five in the morning to get in the pool at six. Practice after school, getting home at seven o’clock at night, just enough time to sit down and wolf down a dinner with Mom and Dad, and then hit the books. So high school is a blur, but very fond memories.


Did you become less of a tita?


[chuckle] I hope so. [chuckle] I hope I can—


At Kamehameha.


I hope I can—there’s a lot of great qualities about the tita-ness…self reliance, not being afraid to speak up for yourself, that helps me, I think, on a daily basis, try to cut through kind of all of…when you’re running a business and have lots of employees, and work with the public like we do.


Any drawbacks to the tita background?


Yes. [chuckle] How candid do you want to be?




Let’s see. I would say, delivery, how you say something has a huge impact on how it’s received. And so that same quality of wanting to cut to the chase to help solve a problem doesn’t mean that you get to be rude…


What about—you were one of six kids, and—




—sometimes you’ve gotta fight for position. I know sometimes people say the youngest has it easiest.




But on the other hand, it’s a group, and sometimes you get put aside. How did you—




—handle that?


I would say that but truly, I was really, really blessed, because I think I had the best of both worlds. I was the youngest, but there’s a big span between me and the other five.


So there was not a lot of sibling rivalry.


Not sibling rivalry. I had more than one mom. I had my mom and my sisters, who all helped take care of me. My mom had me when she was almost forty-three, which is late.




And so I have the perspective of kind of the older generation, her values. But then I also have the values of…most of my siblings are Baby Boomers. I was actually spoiled, would be a good word. But in a good way, in that I was showered with love in a healthy way.


You did a newspaper article I read, and you introduced yourself in the article in Hawaiian style. You—




—began with your genealogy.


M-m. Yes, and that’s important to me, and something that’s become really clear as a business owner. ‘Cause I’ve been challenged more than I ever dreamed as a business owner. And introducing myself through my genealogy, when I think of myself in those terms as a kanaka maoli, it helps me remember that I am not just me, that I am part of a long line of strong, intelligent people, through all of my ethnicities, whether Hawaiian or Chinese, or Caucasian, and that part of Hawaiian cultural beliefs are—is that literally, your ancestors, your kupuna are literally standing ready to assist you. And so how can I be anything but ready to go forward when I think of who is standing behind me saying, Go, imua, go forward.


Who’s standing behind you right now?


Oh wow. I can’t talk about that without crying. Sorry. [SNIFF]

Besides my most immediate ancestors, my father who’s passed on my mom is—still blessed that she’s with us, um, their parents. That’s who I know… but when I think about my Hawaiian background, I see these images of um, kind of these outline of people linked hand-in-hand. And for me personally, that’s their energy, their mana, their soul.


I am linked through to them through my genealogy and they are there for me as a point of nurturing for me, to give me the strength to go forward. Modern day Hawaiians are plagued by so many ills, physically, spiritually, mentally, the land and our food, and all of that. And I wish there was a way for us as a people to come together and harness that energy that I feel. Because there’s lots of reasons for Hawaiians to complain, be divisive.


Because of all the losses of—


Because of all the—


—of history.


Because of all the losses and the current state of our people, and to want to point fingers, and blame, and et cetera. And you can spend a lot of energy doing that, and maybe that’s part of the process of healing, people feel that they need to go through that. But I feel it’s time to move on past that, as a people, not just Hawaiian people, but until we move past what dis-unifies us into what unifies us, we will never have the resolution of our ills that we are looking for. And whether your chosen cause is land rights, or sovereignty, or control over kalo. As long as those issues are divisive, our move forward will be stunted.


And you feel that your reliance on ancestors helps you—


I think so. Because—


—go forward?


How could this people, quote, unquote, technologically illiterate people get on a boat, and sail thousands of miles to a place they’d never been before, right? This little speck in the ocean, and then sail back, and come back again. How could they build a civilization here in these islands.


The most isolated islands in the world.


Exactly; the most isolated islands in the world, by some estimates in the millions, healthy, strong…




Totally sustainable; there’s one. That’s a strength that to me, we have yet to duplicate now. We’re not sustainable. We rely on imported foods, and our quality of life and all those things, that how could you not look back at your ancestors and say, they offer something to me today to make a positive difference in our life. It would be dishonorable for me to not use that as a strength, because they came a heck of a long way, metaphorically and physically. So they, must have had something right.


Let’s talk a little bit about your college years.




Had you decided what you were gonna do with your life?


Oh, no. I wish I was one of those people who…I meet people who knew, they had this passion from when they were little that they were gonna be a teacher, or be a nurse, or write, or they knew how they were gonna contribute to the world. I was clueless, made lots of kind of fits and starts. But, when I was in college, I had been in college for a year, my freshman year on the mainland, because that’s what you were supposed to do after high school, right? You’re supposed to go to a good college. But it was not really where I wanted to be. So I took a year off, and did a volunteer year at an international school in Vancouver, Canada. Met some incredible people from all over the world, one of the best life experiences I’ve had. Came home, I’d said I would take two classes that I would never want to take. So I took an accounting class.


Why would you do that?


Because I wanted to challenge myself. So I took an accounting class, which I was totally right about, was not gonna be an accountant. That one, I had right on. Didn’t want to be an accountant. And then I took a political philosophy class. And I fell in love with philosophy. Ended up getting my undergraduate degree in political science. Had a wonderful time.


Could you tell how you were gonna use that? Did you see a profession—






Not at all. And that was another thing, to the consternation of my mother. What are you gonna do with that? You know, my mom, get a good job, make sure her daughter’s secure. But fell in love with the whole idea. And what I learned about political science and again, breaking down a preconceived notion, is that it’s not about going into politics. Political science at its heart is about how do we govern each other with justice and fairness, and how do we create a framework and a structure called society that helps humanity move forward and become a better race of people. And that was fascinating to me, because I thought, that’s why we’re here.


After pursuing her passion for political science, and receiving a bachelor’s degree from the U.H. Manoa, Layla Dedrick earned a teaching certificate to work with special-needs children. She continually calls upon her teaching experience as a business owner and operator.


Was that your answer to your mom, who said, How are you gonna make a living with this?




And you got a special ed certificate? Or were you—


That again, was why did I do that. I needed a job, really. I mean, you graduate with a political science degree, I knew I wasn’t gonna go into politics, I wasn’t gonna get a law degree, which is kind of the next common thing to do. I wasn’t gonna run for office, that’s not me. I had previously done education classes, ‘cause for a while, I thought maybe that’s what I was gonna do. Which actually ended up being an excellent place, because then going back and getting my special ed certification kinda helped me tie together a lot of the different things I had learned in my exploration. The things that I learned in that special ed program, it’s a lot about classroom management. Besides the particulars of learning about disabilities and ADA law, and all of that, it’s about classroom management and how do you manage such disparate abilities and needs. I use those management skills every day at work, because some of the things I learned as a classroom teacher are not just what special ed students needs, is what people need. People want clear expectations, they want to know what you want. You’re the boss, what does my boss expect of me. They want clear guidelines on how to get there.


As Layla Dedrick and her husband, Andrew, established and grew their natural stone business, she met company challenges with a distinctively Hawaiian view of the world. She instilled the native values and responsibilities of kuleana, malama, and kupono in the workplace.


You said that you wanted to do more than sell your—




—product. But why did you choose, one, to start a business, and two, to sell stone?


Yeah. M-m. To start a business; that’s interesting.  My parents were small business owners; maybe just that experience. My husband and I have been together since I was eighteen years old; that’s when we met. And this year, I will have been married eighteen years. And from when we were very young, always kind of knew that we wanted to be entrepreneurial someday. And so why stone? I wish I had some really deep answer that was very meaningful. [chuckle]


Or family background in masonry?


No. I wish, but I don’t. When we were both in college, we both needed jobs to support ourselves, and my husband went to work as a sales guy, just took a sales job in a company that did lots of different products from plumbing products to Jacuzzis, to metal strapping. And one little, tiny division that was just kind of a—they were dabbling in stone. Some little twelve-by-twelve marble polished tiles, like five colors or something. And he took that product and that became a major part of that company, grew that division. And so he had the particular knowledge of that product, and then with my management background, organizational background, decided that that is what we would do. That was in 2001.


Was that before 9/11?


One month before 9/11, we opened our doors. And so that was a scary time.


How did you do it? You just hunkered down and held on?




How did you handle it?


Very interesting, and I have no statistics, but 9/11, other than the initial kind of constriction, nobody doing anything for the first few weeks, I think within three months after that for Hawaii in particular, I think turned out to be a great opportunity.


People were cocooning weren’t they?


People were cocooning, and at that time in the economy, a major part of our business was high end luxury. When we first started out, that was a big part of our market. And because after 9/11 the foreign investment was now very scary, people with disposable income were now wanting their luxury home, their vacation getaway in Hawaii, instead of a villa in France or a villa in a bungalow in Bali or—


Right; the safety [INDISTINCT].

Safe. It was still the United States, but it was exotic, and it was beautiful and the weather was fantastic.   So 9/11 for us, the bleeding was short. It was fast, but short. And now, I mean, us like everyone else, long term difficulty, and I think, knock on wood, slow but steady recovery.


How do you strike a balance? I mean, because there’s always something more you could be doing in—




—any one phase of your life. When do you decide to push yourself away from the table, or whatever else you’re doing?


Yeah. Continual struggle.


Always balancing?


Always. And what today’s balance looks like may not look like what tomorrow’s balance is. So today’s balance maybe requires that I’m physically at the office for eight, ten, twelve hours sometimes. Tomorrow’s balance might be I’m on a field trip with my kids, and I’m not at the office. Very fortunate that my husband and I are able to trade off duties, et cetera, with the business and with kids and made a conscious effort when we had kids that we would try to err on the side of them and family. Not just them, but us as a family unit, and he and I as a unit.


Even though when you own your own business, that may be tougher than ever.


It is.


Especially now, in this, as we speak, there’s a deep economic downturn.


Yes; the decisions I make and how attentive I am to the health of my business direct impact on the people that come to work for me every day. And that’s a huge responsibility, and that more than anything else is, what’ll keep me up at night. If I have, twenty-five plus employees that choose to come here every day, and that is humbling to me. I’m like, wow, they choose to come and spend most of their waking hours with me? Well, my husband has to do that. [chuckle] But nobody else has to do that. My kids have to do that, nobody else has to do that. ‘Cause it has to be more than about stone. I have to have a reason for coming to work every day beyond the particular widget. And that’s something that I kind of shared and bounced ideas off with other people in the business community is beyond what particular service you provide, what are you doing?


It’s not just what, it’s how.


Exactly. It’s how, and then you have such a wider impact in the community when you think of it that way. Our product, it’s not gonna change the world, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor saving lives. I’m not a kindergarten teacher that is setting a stage for a child’s development through their educational experience. I sell a product that you could take it or leave it. I mean, to be really honest.


And it’s high end, so it’s not necessary.


It’s not a necessary. It’s not a discretionary product, right? So then for me, my business, besides wanting to provide a quality product with good customer service, there has to be a purpose to Bella Pietra and why it exists, beyond are you gonna use this stone in your kitchen or this one. It’s really about the guiding principles focus on how Bella Pietra fits in the community, and some of the wording from those guiding principles is about a standard of excellence in our interaction with all of our stakeholders at Bella Pietra. And our stakeholders include the obvious ones, our customers, our employees, our vendors, what business is next door to us down the street, because how we conduct ourselves in our business, affects our neighborhood. So that’s our hood over there at Pier 21. So a standard of excellence…our values are three Hawaiian words kupono, malama, and kuleana. So malama, how we take care of each other, how we take care of our clients, and how each individual in the company takes care of the company. Kuleana, doing your job every day to the best of your ability, and realizing how your kuleana and whether you do it or not affects somebody else’s kuleana. And then kupono, doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time for the right reason.


Layla Dedrick is a part Hawaiian Maili girl who grew up to become a business owner and operator. She uses Hawaiian cultural values and her background as a special-education teacher, setting clear expectations, to run her natural stone company, Bella Pietra. In 2009, she was named outstanding “Young Business Leader of the Year” in Hawaii. Thank you, Layla Dedrick, for sharing with us here at PBS Hawaii. And thank “you” for joining us on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


In high school, I wasn’t in the popular group. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I wasn’t exceptionally outspoken. I wasn’t in student government, wasn’t a song leader at Kamehameha, all of the kinda high profile places. I was kind of a little bit of the sports, little bit geeky, little bit kinda fringe person. So I don’t think that they were expecting anything this high profile.


Jon de Mello



Original air date: Tues., Feb. 5, 2008


Mountain Apple’s Creative Force


Jon de Mello is the creative mastermind behind the phenomenally successful Mountain Apple Company. Jon’s many talents and non-stop creative energy seem perfectly suited to the high-powered world of entertainment.


Jon de Mello Audio


Download the Transcript




No, you’re not at a Consolidated Theater! Aloha I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. We’ve all seen that dramatic trailer at the movies. But what you may not know is that the music was written, produced and performed by none other than our guest, Jon de Mello. He’s the creative mastermind behind the phenomenally successful Mountain Apple Company. Jon’s non-stop creative energy seems perfectly suited to the high-powered world of entertainment. But as you’ll see, he’s multi-faceted; and that always makes for an interesting conversation. Mahalo for joining us on Long Story Short.


So I can’t help but notice; you have a still camera that you’re wearing. Is this fashion, or is this …


This is the real thing. I go along and I just continually take pictures everywhere. I take 100 pictures, 150 pictures a day.


Of what; anything?


Anything; anything that catches my eye. It can be people, it can be water, ocean, things like that.


Do you save the pictures?


Yes; yes. I think at last count I had 47,000 of ‘em. You know.


Do you use them for any reason?


Yeah; sometimes backgrounds. Like the tree is like close-ups of textures of woods and stuff like that. And in Photoshop you just throw those in the backgrounds and use those as anything. It’s amazing. I love it. It’s fun.


You know, when you were growing up, your dad was well known as this music producer, you know, that nobody could ever get better than. But here you are. You know, I guess so often you don’t think the son will follow the father in business, and often, the son is overshadowed by the father. But here you are, and your dad and you still work with your dad, but your business has taken you so far and wide.


It’s amazing, and I’ve been lucky to work with almost everybody in the islands. I’m fifth generation from the islands, and growing up, my first ten years was in Waikiki when it was a beach town. And we were on Lewers Street on that yellow building, on the top floor.


Is it still there?


No; they just tore it down for the whole new promenade they have down there. But we lived next door to James Michener. And he was writing the book Hawaii. And I remember we were right next door to him. I remember him waking me up in the middle of the night, because it was ching-ching-ching-ching-ching, crank, ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching, crank. You know. And he was writing the book, and my father was orchestrating Hawaiian music. And this is ’56, ’57—all the way from about ’55 up, you know. And it was a beautiful time in Waikiki with Stewart’s Pharmacy right there on the edge of Lewers.


I remember Stewart’s Pharmacy.


And we were on the eighth floor of this building—it was only eight floors—on the corner. And we were looking towards Diamond Head, and nothing blocked Diamond Head; it was complete Diamond Head. And I remember in 1955, when the International Marketplace opened, they had these bell horns in the big banyan tree in the front. And on the 30-minute mark, they would go chiming; and then on the hour, they would play Aloha ‘Oe, and then they’d give how many chimes it was for the hour and such. And all the way across Waikiki, you could hear that. It was just amazing. And it had a different aroma; it had just a different feel. It was a beach town; it was a very safe beach town at that point, you know.


Your parents didn’t care where you were during the day, that you’d be okay, you’d be with your uncles at the beach.


My mother would go to Everybody’s Supermarket, where everybody shopped, and she’d take me down to Stewart’s Pharmacy where they had this little Japanese lady weaving leis. And she’d sit against the building and then she’d open her muumuu and put the plumeria right in her muumuu and she’d lei. And so my mother would leave me with her, you know, and we’d make leis together until my mother got back from the marketplace. It was amazing. It was a great time.


Did you get into the surf scene very much?


Very much; yeah. I loved to surf when I was a kid. I probably gave it up when I was um, just coming out of high school, ‘cause of things were getting—speeding up a bit in college and things like that. But yeah; I was a surfer boy, and I learned to—Splash taught me how to steer canoes and stuff, and all sorts of things.


And you went to Kailua as well; you lived in Kailua later, and then came back to the east side?


Actually, yes. We lived in Waikiki, and then we moved to Kailua. And then we moved back to the east side for my high school years, which was Kalani High School. And I was in a rock and roll band, and all of my fellow players were Punahou students. And so we were playing all the dances, the cantinas, and all that kinda stuff, and the parties every weekend. With all—Henry Kapono was lead guitar player, and all the rest of the people I know. In fact, we just had our reunion, and that was that was quite a mind remembering task.


What was the name of your band?


New Generation. It was with Henry and Leonard Sakai and Mel Mossman, who was one of the famous Mossmans, and Sterling was his uncle. And Chucky Souza and Henry. Yeah.


Were you a good student?


Yes. M-m. And no.


You didn’t color in the lines, did you?


I didn’t color in the lines. I went out of the lines. I was probably stubborn and wanted to do my own thing, versus my father, okay. ‘Cause when I went away to college, I went to the Bay Area; I moved away here—from Hawaii for the first time basically, and lived in Oakland and Berkeley. And I went to a very fine school called California College of Arts and Crafts, third in the nation as a private school; terrific. I never missed a class; it was so much fun. I just loved it. So I got my pedigree there. But three miles down the road was UC Berkeley. So I basically went to two colleges at once. It was kind of a juggling act every now and then, but music was UC Berkeley. And so—because this was right in the middle of the 60s, and all the hot groups, all the old- time—you know, Janis Joplin, The Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, all those people; we would see them every weekend in San Francisco. And they would come to UC Berkeley and give us lectures and talks and concerts. They would come to our school,

in to the art school and give us lectures and talk and concerts, and things like that.


Cause you grew up in a recording studio; your dad was always bringing you in, right?


Oh, yeah.


So you were familiar with music and on a technical level too.


Oh, yes; yeah. I followed my dad around all—everywhere, you know, and such. And saw some great, great things happen; you know, some terrific things happen.


So did the light go off when you were in the Berkeley music scene?


Yeah. It was always there. You know, I kind of approached school and had this interesting new road that was developed called multimedia. But in those days, multimedia was a carousel slide projector with a wire remote. Okay? They made a lot of noise ‘cause it was trying to fan the heater down the light down. Okay, you know; that. An overhead projector; we all kinda used those in school still. You can put a book on there and project it on a wall, okay. And if you’re really high tech, you had a cassette player and/or an 8-track, and really high tech, you had 16mm camera or an 8mm camera. None of those could be synchronized; none of those could be used together. So I was looking into the future saying, Someday technology is gonna connect all these so we can thread it and make things. So multimedia was what I was after. That’s why I went to the two schools at once, the UC Berkeley for music, and California College of Arts and Crafts, and got my degree as a painter, as an oil painter. So that was my main thrust there. Got back, and slowly, but surely things started to change and now we’ve got the internet with flash technology and all those enormous multimedia stuff. You know, it’s beautiful.


What were you doing when you came back, and before everything seemed to connect?


When I came back, I too was lost in what do I do, you know, in the art world and the music world, okay. I was following my dad around. At that time we were, he was producing and I was assisting in Keola Beamer’s first album, his first solo album, and he was—he’s magnificent as a slack key player and as a classical player too, and such. So I was following him around, and—my father, and keeping the music together, and then using his office facilities a bit, just to kinda keep things in line, and such like that. And suddenly, a business hui—they were one generation above me, took me under their wing. And it was a banker, he owns a bank; there was an attorney; and there was a judge involved; and there was an entrepreneur that’s now in government. And we were building condominiums in Salt Lake, and I was sort of the little gremlin that was following them around, but I could take pictures of models, I could make models of buildings for them and such like that. And if I look at it carefully and squint, I kinda look at those—it was about five years, four and a half years I was with these men. I kinda look at that as my formal education, because I had all the arts and crafts and music, and all these bits and pieces, and I didn’t know how to glue it together. And these people were a generation above me, taught me how to connect it to real life and to apply it.


Your own personal focus group and mentors.




A real melding of business and creativity.


Correct; correct.


The influence of his mentors and certainly his father has shaped the way Jon de Mello thinks about music business. But who could have imagined how far Jon would take the business. The Mountain Apple Company has changed the way we think about Hawaiian music and has taken it to an international stage. We’ll find out how all that happened, as our conversation continues.


I hear your studio is just amazing. You have every top of the line, state of the art thing that one can think of in your studio.


Oh, I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s—


You want more stuff, of course.



No; I hate stuff. You have to hook it up. You have to maintain it.


And replace it.


And replace it. Because the day you buy it, it’s obsolete, okay. The one interesting thing, though, in fifteen years, as a record company. I have not owned a tape recorder in fifteen years. It’s all been recorded on hard drive, and with computers. I have a library, however, that is big as this room with antique tapes in it, that I have a gentlemen in Santa Monica that is a refurbisher of tape. And he brings them back into pristine quality, and then he burns them off into the digital world. And we’re going through all my father’s stuff. The whole library is being transferred slowly, but surely, you know.


When did the Mountain Apple Company come together?


I incorporated the Mountain Apple Company in 1977.


Why did you call it Mountain Apple?


I lived on Tantalus, and I was sitting—I had one of the first Apple II computers that I wish I had it now, it’s probably worth more than the building, you know. And I was sitting there, and it was absolute quiet, pristine, no sound night. And I was sitting there doing just some word processing, just doing some lists on what’s going on. I had a tin roof, and in the back of my house—and it was beveled. In the back of my house, I had a mountain apple tree. And I was actually typing in, I gotta find a name for the company. I gotta do a few things. And I all of a sudden hear a thump and a whomp-poom-poom-poom-poom-poom-poom and it fell right in front of me. And I knew it was the Mountain Apple Company, and I wrote down Mountain Apple Company. And that was the name of the company.


And it’s with you to this day. Now—


It’s with us to this day.


–your first clients where who?


Booga Booga, Brothers Cazimero, and Rap spun out of that, Richard Natto and Andy Bumatai, and the Beamers, and all sorts of things.


So you were a young guy bringing in other young guys.


Yeah. Yeah. And it was thrilling. And the talent; the talent was just, you know, sparkling. And radio was different, and we did a CD. And we did a record. And we still call them albums. . When we did an album, we used to be able to walk into a radio station and and walk right into the studio, and they’d just say, Come on in, come on in. You know, and we’d talk about it for 30 minutes, da-da-da-da-da-da. And now we can’t get our stuff on radio at all. You know.


Play lists and


Play lists.


–pre-recorded DJs.


That’s it; it’s all that. We could hardly, you know, do that. But in the old days, we could just walk right in, and they’d love to sit there and talk with us, and play some cuts, and everything like that. I have Rap Reiplinger’s first break of Poi Dog on Ron Jacob’s show at KKUA. It was funny; it was great.


Different times. You know, now we have digital and I’m wondering how—I know you love gadgets, and you’re really tuned into technology. And you’ve gotta be on the forefront of what’s happening in the digital world. People downloading music, and not buying it.


Yeah; yeah. It’s a very interesting thing. Napster was the first to start it all. And I remember television stations calling me and saying, Can we get a sound bite on what you think of Napster? And first couple of sound bites were, R-r-r-r-ow, you know. And then after a while, I started thinking about it. And one guy came in from one station and started the cameras rolling. And he says, What do you think of Napster? And I said, It’s the biggest and most powerful advertising campaign I’ve ever been in in my life. You know. And he went, Explain yourself. I said, People on the other side of the world are hearing my albums. Okay. Now, I’m not real comfortable with someone’s hand in their pocket, on my wallet, and peeling little things—little green things off of there one at a time. But it was an enormous advertising campaign. And to this day, I think the popularity of Hawaiian music and local music, and ethnic music from around the world, not just Hawaiian music, is really stimulated by the internet.


What do you think’s next in this digital world?


Well, I don’t think—most people think that CD’s going away; I don’t think so. I believe that in a few years, it’s gonna change configurations, but you won’t know the difference. You and I won’t know the difference; it’ll be a DVD instead of a CD. Only because a DVD can handle so much more storage and the resolution of music can be much higher. Now, even though we can only hear certain highs and certain lows, I think that you can feel things, even if it’s sampled in an area where birds can hear it and dogs can choke to it. We hear it; we hear it with our bodies, we can feel it somehow. So I think the resolution of music will, meaning the quality of music, will get enhanced. And it’ll be a fairly seamless transfer.


Im just listening to you talk about music and recalling that I believe I read that the first ancestor of your family in this country came with an understanding of the forerunner of the ukulele. The Portuguese did bring it to the islands.




And so you had music in your background back then.


Yeah; my great-grandfather was an ukulele player from Kealakekua. We’re from the Big Island. And I just saw a picture of my great-grandmother for the first time about a year ago. And I found her address; she took care of Kamehameha’s children and— Kamehameha V’s children—and the address was Ke‘eaumoku. And it was numbered, and thanks to Google, which I can’t live without.


Don’t tell me it’s a hostess bar.


No. The house is still there. And I have the picture of her standing in front of it, and the house is still there. It’s a plantation house, two stories, with the green belly band around it. You know. And it was like time warp. You know, I never knew what this lady looked like. You know.


What an amazing transition. What a huge transition in music.


Whew; wow.


And what’s next? I mean, the pace of change is so fast.


Yes; yes. The pace of change is so fast. And you say, what’s next in music? I don’t know. I read an article—I love science; I read Scientific America a little bit. And there’s a guy now that has figured out in Germany how to get the molecules of air to vibrate. And so he’s in essence saying, I have figured out how to get music to happen without speakers.


Amazing. You know, Billboard Magazine has called Mountain Apple Company the strongest independent record company in America. So you’re the strongest. How do you do it? What do you do for your clients?


We ship to 27 different countries. And actually, they said we were the strongest in the world.


In the world.


Not just America. We ship to 27 different countries and we’re very aggressive. And we chart in every major city in America, we chart. Sometimes it’s only three or four units a week, but sometimes it—and then sometimes we find these little spikes that happen all of a sudden for some—no reason. It’s quite amazing. And in Google there’s a thing called Google Alert. If you go into the regular window and you type in Google Alert you’ll get another window up. And you can say, search for this string—a string is a sentence—or search for this name, and you put it in quotes, and then you give them your own email. And every time that name shows up in an article, you get an email. And obviously, I’ve done Israel, Brothers Cazimero, Beamers. I do everybody we have, okay. And you do all sorts of spellings like Israel, and in quotes, I-Z, Kamakawiwo‘ole, or you don’t put Israel because then you get all the things about the country alone.




You know. So I get all these little blurbs from these people around the world that are just amazing. Probably get 40 to 50 a day, you know.


The music business is about more than business. What about relationships; how do you take care of those?


Relationships and music is very important. And they’re all my children. Okay; no matter what happens, they’re all my children.


No matter how old they are?


No matter how old they are, and no how much they hate me. They’re all my children. But they love me too in the end, okay.


And relationships are great, like Israel. You know, to be in the studio right next to him. And I do that a lot with people; I sit in the studio with the musician, to give them more of a homey, straightforward attitude. I’ve been so fortunate to work with some of the best in Hawaii. Kamokila Campbell was my godmother. And in the 50s, we were going out to Ewa all the time, and there was a piano out there. My father would be writing legends with her, and we’d be sitting around, and she’d be telling us stories after dinner, after supper and such. Just amazing stuff. So I’m so lucky to be able to have all these different kinds of relationships, you know. And I take great pride in representing our cultural movement and music and dance around the world.


Relationships mean so much to Jon de Mello and the Mountain Apple Company. That’s certainly a big part of their success. But there is one relationship that is closest to Jon’s heart. As our conversation continues, Jon talks about his profound relationship with an amazing singer, the late Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.


What’s your history with Israel? How did it start and how did it go?


How did it go; how did it start. He called me; it was in 1993, he called me from the hospital and said, I want to break up with the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau. And I said, What drugs are you on; are you crazy; are you out of your mind? This is a staple; you don’t do that. You can’t break for this, and stuff. He says, Will you come see me? And I’d known Israel all my life, and he knew me too. And I said, Sure, I come. I went up there. And he had all the right answers. I want to make some of my own decisions, and I need you to help me guide me through this whole puka. You know. You know, I need you. You know, and stuff like that. And in an hour and a half, I said, Okay, let’s start, let’s go; let’s go get ‘em, let’s do it. It’s risky, but let’s try it anyway. And we jumped in. We were in a studio within three weeks later and making Facing Future. I had a funny way of recording Israel. I would be in the room; I would be sitting about three feet in front of him, facing him. And the first couple of times, it intimidated him a little bit, but he would always sing with his eyes closed anyway. And then at the end of the song, he’d crack one eye and kinda look at me, like, Okay? You know. Okay, boss? You know.


Why were you right in front of him like that?


I wanted to feel his energy; I wanted him to stay energized and focused. And I could help him out with chording or structures or we could just talk instead of me on a squawk box in this control room going, Okay, what’s next, you know, Israel? What do you want to do? I was just there, and it was more of a conversation. And I think after the first couple of sessions, then he got to feel like, Oh, this is just my living room, this is fine, and here he is, I’m talking to him, and what else. You know, ‘cause it was wide open. And a lot of times after the session was over, we would record just conversation, and then he’d pick up his book and say, Okay, tomorrow, why don’t we try this one? And Mona Lisa was one of this, okay. And he says, Try this. And he’d sing it; Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, da-da-da-da. And he’d done verse and one chorus, and he’d say, You think so? What you think? I said, Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow. Okay, got sick, never came into the studio the next day. Okay. Never recorded it fully, okay; but had it on digital DAT, the rehearsal part, which was his vocal and his thing, and managed to cut it up and make a piece out of it after the whole thing was over with, you know.


So he probably has uh, a huge further career in what you’ve already recorded?


He has—I have four or five songs that have never been heard before that he’s done.


He was into trying new things.




Do you know where he’d want to go? Do you think you know him well enough to know that?


He loved all kinds of music. He loved everything from rhythm and blues to rap, to classical, to everything. He listened to classical music; he just never was around it, you know. And he loved everything; hip-hop, bop, you know, all kinds of things. That’s why he was picking—his repertoire in his book is so wide, you know, so diversified.


Grammy Awards are coming up again, and we have a Hawaiian music category. Never had any Hawaiian language in this Hawaiian music category.




What do you think’s gonna happen this time around?


Another oops. Raiatea is in there with a vocal album, and she’s got a very good chance; she’s got a very, very strong chance. But you know, slack key guitar is very well understood. So it’s easy to figure out, okay. When they come across a long Hawaiian name and oh, my god, and a language—ooh, I don’t know if this is any good. You know. You’re supposed to be in the—to vote in the Grammys, you’re supposed to be qualified in the areas that you vote in. But unfortunately, you know, there’s a little bit of slush there, okay. I don’t know. It’s gonna be, I think, another upset this year, unfortunately. Or fortunately. I don’t know.


To spend any time at all with Jon de Mello, is to spend time in the creative zone. I think that’s part of why so many artists like Bruddah Iz, the Cazimero Brothers and scores of others have trusted him with their music and their careers. Jon de Mello has a proven record as a businessman, but in his heart he’ll always be an artist. Mahalo for joining us on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox with your public television station, PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


At this point in time, we are so proud of what has happened to the language. When the Queen left us in 1917, she died thinking that it’s over, it’s gone; my whole culture is behind me, and it’s stopped. If she was sitting in front of us right now, she’d be grinning from ear to ear because it’s revived; the language is living and all over the planet Earth, the language is living. Okay. The Hawaiian language is living.


Walter Dods



Original air date: Tues., Feb. 19, 2008


Banker and Community Leader


Walter Dods, Jr. is a local boy who made good. Retired now as CEO of First Hawaiian and BancWest, Dods remains a business and political insider and an active community leader.


Walter Dods Part 1 Audio


Walter Dods Part 2 Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha and welcome to LSS. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down to talk with Walter Dods, Jr. – a local boy who made good. Retired now as CEO of First Hawaiian and BancWest, Dods remains a business and political insider and an active community leader. In this first of a two-part conversation, Dods begins at the beginning.


Well, I literally started at the bottom out of high school. I was too smart for college, so I started at First Insurance Company as a dead files clerk. That was lower than office boy. My job was to file all of the expired insurance policies; so I used to climb up in an attic every day, file all of the policies, and then take a nap up there ‘cause nobody could see me napping. But I’d do that after I got all my work done. So I got promoted to mail boy. I tell everybody I started as a mail boy, but I really started as a dead files clerk. Doesn’t get any lower than that.


How did it start even before that? Where did you grow up?


I grew up, well, mostly in Kuliouou and Aina Haina. I grew up in a quonset hut in Kuliouou. Elelupe and Kuliouou Road forms a horseshoe, and in the back the Reeves clan—everybody knows the Reeves family back there had a big compound, and they had an old metal quonset hut with the old canec ceilings and canec walls. The room walls only went up about six feet—didn’t go up to the ceiling. So the four boys lived in one room, three girls—three sisters in the next room, my mom and dad in the third. One of the funny stories I remember as a kid; my mother was quite a pistol. She used to come around and whack us with wooden hangers, you know. And she’d tell us, you know, I’m doing this now to get it out of the way, ‘cause I know you guys are gonna do something wrong today.


Was she right?


She was always right. She was a great inspiration for all of us. She taught us all about work ethic, working hard, and taking care of each other, which we still do many, many years later.


And what about your dad?


My father was an orphan. My father’s father was a bookkeeper at Kohala Sugar, and died when he was young. So all of the boys grew up in one orphanage, and all the girls in another. So my father grew up in Father Lewis’ Boys Home in Hilo, right close to Hilo High School. So he got out of the orphanage to play basketball and football at Hilo High, and came to Honolulu and became a policeman – was a police officer for forty years. He was a sergeant on the police force for most of his career.


And your mother; her background?


My mother graduated from the seventh grade, and then worked as a waitress most of her life and ended up as the cashier at the Minute Chef in Waikiki. She ran the coffee shop as the cashier there.


And somehow they got you into St. Louis, a private school.


Well, because my father was an orphan, he really believed in family, and wanted to give his kids the love and the education that he didn’t have. And so he worked very hard, and we were a close family; we were poor, but never, ever felt poor. He’d come every day and bring home a pack of gum and give us each our stick as our reward for the day. And we thought we were really wealthy and rich as a result of that. But he wanted to give us a good education, and he couldn’t afford the Punahous and the Iolanis at the time, but the parochial schools were a pretty good value. He wasn’t a Catholic, but he sent us to that school ‘cause he thought we could get the best education there.


All seven kids?


All seven kids. The boys went to St. Louis, except for one brother, who went to Kalani – your school.


Did he not make the grade at St. Louis? Don’t tell me.


No, no; he was the smartest, so he put him in Kalani.


Oh, okay. I like that.


He didn’t need the help, like the rest of us. And the sisters went to Sacred Hearts. And so my dad would borrow from every credit union, every finance company in town. In fact, in many ways, that was my first introduction to financing and banking. Because I remember my father, at night, would take all the bills from all of the credit unions and finance companies and put them in his police hat. You know, the big police hat; turn it upside down, and put the bill in there. When the bill collector would call, he would say, Listen, you call me one more time, and I’m not gonna put your name in the hat this month. And that’s how he financed all of us through schools. We never forgot that; the sacrifice. My parents sacrificed quite a bit to get us through – give us a decent education.


Ive spoken to an attorney in town who was your classmate at St. Louis; and he says, you know, Walter was always in the middle of the class. You weren’t the greatest student, and you certainly weren’t the worst. You were always sort of in the middle. I was surprised to hear that.


Maybe he didn’t know me earlier on. From the first grade through the eighth grade, I was a straight A student. Only A’s. And then I discovered hotrods and girls. But it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t handle the academics, as I was far more interested in seeing if I could add an extra carburetor to my hotrod or chase some of the Sacred Hearts girls down the street. So his recollection might be a little different than mine.


So were you a rascal?


I was a rascal; yes. And my father was a policeman, and one of the—the fun stories that I tell—when my kids were younger, I tried not to tell in front of them. But we were drag racing down Kalanianaole Highway one night, another policeman’s son and myself. And I had a beat up old Ford, but we were pulled over by a motorcycle cop. And he looked at the driver’s license and he said, Are you Sergeant Dods’ son? I said, Yes, sir, I am. And he went over to his bike, and they had the two-way radio on it. And I was just praying he’d take me and lock me up.


And not call your dad.


So he says—and I could hear him saying on the phone, Could you patch me through to Sergeant Dods. And he says, Sergeant Dods, shall I lock him up, or bring him home? And all I heard were the words, Bring him home. That was one of the scarier days of my life. And my father was very quiet, a gentle person; but every once in a while, he got a little angry and that was one of the few time he grabbed me and put me up against the wall, and told me what I was doing wasn’t such a good thing. Yeah; I was a rascal. Never got into any really serious trouble, but I was a rascal and pretty independent from an early age.


What did you want to be when you grew up? Did you think about that?


When I was growing up, especially as a teenager. I never had any great dreams or ambitions about making anything of myself in the business community. I had none of those desires. When I finally graduated from high school, I thought from a financial standpoint, if I could make a thousand dollars a month at some point in my lifetime, that would be the ultimate.


Walter Dods would go on to earn millions annually. But his legacy is not what he made. It’s what he gave. And continues to give. Dods is known for his community service and philanthropy.


I started you know, going to school because I realized I wanted to do a little more than just push a mail cart around. But as I started getting up the ranks a little bit in the insurance company, one of the old-time insurance agents said, You know, you need to understand what community service is all about and why the community is so important. So he forced me to a Jaycee meeting. This was the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and they were very involved in community service. And I went kicking and screaming; I didn’t want to go, that meant time away from my hotrod. But I went. And I think that was probably the single most thing that turned my life around. I saw other people involved who wanted to make something of themselves, while at the same time helping the community. And I really got turned on by the community aspect of it, the community service. And it’s been a lifelong bent ever since for me.


So At what point did you get serious about business, and maybe even leave the hotrod behind?


Well, when I was at First Insurance, somebody recommended me to Dillingham Corporation at the time, to go into their marketing department. And I liked the challenge. I was able to get the job and I ended up—I don’t know if you remember Norman Reyes.




Norman Reyes was my boss, and had a great influence on me early on in my career, and was a wonderful man. He was thevoice of Bataan, the voice of the Philippines when Bataan had fallen. He was captured and was a prisoner of war during the war, and then actually became a voice for Tokyo Rose as a prisoner of war during the war. So he was my first boss at Dillingham, and he taught me a lot. And my community service, at that point, I had become president of the organization and had been involved in many boards and commissions as a young person. And that allowed me to get that marketing job at Dillingham. And I worked there five years—


Through the community service.


Yes; the community service allowed me to get exposed to broader segments of the community, which I never would have done otherwise. So you know, you can help your community and also benefit richly from that experience. That’s the beautiful part about community service. As long as you don’t go in looking to benefit from it, the benefits come just naturally. So as a result of that, I got the job and really enjoyed it, and spent five wonderful years there when they were building the major part of Ala Moana Center, 1350 Ala Moana; many of the buildings around town. And the advertising person left, and all of a sudden they asked me to be in charge of advertising. I knew nothing about it, but I learned quickly, and ended up running the advertising campaigns for many of the developments in Waikiki and around town that you see today.


Have you ever backed down from a challenge?


Not any kind of a business challenge. I get challenged by my kids all the time, but that’s about it. No, I don’t.


What do your kids say to you? What kind of challenge—


Well, first of all, I have to start off with my kids, four kids. They are still convinced that I’m Homer Simpson. And I sit at home with the TV button and I just change channel. One time, we were driving somewhere and I had a call, and I was working on a particular large merger. So I started talking to the investment bankers, talking to them about you know, certain ratios and what we needed to do. And when I hung up, my son looked at me and said, I’m shocked. I’m absolutely shocked, Dad; I had absolutely no idea you knew anything about that.


So you kept your business life out of your home.


Yes; kept it out of my home, and my wife is really great about that. As a matter of fact, she’s so tough; I had a bunch of awards and plaques and trophies, she’d throw ‘em all in the garbage can. So most of them are gone, because—


That didnt hurt your feelings? Because that’s all your achievements.


Of course it did; it hurt my feelings, and I complained every time. And she just smiled, but she took ‘em out and got rid of ‘em. She says, We don’t need that kinda baggage at home. And of course, she’s right. We really don’t. To any parent who’s had some notoriety or success of some sort, it’s very hard on the family and the children. And so my wife fiercely tried to protect that side, and as a result, we have you know, great kids. And she gets hundred percent of the credit for that.


So you never talked business at home?


No; very little. Now, I talk more. One of my sons is the owner of Easy Music Company. And he’ll come home, and we’ll sit out in the back and we’ll talk. And he’s the CEO and he’s the janitor, and he’s HR, and he’s accounting, and he’s the window washer. And we’ll talk about things. Another son of mine, coincidentally, just started with the bank. Don Horner, the fellow who replaced me, recruited him. He was working for another company, and so we’ll talk sometimes. And my oldest son is in the video production business and we talk marketing and advertising. And our princess, my daughter, just graduated and she’s working. She got a degree in social work at USC, and she’s working on a research project UCLA and USC are doing on the inner city youth problems in Los Angeles. And so the social work part of me comes out and the community service comes out when we talk. So we do a lot of that now.


Well, while your kids were growing up, you were being called the most powerful man in Hawaii, you were being called the most influential, the highest paid businessman. I mean, all of these superlatives; and your kids didn’t know?


They didn’t know, or if they knew, we tried to really suppress that. I mean, we read these stories about the most powerful person in Hawaii. To me, it’s a big joke. I always thought that they were, you know, hilarious. I was active, I did get involved in political campaigns, and I did run a large company. But most of the stories are hilarious.


But isn’t it the nature of Hawaii that if you are the most powerful person in Hawaii, you don’t say you are?


Yeah; absolutely.


Itsyou should be humble. So?


Yeah. That’s a good shot. A good shot. But I really, honestly don’t believe it.


No break?


What are some of the community service milestones that you’re happy you were part of?


Well, I’m proud to have been a part of—I chaired the committee that built the Blood Bank building. And that was a unique one, ‘cause we raised the funds, designed the building, built the building, and moved in all in about fourteen months. Right by the prison; you know, right across from the prison. So I was involved in that. I was heavily involved in the newer building at Palama Settlement. These go back quite a few years now. Kawaiahao Church, Mamiya Theater. I felt that the St. Louis campus, that it was all athletics, all the athletics. There’s nothing wrong with athletics. I love it and I’m a big supporter. But I felt it’d be nice if the school had a little bit of, more of a well rounding than that. So we—the school had never raised a hundred thousand, ever; but we raised five million dollars and built the Mamiya Theater. And the whole goal when we built it was that — communities would use it for their productions. But one of the requirements would be that the students could go free to all the rehearsals. So all of a sudden, they could see a West Side Story or whatever else, and even the athletes. And if you’ve been up there recently, some of the school productions that St. Louis puts on – musicals, bringing in students from other schools as well; it’s just—it’s fantastic. So, but, United Way, I’ve been very, very involved in United Way over the years, and that’s a special, special cause that I’ve, I like. Because you know, raising big bucks—you can’t really do great social work if you don’t raise the money. I mean, people—you know, you talk about helping the community; but in the end, it may sound crass, but you’ve got to raise money. Whether it’s to repair the university, whether it’s to hire a football coach, whatever else; at some points, economic’s gonna come into the equation. And I was able to help a lot of different groups on the economic side, which I’m pretty proud of.


I asked you about something you did recently and you said, Oh, that, that was just a small thing. And you essentially raised $100,000 for June Jones in what, a couple of days? By email?


Yeah. We actually ended up with about $150,000. It was a friend of mine’s idea, Warren Haruki. And Warren asked me to co- chair it with him, and we sent an email out and in 48 hours, we had raised about $150,000. We were proud of that. And that worked because people said, If it’s a good cause, and if Walter and Warren do it, we’re in. Yeah; if you’ve worked in the community unselfishly, and you ask, people will give what they can give. I always said my whole career, whenever I help charities, don’t give ‘til it hurts, just give ‘til it feels good.


Walter Dods must feel exceedingly good, because he and his wife Diane have given a tremendous number of hours and dollars to charitable causes throughout Hawaii. Including–a million dollars to fund a University of Hawaii scholarship program for immigrants.


Well, tell me a little bit about why you were able to have the successes you had. Because you often say, Oh, you know, that’s nothing I tried for, or that was not my doing. But you always seem to rise, no matter what the circumstance. So how did you do that?


That’s a very hard question to answer. I just know that I always wanted to work hard. And I guess I was ambitious.



Ambitious for what?


Ambitious in trying to succeed. I think, really, you know, part of it comes from your background. When there’s seven kids, and you are poor, you feel like you have to try harder, I think.


Did you want to make money?


No; money was never— money came.


Or just make your bills?


No; well, you know, of course, I wanted to pay bills for my car and my hotrod when I got started. But my entire career was never about money. The money came, but it was never, ever about money. But I really had a desire to accomplish things in the public service arena, which you know, I worked on through all the years. That was far more important to me than money, and still is.


What about the importance of a sense of humor?


I think it’s critical; I really do. I’ve always believed in a great sense of humor. Little bit on the irreverent side, for sure.


And youve kind of pulled some stunts in business too, right?


Yeah; we used to pull a lot of stunts. When I was the national ABA president, I was trying to humanize the banking industry. So I showed up in a great, big speech of well, two speeches. One, I came out on roller skates and skated across the stage, prayed that I wouldn’t fall and make a total fool of myself. And that worked out well. But my best was when I got off as the national president after a really tough year of going to Washington, DC every other week for a year from Hawaii; it was a brutal year. And it was about thirty degrees, and we were in an auditorium and I had a three-piece suit on. And as I was finishing my speech I took off my jacket and I threw it into the crowd and took off my tie and I took off my shirt and cufflinks and everything. And I had the loudest Hawaiian shirt you could ever see. I waved and walked off the stage. It was fun.


Along the way, you must have learned to deal with lots of different people, and maybe that’s an advertising thing— knowing your market. But you’re a global banker. You deal with everybody, and you seem to have good relationships.


Yeah; I’m lucky. Because I started at the bottom, I really appreciate people at the bottom. I really do, to this day. Because I’ve been there, you know. I’ve gone into the kitchen and I’ve washed the dishes and everything. And so yes, I do see people of all levels. But having started at the bottom, I’m very comfortable with working class people. Also through my political involvement, but also through the bank and through the ABA and others—and I’ve served on the Federal Reserve Board Advisory, so, and with presidents of the United States and treasury secretaries and Federal Reserve officials. So I’ve had a great mix of experiences, and I feel comfortable—I’m not comfortable in formal settings. The classic story is, once many, many years ago, the Ariyoshis invited us to a formal dinner with the King of Jordan. And it was hilarious, because we were all locals, except for the guest. And there were thousands of forks and knives and plates, and none of us had a clue what to do. And so we watched Jean Ariyoshi the whole night; whatever she picked up, we picked up; whatever she ate, we ate. So the whole night, if she didn’t like the meat, we didn’t touch the meat. So that’s how it was. And so I never have learned the nicer skills in life. But other than that, I feel comfortable in almost any group.


You know, you say that money was not what you were after in terms of achieving. Do you think you lose, along the way, your ability to relate to people who can’t pay their bills, and don’t know how they’re gonna survive Hawaii because they can’t possibly afford more than the rent to pay a mortgage?


I ask myself that a lot of time; do you lose that ability. I would like to think that I’ve held onto it, but I think others in my family would say maybe I’ve lost it. I don’t know. I still like to turn the air conditioning when I’m hot. But having really been at the bottom and have worked a lot of years down there, I still respect it and I know what struggles there are, and I try to give back to those communities. And staying involved in community service, I think, helps me stay grounded. But I agree with you; it’s very, very hard to maintain and really understand what the struggles are you know. So you try to do it through your, your public service activities. My wife and I have funded scholarships at the university for immigrants. ‘Cause they, I admire them the most. They come here with nothing, and education becomes the most important thing. And you know, if our local people could believe in that a little more, I think it would help us all.


Looking to the future, with Walter Dods, means looking back as a point of reference. What does he see in our State’s economic future?


My big fear, and a big fear for all of us is, our economy is too dependent on one industry, tourism. We all know that. Even people in the visitor industry know that. But don’t knock it down and destroy it, unless you’ve got something better to talk about.


Well, now theyre saying real estate is a huge industry here. And where is that gonna take us?


Yeah. Well, again, you know, surprise, surprise. Real estate is gonna not be a huge industry over the next few years. We’re part of the world economic cycle. It’s coming already. A recession is starting in the U.S. It will end up in Hawaii. Real estate is gonna go into the tank. You know, and again, I’m retired; I can say those things. It’s gonna go into a tank for a few years. And in a few years—let me tell you, ‘cause I’ve been through four or five; as you get older, you learn about economic cycles. A lot of people think it’ll never happen again. This’ll never happen. Well, let me tell you what’s gonna happen. Unemployment’s gonna go up, construction jobs are gonna go down, and in three or four years people are gonna be saying we need more real estate projects, we need more jobs. This is what happens in an economic cycle. I’ve been through them many times before. Now, do we need you know, pell-mell real estate development? No, we don’t. We need quality developments, we need it done right; we don’t need to pave over Hawaii. It all has to be done in balance, so I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But we need to create other kind of industries in Hawaii. But until we do, we shouldn’t you know, kick tourism in the teeth, like we tend to use as a whipping boy. Tourism is critical to us. I’ve been in other communities where tourism has gone down in other parts of the world. The communities have been in terrible shape. We do provide a lot of jobs. Would we like higher paying jobs, would we like higher pay—tech pay jobs? Absolutely. Can we encourage them? Yes, we do. Do we have tax credits to encourage them? Yes, we do. But they are not at any point in any kind of critical mass yet, where they’re gonna replace the basic source of all of our incomes, whether you’re a painter, a plumber, a laborer, a banker or what. You’re touched somehow by tourism. It’s a dominant industry. We don’t want government to become our dominant industries.


Are we doing the right thing though, to have a better future here?


Are we doing the right thing? We could do a lot more and a lot better, but you know, there’s always ways to improve, for sure. Have we hit everything right? No, I don’t think so at all.


Is there something we need to do right now?


Well, again, it starts, to me, with education. It really starts with education. We have to do a better job. Are we doing a great job in education? No, we’re not, at any level. No, we’re not. Do we have a pretty good university? Yes, I think we do. Could be better, could be a lot better; facilities, faculty, everything else. But you know, there are a lot of constraints. But again, when we talk about all these things, it all boils down to economics. You want to fix that campus; big bucks. Where’s the big bucks come from? Taxes. Where’s the taxes come from? Tourism, basically. And all the lawyers, all the dentists, all the doctors and everybody else who are peripheral to that. So would we like to balance it. I think what I’d like to see is three or four prongs to our economy. Not government, military and tourism. We need to do better than that. There are small efforts, you know, in aquaculture and astronomy and technology, but we haven’t yet found—will we find something else over time? I think so. If you take a look at Hawaii’s economic history, we had sandalwood, we had whaling.


Now youre going back.


We had sugar, we had pineapple, we had tourism. We need, you know, to find the next big thing.


And you don’t know what it is?


I don’t know what it is. I wish I did.


And I wish we could talk longer with retired banker and community leader Walter Dods. But we have to keep this LSS. Please join me next week for Part 2 of this two-part conversation…when Walter Dods has this advice for Islanders who feel we’re losing control over quality-of-life issues: Get over it! He’ll explain. Mahalo for joining me for another LSS. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


I worked during high school, I worked service station. And how life comes out; Aina Haina Service Station is where I pumped gas for many years. And just recently, a few friends and I retired and went into another business; we bought all the 76 stations in Hawaii. That’s now a 76 station. So it’s kind of fun for me to go back to that service station where I used to fill tires and pump gas. And then I did Aina Haina Foodland next door; I was a bag boy. And then every Sunday night, I washed all the dishes at Aina Haina Chop Suey. So I’d get my hands greasy all weekend in the tires and the hubcaps in the service station, and then get ‘em clean by washing dishes for hours and hours and hours. And when I got finished, my hands were all just crinkly.


Ron Edmonds


Original air date: Tues., Apr. 17, 2012


Pulitzer-Prize-Winning Photographer


In Washington, D.C., Leslie talks with Ron Edmonds, a photojournalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt in 1981. This episode traces Ron’s prolific career, starting with his first job at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in the 1970s.


Download the Transcript




I’ve had some days where I got up, and practically every newspaper in the world … had my picture on their front page. And that’s pretty awesome.


Do you recall the first time that happened?


Well, probably the assassination attempt on President Reagan was probably the first of that many newspapers, and especially since I was the only one who actually captured the President being shot.


Pulitzer-Prize-Winning photographer Ron Edmonds – Next, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai ka kou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to this edition of Long Story Short. If you had to pick the perfect embodiment of the old saying being in the right place at the right time…photographer Ron Edmonds would be an excellent choice.   His innate sense of being in the perfect position to capture history-making images served him well during his 28-year stint as a wire-service photographer, for the associated press, assigned to the plum but highly competitive white house beat. He covered all presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.


I’ve known Ron Edmonds since I was a cub reporter at the old Honolulu star-bulletin. Ron had started there in 1972 as a staff photographer and he became chief photographer by 1977. Little did I know that he would one day win the Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the failed assassination attempt on president Reagan—taken in 1981, on Ron’s second day as white house photographer for the associated press global wire service.


I recently caught up with Ron and his wife grace, a former star-bulletin reporter, at their home in Annandale, Virginia.   For someone who would eventually put down roots and stay in the same job for close to 30 years, Ron Edmonds lived somewhat of a nomadic life while growing up.


I grew up in California. I was born in Richmond, California, , but I spent most of my life in Sacramento, California, and around Northern California. My dad was a construction worker, truck driver, and actually, until I was a junior in high school, I never went to the same school more than one year. It was kind of did a lot of moving around. My dad had to go … where the work was.


How many people in your family?


Had a brother and sister, and my mom and dad.


And up you go. Was at the beginning of the school year, or were you entering in between?


No, it was usually—I think one year, we had to move in the middle of the year, but most of the time, it was at the end of the year during the summer. And that’s usually the way construction work back in those days, where you—you were off, you got laid off for two or three months in the winter, and then you started up in the spring. So we would usually—my dad would find, you know, where he was he was gonna for his next job, and we’d move during the summer and start school there.


Was there a lot of dread, will we have a job, where will we be?


Well, , in the construction business, you know, it—it was tough. I mean, there were times my dad was on unemployment. We—we didn’t have a lot of money when I was younger. So it was—, but they were great parents. I mean, I never had—you know, I never went without meal or anything like that, but, it was from paycheck to paycheck most of my early days.


How were you at entering a new school, and not knowing anybody?


That was probably the toughest thing. I think one of the—one of the things that I—I lost in all those years—I—, I’m jealous of—of friends of mine who have lifelong, friends that went—that they went to school with. Where I was making new friends every—every year.


Did being a new guy lead to awkward moments? You know, who you’re gonna sit with in the cafeteria, you know.


Oh, of course. I mean, there were cliques and, you know, it was the in groups, and so you always—of course, in the younger years, it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t until you got up in junior high school and high school where the cliques, you know, were really. So it’s tough. You come in, you’re always the new guy, you know, and nobody knows you. An—and you—so you just have to—you try an—and get on the baseball team, or—or the football team by being good at it so that these guys want you to play with them.


Were you?


I was pretty good at baseball, and, football.


And did you develop a style of meeting and greeting?


Not really. I guess it was survival style, just to, you know, figure out whi—which group of kids you were gonna have the most fun with at the time.


I wonder if your experience of always being the new guy … helped you develop an outsider’s status, which actually is helpful when you’re covering news.


Well, you know, I’m—I’m somebody who li—kinda lo—likes to look at things from the outside, to be honest with you. I’m—that’s one of the ways I’ve always kinda done my photography, when I could. Of course, all—


Did that exist before… in high school? Do you know how that started?


No, I think it’s just—it just—it just came by—by how I grew up and stuff, and having you stand on the outside looking in, and then you pick what’s the best—best situation for you to move into that—that area. So, it’s very similar to what I do as a career. You—you arrive on someplace, and you—and you—some people like to rush—rush right into the thing an—and think they know, and I think you’re better off standing back watching what people are doing, and then—then making your move.


Which is exactly what you did when you were entering those schools, not knowing anybody?


Exactly. Exactly.






At what point did the early glimmer of photography enter your life?


I went to a movie called Blow Up.   David Hemmings, I think, was the star of the movie back in the … and I thought, You know, that’s a pretty neat thing taking those pictures. And I’d—I’d been—I had—was working—I’d worked for the telephone company right out of high school. I’d gone to work for them, and I was working for them nights, and going to school in the daytime. And so, about a week later, we were choosing classes, and—and I had a spare moment, and I thought, I’m gonna take this photography course. And as it turned out, the guy—the professor had just started teaching, and his name was Dick Fleming, and he had been a Sacramento Bee photographer for ten years. And we went to lunch, just—just a fluke, went to lunch, and he told me what he did. And he told me he got to fly in a jet plane, and I always—fighter, and I always wanted to be a pilot, but knew I wasn’t smart enough to be a pilot at the time. I went home, and I worked for about two more weeks, and I came in to school one day, and I said, Dick, I want to become a press photographer. And he said, Well, it’s hard work. I said, No, I’m twenty-four, I have no responsibilities, I’ve saved up enough money I can probably—I was sharing a room with a friend of mine. And I said, I can probably go two years an—and survive. What do I have to do? And you know, he tried to talk me out. I said, No, I’m going to work tonight—


And you’d taken pictures by then. You had some early—


I had taken—


—confirmation you had talent?


I—I had ta—well, no, I—I had taken pictures, but mostly just family—family pictures, vacation pictures, you know, scenics and things like that. It just—it—it—it bit me, and I said, Dick, now, I want—I want you to tell me what I have to do. So, he worked with me. I went to work—work that night, gave ‘em two weeks’ notice, quit my job. Fortunately, Dick had two friends of his that were still at the Bee, and they had a small freelance business, and they hired me as a darkroom guy, and then I started freelancing. And of course, it was the height of the 60s, and the riots were happening, and when you’re young and stupid, you go places that the veterans don’t go. And so, United Press International started buying some of my pictures, and they liked the stuff enough that they put me on a retainer for a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month. I would let them look at my pictures first. And so—and that’s how I built my portfolio up.


Well, what was that like, when you were putting yourself in harm’s way and getting some great images?


Yeah; exactly. An—and of course, when you’re young and stupid, you know … I thought it was adventurous. I mean, I came from a truck driver’s family living their life, and all of a sudden, I’m in San Francisco, in Berkeley, and people are shooting teargas, and people are—are—are doing this.


How fun. [CHUCKLE]


Well, at the time, it was. I mean, I—I must admit, it was exciting, I went from an everyday mundane life to—to sirens, and people being arrested, an—and taking pictures. And then, putting a picture on the wire … and having it show up in newspapers around the country.


Ron Edmonds learned early on that a news photographer should always be prepared, and that meant researching your subject … if you could.


When did you learn to be prepared? Was that also… was that a natural trait, or was that picked up in the course of what you had to do as a photographer?


No, I think—I think—I think it’s—it’s gained in—, as I got better, you know, got more into the photography. Initially, you know, you—Okay, I got my camera, I got my—and not … and after you have a few faux pas, you show up and you go shoot something, and you realize, gee, I was two rolls of film short, I forgot to buy fi—enough film. And then, you start building, you know, self checklists to make sure that you’ve—, you know, that you know what the story is, you know a little about the person. You can’t just go photograph somebody and know nothing about him. You can go make some images of him, but if you really want to show—you have to kinda understand where they come from, what they’re doing.


So if you had time, you always looked up the—


Oh, yeah.


—subject or the issue?




Okay; what about when I was the rookiest of reporters, and you were a Star Bulletin staff photographer—you might have been the chief photographer by then, and we got assigned on a slow day to go take a picture of a twelve-pound mango in—


Which I thought was—








Which wa—


Did you look up mangoes? Did you see what the—



No, you—


—previous record was?


You have to—you have to—you have to—no, I didn’t. But you have to remember, we didn’t have the Internet. It wasn’t quite as easy back—


That’s true.


—in those days. But—but no, I … tha—that—that was one of the things I enjoyed about working in Hawaii. We got to go up—, I think it was in, … was it Kalapana? No. I forget where it was at now. But we got to go up and meet a wonderful man. He was—he—I still remember him teaching us some little tricks about what you can do with papayas as well as mangoes. And—and you actually—I think you were the one kind of, we’re going up to do this dumb story. And I—I had—oh, this is a good story.




And actually, you piped up and got smiling, and we—and we had a—and it turned out to be a fun story.


That’s right. I think I was in that mode of, They always make the young women go do, you know, the mango stories, the—


Yeah, and I think I said, Well, wait a minute, I’m going on this story, what are you saying about me?


[CHUCKLE] That’s true.




Because for you, it wasn’t an action story, it was a picture of a—


It was a picture.


—big mango. But you were looking for what you could learn from the—



It was just an interesting, odd thing.


Right. And that’s one of the—I’ve—I’ve met so many great people. I think what I learned in Hawaii is that the little guy on the street has as much to say about what’s going on in the world as the guys in their big offices. And you learn that it’s not always the President … who ha—who has—is the good story. It’s not always the President who comes up with the idea of helping this group in—in some far off part of the land, it’s one of his aides and people who come to him and say, We found this out, and this is—so it’s trying to treat everybody with the same respect. An—and I—I think that gets you everywhere in life, from George Bush treating the gardener at the White House the same way he treated a head of state. No difference, same amount of respect. And I’ve always tried to be that way with people. And Hawaii is a—is a great place to learn that.


For Ron Edmonds, Hawaii also turned out to be a great place to find new love—and his future wife.


…I was fortunate one day to walk into the city room of the—of the Star Bulletin, and I looked across the newsroom, and here was this beautiful young lady sitting there. And I asked the assignment editor, I said, Who’s that? He said, That’s the new reporter. And he sa—so he said, Why, do you want to meet her? And I said, Yeah. So we went on a story, and I remember the story to this day. It was the Winners of the Fire Prevention Poster Week.


[CHUCKLE] A big news day.


A big news day. So we went, and I made these images of all the posters, and the winning kids, and all this. And next day, the paper came out … story by Grace Feliciano. Star Bulletin photo … no credit. She hadn’t given me credit on my picture, so I had to—I had to explain to her that, You’re the person who writes the caption. I didn’t know. [CHUCKLE] So we became good friends, fell madly in love, and … and close to forty years now, we’ve been together. We’ve got a wonderful daughter…


After my conversation with Ron Edmonds, I asked his wife Grace Feliciano Edmonds if she could corroborate his story.


Do you recall that first meeting?


[GRACE FELICIANO] I remember that exact day, ‘cause … being a clothes lover, I remember what I was wearing, what my hair was. I’d just come from New York City, and I was wearing a China doll look [CHUCKLE] with the bangs and the thing. And I actually noticed him as well. So, there you go. [CHUCKLE]


Now, obviously, he was away a lot. He says, yeah, two months, he’d take off. And even when he wasn’t physically away for months, he had long hours, and he had dangerous days too. What was that like for you?


Um, you take it in stride. You know, I—I try not to be a wor—worrywart, although, I have to admit, the day of the assassination, I knew that he was at the scene, and I was very worried. And there was no news coming out of it, just that the President had been shot at, and shots were fired at random and scattered, and I knew he was always physically close to wherever the President was. So that was a worry, and my—you know, my heart was, you know, thumping for a couple of hours ‘til I did finally hear from him.


That fateful event occurred during what otherwise was shaping up to be a humdrum day on the white house beat. Ron Edmonds knew the drill. The president would make: a speech, exit, and get back into the presidential limousine. Routine. Except Ron Edmonds had disciplined himself never to let his guard down and to prepare for the unexpected.


You were assigned to go to Washington Hilton in 1981, a speech, I don’t know if it was a particularly important speech, but you were assigned to record images that day. Tell us about that day.


Well, it was only my second day on the White House. But we went in, he spoke, I don’t know, fifteen, twenty minutes maybe. And we came—we almost missed the whole event, because at the Hilton, we were downstairs, and they always ask people, Please stay in your seats ’til the President and his entourage leaves. Well, as soon as the President walked out, everybody got up. There were two flights of escalators to get up to the ground floor where the car was at. Well, by the time we got to the back of the room to go out—‘cause he goes out a secure entrance, and we go out a side entrance, the escalators were jammed with people, and we were having to say, Excuse us, excuse us, because he won’t wait. As soon as he gets in the car … the motorcades’ gone, and you’re calling for a taxicab, try and get you back to the White House. So we’re all trying to rush up. Some of the people didn’t make it out the door by the time he—he had walked out. And so, you know, I—, we got up there, and again, it was a—it was another departure. And he came, he waved, and I made one image and the bangs went off.


And when you heard the bangs did you duck, did you look to see where they were coming from? What did you do?


Well, I knew they were a hail of gunfire [being facetious] and I just kept—


—no, I’m not going to lie to you. They sounded like firecrackers. It was over so quick, you did not have time to really realize what went on.


So, you would have a reason not to snap anything, right? Because it didn’t sound like much.


No, but it sounded—I saw him react. When the first—when it popped, it went, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. He shot six shots in something like one-point-seven seconds, from the first to the last shot it’s only one-point-seven seconds. I saw him grimace. So I knew that—I mean, this—even if it hadn’t been shooting, this was going to be maybe a humorous—what you call a humorous picture of the President of the United States reacting to this—to this bang. ‘Cause I saw him, he squeezed his eyes an—and kinda … grimaced like that. And it wasn’t—I didn’t even know they were shots until the limo—limo pulled away, and you could see the people laying—laying on the ground. Because they were out of my viewfinder, all I could see was the two agents through the viewfinder. And again, I thought—even when they pushed him in the car, which is normally what they would do if someone set off firecrackers that close to the President, ’cause they don’t have time to … decide it’s either a firecracker or not. And so, it wasn’t ’til the car pulled away, and that’s when I went, Oh, my gosh, because you know, here was Brady laying on the ground, and—and McCarthy the agent, laying there. And of course, then, I knew this was—this is when the adrenalin started pumping. And again, this is one of the situations where I had worked with this crew of agents for many months. And for a while, they allowed me—one of my favorite pictures is of the scene that’s got—that tells kind of the whole story is it’s got all three of the people wounded laying on the ground, and them wrestling with Hinckley in the background. Well, most of the other photographers, even the ones that had come out late, didn’t get that, because they got pushed back off to the side by the agents. And I was fortunate enough that I was off to the far side, and for quite a while, the agents who knew me left me out there. The first agent grabbed me and went, Oh! Just moved me aside, realized who I—well, he was moving people out of the way. So I was able to make those images before they kind of once they get organized and they start making press areas where you have to stand and all that. So those are the little things that help, in doing that. And of course, you know, I can’t tell you what all I—you know, that—that your whole mind gets into the mode of, of what you have to do. Do I get—have I got—I thought I was in trouble. All the way back to the White House, I was sure I was gonna be in big trouble, because I knew that I had never seen Hinckley’s face. I knew that I had—had pictures of them wrestling with him, but they had initially pulled his jacket over his head, which is one of the ways you incapacitates someone, pull their jacket off. But the good thing was, I got back to the White House—, I had—actually, I got a ride from—’cause the biggest thing that happened to me that day, on my luck side, is that when they pushed the President in the car, the motorcade took off and didn’t stop for us. Because if the motorcade had stopped, I would have had to get in that van. That’s my job to stay with the President. I’d have had none of the aftermath, none of the arresting of Hinckley. And I—I—I know to this day, I—I always tell people, thank God that van didn’t stop, because I would have had to make that split second decision. You know, my job is to stay with the President, you never leave the President.


How much physical risk did you turn out to have been during the shooting?


Well, I didn’t know this ’til later. Jerry Parr was the lead agent on the thing, and we’re pretty good friends, and he showed me some of the diagrams. And fortunately for myself and the UPI photographer who was standing right next to me, the one bullet that didn’t either hit the car or hit—hit anybody out there went across the street, and went about two feet over my head across the street.


It was an intense few moments.


At some point, obviously, President Reagan recovered, and you must have had some conversation about what happened, and being there together.


When I won the Pulitzer … the President invited me into the Oval Office, and , so we had , a little ten or fifteen-minute meeting, just the two of us, an—and—and aides. And he was funny. We used to call him Governor, an—and—and people would say, Governor, look this way, Governor, look this way. And he said, You know, Ron, he says, I think next time, I’m gonna have a stand-in for this scene. [CHUCKLE] So—then he proceeded to tell me a Cecil B. DeMille joke. But he was a—it—it was very, very nice of the President that he invited me in and talked about it.


And then that was just the beginning of your tenure at the White House. You spent years more covering— the President.


Twenty-eight years—


Tell me the numbers, how many presidents?


Well, I’ve … I’ve made pictures of every president since Nixon. Nixon, Carter, Ford. And then, I covered—at the White House, I covered—cov—I did some photography of—of Carter in his last month, and then I did Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush … and that’s it.


Who was your favorite to cover?


George Bush, Sr.

Because of his personal—






He—he—he loved everybody, and, he was just—he was fun to cover. There’s a work and there’s a politics, and we don’t always get along politicking wise, and—, but I—I just—he was a very, very, very good person with everybody around him.


While the first President Bush is Ron Edmonds’ pick as his favorite president to cover, Mr. Reagan is the one to whom he will forever be linked because of the Pulitzer-winning photo sequence. And the Reagan assassination attempt was not the first, or the last time Ron Edmonds found himself in the line of fire.


Do you think having these near-death experiences, or brushes with a—


Oh, I think you’re—




You’re—you’re making ‘em a little more than—I mean, I—I’ve been shot at, an—


Do you think it changed how you look at things?


No, not really. Part of when you get into this, you’re a little gutsy. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed doing things that are a little—gotta le—we all—most good photographers have a certain amount of adrenalin rush that they get from what they do. And —


You got that wild gene.


From surfing to—I’ve raced cars, an—and all kinds of things like that, and so I—I don’t want to—I don’t want to say that it change me. The first time I was ever in gunfire was during the riots in the—in the early 60s in Berkeley in People’s Park. And the first time you’re around someone shooting and you realize that you can get hit with it, a lot of times you’re around those situations, but you kinda stand off, and we all kinda have that feeling, it’s not us. That we’re kind of—


Right; it’s a denial.


—an observer, we’re around it. I was , actually fairly easy with people firing guns, even though a gun can—can kill you. It wasn’t until in ir—I was in Iran for—for a short stint, and it wasn’t ‘til we were coming on artillery fire. And that changed the whole world, as wha—what you think about being a bang-bang photographer for me. I mean, a bullet, you kinda think, Well, that’s something that—it’s gotta hit me. Artillery coming in is so indiscriminate, and there’s nothing you can do. I mean, there’s literally nothing you can do. If it’s coming in, it’s either gonna hit you, or it’s not gonna hit you. And if it hits near you, you’re gone.


Whether on the battlefield of a war-torn country or in the politically-charged environment of the power centers of Washington D.C., Ron Edmonds made sure he knew what to look for.


People think, Well, gee, you just take pictures, it must be nice just to show up and take pictures. Most people don’t realize if you’re gonna do it well, the night before, I’m looking at pictures that, before the Internet, we would have picture books and stuff that we’d take along, so you know who the people were when you’re meeting with foreign leaders. You read the wire before you left in the morning to see if, well, is this Senator, or is—is this head of state, is there something we should be looking for, or—


You’re looking for reaction shots, aren’t you?


Reaction, and things that—


Who should I go to?


Sometimes, it’s like going in the Oval Office. I always tell people, the hardest time for me career wise is that split second when they open the door to the Oval Office on a huge story. Because in that split second, you have to—you open your eyes, and the AP, fortunately the AP was always the—‘cause they’re the largest wire services, first one through the door. And you ha—sometimes there’s thirty or forty people that have to go in the Oval Office, which is not very big. That includes camera crews, still photographers. And, when that door opens up, in an instant, you have to eyeball who’s in there. Because many times, it’s not the person sitting and talking to the President that’s the story. It might be during political season. For instance one of the big events, Karl Rove, who was George Bush’s, image guy, was in trouble. I can’t remember what it was, but he wa—controversy, and he’s standing back over by the window. We hadn’t seen him in three days. I spotted him going in the door and made a pretty decent picture. Got a lot of play. It wasn’t huge, but it got a lot of play, where the other two guys that were with me didn’t notice that [SNAPS FINGERS] the … we’re only in there for, on average, not more than thirty seconds is all you’re in, unless he speaks.


Always on the cutting edge, Ron Edmonds would help lead the white house press corps’ transition to digital photography. But because of what the new technology could do, the pressure to capture and deliver images as quickly as possible would increase dramatically.


Do you have a deadline? What is—to beat your competition, what has AP said is the time you must get it in?


Well, we’d like to have an image on the wire in under ten minutes. Preferably five. From the time the even stopped—started. Not stopped, started. So sometimes, when you’re going to an event, you’re traveling—traveling with the President, say, in town or even out of town, and you go to—maybe he’s speaking to the 4-H Club of America. If we know we’re on critical deadlines, we know that, okay, as soon as I have something I think’s usable, and will illustrate what the President was doing, as soon as I’ve got that, I take the disc out, I’ve got a laptop on my backpack, I grab it out, and hope you can get a Wi Fi signal, and you move the picture. So—and while you’re doing that, you’re sitting there watching the President to make sure nothing happens.


By the time Ron Edmonds retired in 2009, he had earned the title of senior white house photographer for the associated press. Looking back, he realizes what an amazing career he’s had.


I’ve covered volcanoes on Mount St. Helens, I’ve covered the war, I’ve covered the Olympics, I’ve covered Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics. I’ve been to almost all—every—I’ve covered almost every convention since 1980, and I’ve got to see things that most people will never see in their lives. You know, traveling down the Nile River with—with the President of the United States chatting with you, or getting a call one morning from President George Bush, Sr. One morning at eight o’clock in the morning, the phone rings, and Grace answers the phone and … she wakes me up and says, It’s the White House calling. I said, What? The White House? She says, the guy on the other end says it’s the White House. So I answered, and it was his aide saying, What are you doing today? I said, Nothing. He said, The President would like you to come over and play horseshoes. So I went and spent—you know, spent the Sunday, it was like going to your grandmother’s house, you know. We barbecued, we played horseshoes. You know, how many people get to do that? I mean, from the son of a poor truck driver, and here I am sitting and having a drink with the President of the United States. That’s a pretty—pretty good , a pretty good career.


Ron Edmonds now spends his days bass fishing and hunting, and after being away on assignment so much from his wife Grace and daughter Ashley, he spends a lot of time with family. He continues to capture perfect moments—now at thirty frames per second, with digital video! Thank you, former Honolulu resident Ron Edmonds, for sharing your story with us and for delivering your images of history-in-the-making to the world. Until our next Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


I kind of felt like I was always the eyes of people who couldn’t get there. I’ve been—moments I was in—in Berlin with—with Ronald Reagan when he told Gorbachev to tear down the wall. And talk about things that occasionally you mi—miss. Fortunately, everybody else missed it, but we went over to a thing called Checkpoint Charley, if you remember that, and that was the dividing line between the German—Germans and Russians and us. And he went and stood next to the line, and we were all shooting these pictures of him standing there with the guard tower in the back. And in a kind of an unscripted moment, he took his foot and real quickly stepped across the line, and stepped back before anybody—well, it happened so quick, none of us got it. Everybody was writing about it, and of course, we were getting rockets from our—our people on the other end. Do you have a picture of him stepping into—into Russian territory? Fortunately, nobody did. [CHUCKLE]



Solomon Enos



Original air date: Tues., July 14, 2009


Hawaiian Renaissance Man


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Hawaiian Renaissance man Solomon Enos. The muralist, painter, book illustrator, comic strip creator, educator, and futuristic storyteller is also the groundskeeper for the forest preserve in the back of Kalihi Valley – the site of Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services. Enos draws inspiration from the land and considers it a “sentient” that must nurtured the way one nurtures a family member. Enos also talks about developing his Honolulu Advertiser comic strip Polyfantastica into a graphic novel.


Solomon Enos Audio


Download the Transcript




What Hawaii really is, you know, I—I think is—we’re still coming to understand that. You know, I think there’s a much—much deeper layers of meaning that we have yet to tap into. And that’s pretty exciting stuff. [chuckle]


Wow; and you plan to be right there when— 


Hopefully, hopefully.


–when the meanings come out.




A painter, illustrator, forest preserve groundskeeper, educator, and futuristic storyteller; he might best be described as a Hawaiian renaissance man. His storytelling canvas stretches from the beginnings of Hawaiian culture to forty thousand years into the future. And while he’s only in his early thirties, he seems to possess the wisdom of a very old soul. His name is Solomon Enos, and you’ll meet him just a moment on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Like father, like son might be the best way to begin the story of native Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos. Solomon’s father, Eric Enos, also has a background in art and is the cofounder and executive director of Kaala Farm in Waianae, a nonprofit farm that promotes sustainability based on the Hawaiian ahupuaa system, and is also used as a cultural learning center. Solomon is a groundskeeper of a similar organization deep in Kalihi Valley, Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services. His parents and his other family members supported Solomon’s decision to pursue a career in art, but the gift of artistic ability was something born to Solomon Enos.


All little kids love art; they love fooling around. At what time did you get a sense that maybe you had a gift?


H-m. Well, I remember my um, kindergarten teacher pulled my parents aside one day—I think it was during a uh, parent-teacher night. And she said, Solomon, when he draws people, he doesn’t just draw circles with lines; he draws their heads, he draws their bodies, he draws their pants, and the buttons, and everything. And I remember that; I remember that affirmation at such a really early part of my life. And I just thought, like, Oh, cool, okay, uh, I think I know how to draw, I think I’m a—think I’m gonna be a drawer. [chuckle]


An—and your parents encouraged you.


Yes. All throughout, all throughout my life.


How did they influence you?


My grandfather, to begin with, Joseph Enos, always wanted to do artwork, always wanted to draw; actually had a big collection of art supplies. And he could never really sit down, he never really got into it, but he always encouraged me to draw. And whenever he—I drew pictures of anything, of like monsters and robots and things like that, he would post it up inside the house, and my grandmother would roll her eyes—Oh, no, my goodness. But he was always—he’d always say, Whoo, ah, I’ve always wanted to draw, and I’m so happy that you’re drawing. Oh, good, good, good. And my mom was just an amazing support, because she gave me a lot of really interesting ideas, interesting ways to look at life. You know, sometimes um, she would tell me, You know, Solomon, whatever you put your mind to, you—you really do it. You know, and that an—well, and that kind of encouragement, I think, really helped to, you know, form up my—my process. ‘Cause whenever I start a project, I’m like, at the end, I know it’s gonna be great. You know, I’m gonna put my mind to it, and it’s gonna—it’s gonna be awesome. And my father had received uh, a masters of fine arts at the University of Hawaii in 1969; he was really quite a profound influence on me as well. And there’s one painting which um, he did which shows a person lying down at the bottom of a valley, and—and his body kind of opening up, and all of his entrails kinda leading out and becoming the landscape. And it’s not gross at all; it’s actually quite beautiful. And that—and that’s that kind of interesting kind of a uh, paradox of, you know, internal organs and landscape, those are the kinda thoughts that really influence me at an early age of my life.


Of course, your father uh, is also a cultural heavyweight on the Waianae Coast, having started the Cultural Learning Center at Kaala, and using um, the farm and life to—to help drug abusers an—and people who’ve lost their way find um, stability again.




How did that influence you?


In the beginning, it was always a bit rough, ‘cause I—[chuckle]—I’d rather—I wanted to be at home, you know, drawing or uh, watching cartoons and things like that. And so my father would be pretty adamant about taking me and my brothers up to go and work up in—in the taro patches up in the back of Kaala. But what I was able to do was look at how my father helped—with all the other folks that work at uh, Kaala Farms, uh, to help to engage um, different kinds of people, you know, from folks, you—you know, folks from universities, you know, school children, um, uh, to talk about the deeper significance of the back of the valley and the deep—deeper significance of, you know, what the role of Hawaiian culture has to play within uh, the future of Hawaii. And I think um, all of those are—become uh, I guess, themes for my artwork. And I think that—uh, looking back, i—uh, I was really given quite a uh, enriched experience, uh, an enriched uh, childhood.


And here you are now, living on a forest reserve. So you’ve got uh, some of the same elements you had when you were a kid.




Except in another form.


M-hm; m-hm. Uh, everything that I’m doing in the back of uh, Kokua Kalihi Valley Nature Preserve is really like an artistic process.


What is your actual job? There’s none like it—




–anywhere else, I don’t think.


Well, uh, it’s interesting, interesting. Um, I’m actually a caretaker uh, at the nature preserve. There’s actually um—the nature preserve is divided into two different uh, uh, ili or subsections of the ahupuaa. And uh, different ili within the ahupuaa are almost like different organs within the body. And the—uh, which is actually very appropriate, because the nature preserve is a department of Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Center. And so we’re actually a health center that is uh, you know, uh, has adopted a nature preserve. Uh, the hope is, over time, this—these areas that we’re—we’re managing up here in the uh, back of Kalihi can become resources for members within the community.


To get to the preserve, or the reserve, you go all the way back Kalihi—Kalihi Street, right?


Yeah; yeah.


Very, very back.



And you have devised the nicest No Trespassing sign—




–ever, which says nothing about trespassing. What is it?


I took out the Keep Out signs, because um, when you—when uh, I think when working with youth and working with individuals, uh, who have challenges with authority, you know, they’re gonna look at it as a way to say, Oh, you know, I’m gonna go in. I’m going to go in, and I’m gonna do what I like. You know. And so I took out the Keep Out signs, and there was one Keep Out sign left, and I didn’t—I couldn’t take it down, uh, ‘cause it—it was um, a sign that said Violators Will Be Prosecuted, you know, a five hundred dollar fine. And about six months ago, it got some graffiti on it, and there was graffiti on some of the other signs on some of the other properties, uh, adjoining out property. And so I went and took a little paintbrush, and I cleaned up some—my neighbors’ signs and things, touched it up a little bit. And when I came to that one sign that said Keep Out, you know, Fine, I covered it over and I wrote … This Land is Your Grandmother and She Loves You. And … it’s a little bit, you know, sappy. But it’s amazing, because I think it causes people to pause and to think about what is their relationship to their grandmother, what is their relationship to this land, and it even um … and I kind of touch on—tou—touch on this a bit in some of my other work; it—it kind of encourages this thought that this land is a sentient being. It’s—in fact, we may just be figments of its imagination. [chuckle]


And it will always be there, whereas we won’t.




The deceptively peaceful looking forest preserve where the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services resides is a bustling learning center for a wide spectrum of organizations and people of all ages.


I um, work with uh, Farrington High School. Uh, they have a uh, environmental sciences class. I do—we actually have Halau Lokahi Charter School; uh, two of their classes are based up at the preserve, so we always have children around all the time, which is an amazing, amazing blessing. And we have community workdays where we try to engage co—community members from Kalihi Valley in—in part of the whole … the story, which is the—which is the preserve. I—also, I’m able to do a lot of work with patients from the clinic. And um, the clinic is really kind of a core for a lot of the programs that I’m—that we hope to be expanding into, particularly—


And what kind of patients?


Well, uh, initially, patients through the nutrition department at Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Center, and these are elderly uh, Samoan uh, Trukese, uh, Filipino, and Hawaiian patients who have dia—you know, diabe—diabetes, uh, heart disease, and other kinds of chronic uh, illness. And my understanding is, you know, looking to a source of illness, you know, so much of it is related to displacement from culture, land, family, which leads to depression and stress. And—and um, so the opportunity for us to open up garden areas where these elders can come outside, and start to plant their traditional foods again, and um, become a community. ‘Cause in this community, you have different peoples in the same area, different cul—customs, but sharing ideas, talking story. They’ll come outside, they’re a little stiff, they’re—it’s a little rough to get going, and they’ll get out, and the—the sun is out there, and it’s a nice breezy day. They—they start to straighten up a little bit, they look at the gardens, they look at the soil, they—before you know it, they’re tiptoeing on the logs, and they’re teasing each other, and they’re translator is saying, I can’t translate that.




I shouldn’t. [chuckle] Being—and out of the corner of my eye, I’m just—they’re like little children again. And I think that’s really coming back to, you know, trying to figure out what is the source of illness, and what are—where can we—where can the real healing uh, begin. You know, and I think that—you know, it’s very much an artistic process, you know. Because it’s watching how people evolve from b—from the inside, and it’s providing the—the environment for that.


So for you, it’s—it goes beyond health to art.


Yes. Yes, yes. And it’s um … uh, understanding health as almost like a medium, almost like uh, uh, a—a transformative process. Plants like ilima and um, uh, popolo berry, um, and uh, alaala wainiu all ha—all—it’s almost like a um, a pharmacy, you know, an organic pharmacy. And I think that uh—you know, you take—you take the leaf, and that’s your prescription. And you say, Okay, this—this—this leaf and I get this medicine. So instead of uh … instead of pills, we have berries, you know. And I think that uh, that’s kinda cool. Um—This nature preserve can help to become sort of the future health center, you know, and future clinics and future hospitals. I mean, in a sense that—or future pharmacies, actually [chuckle] when you think about it.


In the sense of medicinal gardens?


Medicinal gardens; yes, yes. And it makes sense, because that’s how it’s been for millennia. [chuckle] Is that living healthy, you know, um, to keola pono, to live well is, you know, you—isn’t really limited to your health centers. You know, it’s—it’s everything you do throughout your life, you know.


You know, all of this sounds very inspiring and very physical in part.


M-hm, m-hm.


How do you do your art in addition?


Um, well—


Your personal art.


Lately, I’ve really been having to channel a lot my energy into doing the work on the land. And I actually … will take down some trees, and drop them into the ground, and build up the soil, and cover it with mulch. And it’s almost like that is the artwork. [chuckle] And so instead of painting pictures of gardens, I’m sort of building them. You know, and actually, that—that whole process is—is um, I guess, where I’m putting a lot of my creative energy into. Um, but to translate it a little bit more directly, I hope to be doing some carving and painting, and uh, even uh, digital media classes with uh, youth from the housing areas in Kalihi. And that’s—that’s where I think I’ll be able to link it up a little bit more closely. Because we do actually have um, classrooms and um, other facilities up at the preserve there, where we can bring people, take a walk through the forest, um, get really inspired, and come inside and try to capture those uh, those ideas in—in—in some form of media.


What’s it like at the preserve when the school children go home, and the—the health center patients go home, and it’s—it’s just you and your family uh, alone on ninety-nine acres?


M-m. You know, it’s—there’s almost a s—I hear a sigh of contentment from the land.


Sure it’s not you?


No, it’s—might be me; it might be me. And I—but [INDISTINCT]. But uh, it’s—it’s—it’s a sigh of contentment. Because what we try to do is think about how we’re trying to translate what the land is telling us, and what—and—and uh, you know, we’re trying to listen to the land, an—and—and—and try to—we’re trying to, you know, humbly to speak for it. And one of the things that um … I know it’s been telling me is that it’s missed all these—all the children, it’s missed the families, it’s missed the elders, it’s missed the jokes and the laughter. ‘Cause it’s—it’s had to put up with a lot of junk, a lot of rubbish, a lot of pain—


It was a dumping ground for—


Dumping for—


–a long time.


–for cars, and—and for people, really. I mean, maybe not—well, not entirely literally, but you know, in—insomuch as people who ha—having a lot of issues or problems, going up there and having to … self—you know, I guess self medicate, I guess you could say. You know. And um … but—so uh, from a lot of that pain, you know, we’re hoping to transform that place. And again, it’s—it’s the people who are—who are always there, you know, this—the energy that’s there, that’s um, that’s really been asking. That sentient—sentient grandmother [chuckle] landscape that’s been saying, Oh, where’s the—where are the babies, where are the children? And they say, Oh, oh, they’re coming, they’re coming. You know, bringing back the voice of the children to—bringing back the—the breath is something that uh, it just—it just makes so much sense, and it really does seem to be what the land is—is asking for.


You know, so many people of your generation, or—or almost any generation today, no longer count on having one job for their lifetime. They figure they’re gonna have six, seven, eight careers.




But you’re saying, the—the next thirty years, this is where I’ll be.


Yeah; yeah. Um—


And it’s not—it’s not a cakewalk. I mean, you’re—you’re—you’re felling timber, and creating—




–mulch and all that.


Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah; and actually, I feel very content. And I mean, it’s—it’s I guess um, who’s that guy; Joseph Campbell who says, you know, you follow your bliss. You know, and it’s definitely—I—I’m—I’m following it. [chuckle] And I feel very, very content to be doing so. And—and actually, what I hope to do is to kind of figure out, you know, if I do a really good job up at the preserve, that I can help to create more of these kinds of opportunities for other, you know, youth and families to become caretakers, you know, to open up more areas of land in the back of the valleys. Um, uh, because there are so many different benefits, you know. Particularly, the hope is to partner up with, you know, Board of Water Supply, because they own the back of Kalihi Valley. What we’re doing is excellent watershed management, you know, ‘cause we’re putting back natives, uh, we are opening up areas for composting and mulching, you know, putting up garding and—gardening and farm areas. And these go, you know, really far to help to uh, retain water for—and to help to um—for the health of the entire aquifer, entire uh, watershed. And—and that can become a model for the back of every valley in Hawaii, you know. And that’ what we hope to do, is kinda create a—uh, what you call ohe kapala or like a bamboo stamp; create a template. You know, get a—get a really good design, and then you go [CLUCKS TONGUE], right across. [chuckle] And so …


How has your artwork changed since you began living in the back of Kalihi Valley?


M-m … well … well, well. You know … there’s just a lot more rain in the back of Kalihi than there is in Makaha. [chuckle] So uh, rainy days are great days for me to sit inside. Um, I have uh, I’ve converted my—our—our dining room table into a s—par—partially into a studio area. [chuckle] And uh, um, so I’ll sit there. And it’s great, ‘cause I have—my children are playing around, and family’s around all the time. So I do get a lot of in time—uh, inside time, you know, to sit and to render, to draw. Sunset and morning times, amazing light. Just the—the light—


And different light in different parts of—




–the island. Sure; that makes—




–a lot of sense.


Oh, it’s amazing. And just stepping outside and watch—and looking how that layer of light is … it’s—just washes over everything, and it just unifies the entire landscape with beautiful amber hues. And so um, yeah. So if I’m ever at a loss, or if I’m not—ever don’t feel inspired enough, I just sort of open—open my door for about forty-five seconds. And I go, Oh, okay. Close the door—




–and get back to it.


Have you looked at the history of the back of Kalihi Valley—


Oh, yeah.


–to see what happened there before you?


Yeah; yeah. That’s actually right where we are in some of our discussions at the preserve, about doing research that—that tells the story of the back of the—or that’ll help to tell the story of the back of Kalihi Valley. And one of the persons that I hope to really engage … more is uh, Puakea Nogelmeier. Because he is also a Kalihi resident, and he lives on—right off of Kalihi Street as well. So yeah, yeah. And so uh, hopefully, we’d like to translate some more stories about Kalihi, and um … throughout the preserve—I’m really excited about this, is actually looking at creating installations that uh, could be carvings and different things, and at the base of the carving will be a story. And it could be a story of—you know, one of the many stories of the back of Kalihi Valley.


So this—the—the installation, the art would explain, introduce the valley to the people—




–who come along?


Absolutely; absolutely. And uh, even, there could be some uh, pathways that move through the ninety-nine acres of the preserve where each different section of the pathway would be like a page from a story and—where it’ll be a different scene from a story. Uh, it would be a stone with a different figure carved into it, or it could be carved in certain shape. And so um, and it kinda ties into this idea of uh, when we take groups through the preserve and we talk about all the different volunteer groups that have gotten involved in different areas, what we’re doing is we’re—we’re actually walking story.


While his current lifestyle seems utopian and far removed from the highly competitive world of commercial art, Solomon Enos has enjoyed success as a book illustrator, muralist, CD cover artist, and cartoonist, starting from a very early age.




Do you remember the first time you ever got a check for your artwork, you ever got paid?


Yes; yes, yes. Actually, the first time was—uh, and it was actually my very first commissioned project. And I was honored that my first—the first offer I’ve ever had to collaborate with was Auntie Pua Burgess. And so—amazing, amazing, amazing woman. And it was curriculum for fifth grade at uh, um, Makaha Elementary School. And actually, I think it was used for a broader uh, range of schools through the DOE. I was sixth grader; so I was a sixth grader doing artwork for a fifth grade textbook. And uh, you know, the images are raw, you know. But there’s one uh, experience that I particular remember from working with Auntie Pua, which um, you know, I like to draw upon that was, you know, quite a lot of fun. And this—it’s a story about this boy that daydreams a lot. And so he’s helping his mother unpack groceries from the car, and he drops the eggs, so the eggs spill. And his mother is—you know, she’s got other—other things going on in her life, and she’s really upset. And she picks up an egg, and she throws it at him. You know, and then she [GASP] realizes what she’s done. And—you know, and she feels really ashamed about it. And so Auntie Pua says, Okay, for this part, here, put on this old dirty tee-shirt and let’s go outside. So we went outside.




And she gets an egg and she goes—she even makes this mean face. She goes [GROWLS], throws it at me. I go, Ah. And for one moment, for three seconds, I was that boy within the story. And I was like, Wow, why did she—oh.




[INDISTINCT] And—but I think it—it—that kind of immersion into the character, into the story, has really helped to influence everything that I’ve ever done since. And so—anyway, so my first—my first paycheck, I think it was like uh, I think it was like a thousand dollars. Like at the time, I was like, Wow. And my mom goes like [WHOOSH] [chuckle], I’ll be taking that. [chuckle]


Don’t want to get too used to you spending it.


Exactly. [chuckle]


What kind of art have you done as a—as a paid artist since?



Well, all the book projects I’ve done have been uh, quite a lot of fun. Kimo Armitage; two stories in particular, the uh, Na Olelo Noeau No Na Keiki with uh, through Island Heritage, and Na Akua Hawaii. And that was um, through Bishop Museum Press, and those are gods and goddesses of Hawaii. Every project that comes along is um, an opportunity for me to do research, to—that … or that research that comes out of those projects actually help to inform everything else I do after that. And on the other end, I guess, would be the work that I’ve been doing uh, for Polyfantastica, uh, which is very much more of a conceptual uh, project. You know, it’s really thinking about, you know, broad an—and long ranging ideas that tap into the meaning of our—or the role of our, you know, our uh, human beings within the—within the universe, you know. So it’s pretty far out kinda stuff. [chuckle]


Is it—is it Star Trek meets Hawaii?


Uh, yeah; yeah, yeah. That could be; that could be one way to look at it. And uh, you know, but honestly, I think my influences are more folks like uh, Kurt Vonnegut and uh, more uh, folks like uh, Carl Sagan. You know, folks that uh, kinda challenge what’s accepted as normal, you know, and helps to provide … helps to make the thing everyday become much more significant.


So you’re quoting a writer—a writer and a scientist, rather than another artist—




–as having been—




–your models.


Yes, absolutely; absolutely.


And you translate.


Yes; yes. And it’s that inspiration. In fact, I’m thinking of—there was one line from Vonnegut where, uh, he asks uh, uh, the characters in the story, you know, there’s—What is faster than light? And they don’t have an answer. And he says, Okay, you see that star? Okay; you see that star. Okay. Awareness. So wow, okay. So an idea can be extremely powerful; it can be faster than light, you know, consciousness.


Polyfantastica began as a weekly comic strip for the Honolulu Advertiser illustrated by Solomon Enos, and written by his wife, Meredith Desha Enos. It has since grown into plans for a graphic novel. The ever evolving epic is filled with philosophical parables stretching tens of thousands of years into the future.


In this story, um, a father and son, they’re—they’re strapping themselves onto this great big kite. And they’re in the middle of this great, beautiful valley, gardens going as far as your eye could see. And they launch themselves up into the sky, and the fa—the father tells his son, I’m taking you to a special gathering today up in the sky. And this gathering is—we’re gonna tell you a story about a time when human beings used to kill each other. And the son can’t—you know, What? Wha—how do you—how—with the world full of wonder and beauty, how would anybody ha—how could you even do that? The whole concept is lost to him; violence and war is lost to him. And he says, Well, when we get there, you’ll understand, you’ll hear the story, and um, we’re gonna go to this place. And what it is, is they break through the clouds, and it’s this great big kite city. And this kite city, all these kites are parking, you know, drifting up to the top. And they go, and there’s this knowledge that is put up in that kite city that never touches the Earth again. But it’s put there, and the children go there to understand that human beings can destroy, human beings have had a hi—has this history, but we’ve moved—we’ve evolved away from it. But we still need to tell that story, so that we never make those mistakes again.


You’ve set yourself a huge task with the preserve, and forty thousand years with Polyfantastica. That’s a … where’d you get forty thousand years, an—and how are you gonna do that amount of work?


Uh, well, um … I hope to be able to build a—or help to foster a um, moolelo industry, a storytelling industry here in Hawaii. And uh, it can happen at many different levels, but it—we’re gonna need a whole host of researchers, of artists, of writers, of creative thinkers to tell the traditional stories of Hawaii, and also tell—um, and to help to look at what the role of Hawaiian people have been as navigators, as people who m—when sitting on their island, looking at the currents, watching the birds, saying, There’s something else beyond where we are right now. And I’d like to create a theme that talks about there’s something else beyond the way the world is now. It’s here, but we need to get there somehow. And so how—what are we gonna do, and how can we use the stories that we tell ourselves to change reality?


If you looked at Solomon Enos’ resume, you might conclude he’s a guy who can’t decide what to do; artist, illustrator, groundskeeper, environmentalist. But there is one job description that ties everything he’s about together; storyteller. His tools are material things; paints, pencils, computers, plants, land, students. But the stories he tells with these materials are of another realm, one that traverses tens of thousands of years. We wish Solomon Enos the best in his storytelling endeavors. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ahui hou kakou.





And as you raised your hand, I saw a tattoo.




And—and since you’re an artist, I—




–I want to ask you what’s—what’s the image?


Oh, I’m not sure. Um, I’ll probably figure it out later on. [chuckle] I actually um, was just experimenting a little bit with—


Did it yourself?


Yeah; yeah, yeah, yeah. I just was sort of making things up as I went along. I—I do have a few other tattoos on me, and I’m just actually kind of like a uh, a sketchbook, really, a live sketchbook. [chuckle] So not—not a lot of—


Since you can’t erase. [chuckle]




You can’t blend it out.


[chuckle] So not—not a whole lot of things [INDISTINCT] some of the artwork that I um, that I have uh, uh, on me.


Peter Rockford Espiritu



Original air date: Tues., Jan. 22, 2008


Tau Dance Theatre Founder


What does it mean to be an artist? For Peter Rockford Espiritu, it’s a lifelong journey of creative expression through dance. Peter is founder, choreographer and artistic director of Tau Dance Theater, a dance company that combines ballet, modern dance, hula and Pacific Island traditions into something completely original.


Peter Rockford Espiritu Audio


Download the Transcript




You ready?




Okay. Let me just ask you; um, off the top, I noticed you’re wearing a hala lei of a color I’ve never seen before.


It’s uh, um, it’s an orange-red, but it’s more red, and it’s very rare to see that color these days. I think it was more common before. And uh, I’m partial to hala. A lot of people that know me know that I—I’m—I love hala. Um, the—the—the … what it represents, about beginning and endings. And uh, for me, a lot of my life is about beginning and ending. So I thought hala might be appropriate, and the color is certainly is beautiful and very Hawaiian.


Beginning and endings; you mean your productions?


My productions. Um, I feel like uh, a lot of times we start from uh, just a little seed that’s planted, and it grows into this big tree, an—and it is unveiled to the public. But eventually, it has to—I have to let it go and—and move on to the next thing. And uh, and so that—that semblance of—of—the Hawaiians say hulihia, where things turn over or um—that is uh, I think uh, kind of uh, hala represents that—that uh, what we—we do in the—in the business world of—of the arts.


You’re known for mixing and compiling uh, genres of music, and—and dance. Um … let me—let me just say that again.




Uh, you’re known for combining and mixing genres of dance. But I think I’ve heard you say that you’re a traditionalist; how does that fit in?


Well, you know, I—I think to uh, respectfully—and I—and I’m all about that, respect—it uh, to do this, you have to be really heavily grounded down here. And uh, I—I take a lot of um … I do a lot to make sure that my—my con—my connection to the base is strong. And so in those ways, I still uh, study the art and the—the form, and the life of hula, and I feel that I dedicate myself to that. I still take uh … dance classes, I still go to uh, ballet classes, and I—and I keep myself regimented in those forms, because uh, I have to express myself in a different way. I have to be able to have um, tools at my disposal. If I don’t understand the base and where the base is, then I can’t abstract and—and uh, take it to another place. And uh, that’s where I love, uh, my love of—of the artform is, even if I’m creating a new artform.


Do you take flack from traditionalists who don’t want you to take their form anywhere?


Um, actually, a lot of—if I do, it’s probably someone who doesn’t know me or the um, the … the process, and the—the respect that give that process. Um, a lot of times, my answer to them is, It’s your job to keep the traditions alive, and keep that … base solid. It’s my job to identify for today and possibly tomorrow. And so um, I—I—I will always um, stand behind my work and always try to uh, explain where I’m going with something, and why I’m going there. And uh, if they can show me that I’m causing trouble in—in the wrong sense, I will stop what I’m doing.


You collaborated with a traditionalist Hawaiian kanakaole hula family on what a sense—what in a sense was a modern hula.




How did that happen?


Well, uh, I—I uh, sought them out. I wanted to do something that honored the new island—well, it’s gonna be a new island maybe in twenty, fifty thousand years. Um, which they named Loihi. Um, I wanted to honor that island, and I identified with that island because it is a new … entity.


Beginning. [chuckle]


Yeah; it is. It’s, once again, hala.




There’s gonna be a beginning and eventually, it’s gonna break through the water, and it’s gonna be part of the Hawaiian chain. What does that mean to us as m—now? Well, it should mean something to us. And I—I felt that there should be something that would honor that island, and I thought … what better people to go towards and ask to help me um, honor this island than to the—the traditionalists of hula, uh, the kanakaole. And uh, they thought about it; they thought about it for two years before they took that step. And uh, I’m grateful f—to them. They felt it was their kuleana because of their connection to Pele, and the lava flows, and that is what is causing this island to come. So now there are chants and um, that will honor that island. Why not honor—that island comes if we as uh, human beings survive ourselves. I hope that those—those dances and chants will survive um, that island to honor it when it does become an—a truly—truly an island.


By that time, today’s modern chants will be ancient chants.


It’ll be kahiko.




And there we go again, full circle.


How did you translate Loihi in dance?


You know, uh, we actually … uh, uh, we’re always talking about—I always talk about identity, because that’s what I struggle with. And um … uh, Auntie Pua and—and Nalani, what they did was identify—they actually enti—ended up calling the island uh, Kamaehu, the reddish child. And they—we called the project—it went from being O Loihi to Hanau Kamoku, meaning an island is born. So what we had to do was start to write new chants and identify what h—that island and what it meant to us inside as Hawaiians. And then uh, translate that to movement. And uh, as they started developing their side, I had to identify what we were doing, what—you know. ‘Cause the hula is very restrictive. And uh, they have to adhere to those restrictions. Me as—as a modernist, I don’t necessarily have to; I can wear lights on our heads and move around, and—and we could be the sludge and the—and—and the—the—you know, the coral polyps. We can do those things, we can stand on top of each other and move. So it actually helped to tell a story in a broader—uh, wider sense of the word. And uh, that was my—that was my goal, to help tell that story.


You say you struggle with identity as an issue in general.




I’m just trying to imagine you as a kid from Aiea—




–who wanted to grow up and be a ballet dancer.


M-hm. Um, yeah; I struggled—it’s funny, because I always walk that really fine line. I was a uh, three-year letterman for Aiea High School for the um, soccer program there, uh, for the varsity team. I was team captain when I was a senior, but I always also a band geek. You know, I was in the marching band. Um, I studied hula, I was part of the drama department, and—and I was kind of … just in everything, but everything artistic. And uh, as I got older, wanting to do ballet, a local young … kinda punky kid, local, from Aiea, wanting to go to New York and dance, I had to struggle with what that meant to—to me. I was fine with it, but what did that mean to my family? You know, they certainly didn’t want me to go off and go move to New York and do ballet. You know, that was the furthest thing. My father is a—is a uh, you know, he’s a welder, you know, by trade. And he’s a local, you know, young, great man from Maui. Certainly, ballet was not in his, you know, vision for me.


He didn’t want to tell his friends at the—




–construction yard; Eh, my kid’s gonna be a—






Or, he’s gonna be in Nutcracker; go check him out.




You know? But uh, actually now, he proudly says that, you know, My son is a ballet dancer, and he—he—he’s in—a director and artist. You know, he—he’s an artist and he—he’s a dancer. And he’s proud of me.


Well, at that time, who were your influences? Who did you look to in art to emulate and learn from?


Um, Martha Graham; um, in ballet, Baryshnikov certainly was—you know, started to uh, ho—hold the torch for uh, male dancers. Um, I—uh, you know, I looked to—because I uh, love different forms, from uh, you know, uh, uh, a Gregorian chant, the beauty of that, to the—the other side of it, which would be uh, a basic ha—beautiful Hawaiian oli, you know, the—my—I—I struggled with identity because what does that mean? I want to be a ballet dancer, but I still love my hula. You know, so I had to find—I had to go off and look for who I was and why I was. What was my—what was my function here, and how can I help Hawaii survive as a culture and as a people?


So you did go to New York, and you did become a ballet dancer.


[chuckle] I did; I was crazy, and—and—enough to—and energetic enough to uh, move to New York and—and start to follow that dream. And uh, I—I—put—got a scholarship at the School of American Ballet, which is a feeder school of the New York City Ballet that was founded by uh, George Balanchine. And uh, I pursued that dream.




Until I found out that—well, I … eventually realized I wasn’t going to be the—the prince. I wasn’t gonna play the lead role. There was a chance, a big, big chance that I might, but uh, the furthest—the—the highest I felt that I could go, given my stature and all of that, uh, would be—


Stature and all of that; please explain.


Okay. I have to—I—I—I—I really think that in the ballet world, at that time—and you’re talking early to mid-80s. I was brown, I was short, and I wasn’t bl—blond-haired and blue-eyed. I wasn’t gonna be the prince. And I ha—I had to—once again, I had to struggle with the whole thing of, this was my dream. I went to New York to become the—the—attain the highest position I could in ballet. It wasn’t gonna happen.


It’s like the equivalent of be—you would always be a character actor, rather than the star of a movie.


Exactly. And some of those character actors make more money eventually as a star, but you’re—I wanted to be the star. And uh, when I finally be—um, came to the realization that that was not gonna happen, I had to make some hard decisions and say, Well, Plan B, Plan C; what do you want to do? And uh, my whole thing was … uh, move back home. When I left, I knew I was gonna start my own company. And what that company was gonna be, I wasn’t sure. But that started the whole journey towards Tau Dance Theater, which is where I ended up trying to identify myself as an artist, as a choreographer, and as a dancer.


This is a f—uh, a dance company you founded.


Correct. We just celebrated um, ten years last year. And uh, you know, uh, even at the beginning of it, I was heavily influenced by ballet. Eventually, I found modern, and eventually it brought me back to hula.


I’ve seen you do hula, Samoan slap dance, Tango. I mean, what is Tau Dance Company?


It is all about identity. It’s about my—what I am today. And I call myself a modern Polynesian, a modern artist that is uh—contemporary artist that is living in the now, uh, respectfully understanding the base and the traditional base, because that’s my roots. And then trying to project where that will take us, and live—little—leave little gems for our future generations say, That’s what they were about then. And uh, um, hopefully also, the traditional side will survive. Because we—it’s a living culture; the Hawaiian culture is a living culture. And I like to think that Tau Dance Theater will help um … the culture survive on the—on the modern sense of the word. Because I’m—I’m about uh, using Western form to tell traditional stories.


You’ve already mentioned beginnings and endings; uh, when we come back, I’d like to ask you about transitions within your production, and what goes into your head as you—you look to make bridges uh, between genres. That’s when we come back, with Peter Espiritu.



Peter Rockford Espiritu is the founder of the Tau Dance Theater. How’d you get the name, Tau Dance Theater?


Tau is actually my name; it’s a shortened version—it’s Samoan. It’s my middle name. And my name is Ututau, but my family calls me Tau for short. And uh, um, I didn’t know what I was gonna call my—my—my company, and one day it was—I gotta give her credit; it was Melveen Leed who told me, Tau, you should just call your company Tau; Tau Dance Theater. You know, and I said, Well, it’s gonna be Tau Dance Theater. I said, Are you sure? And she says, Everyone’s doing one name thing now; use Tau. It’s Polynesian, it’s easy, you know, and then it’s—and it means more than one thing. So um, I did; I used Tau, and it stuck.


And that’s why you say Pacific Islander, rather than Hawaiian, because you’re Samoan too.


Correct. My father is Hawaiian; he’s half-Hawaiian from Maui. And my mother is actually from Fagatogo, from uh, American Samoa.


Let’s talk about transitions within your productions. You tell stories.




And you go from one genre to another, but those transitions have to make sense. How do you make them flow?


For instance uh, Naupaka, which was the last full evening length work we did, um, the whole idea is to stay open to not trying to just tell a story in one genre, but for instance, uh, uh, when the two lovers meet um, there is tension, um, they’re just meeting, they’re young. And—and uh, and what does that whole scene mean to me? It means that there is uh, entanglement. And what is the genre that I chose? Tango. And I think that that—if you understand the process, um, the—the language that’s singing in is Hawaiian, but it’s still that—that entanglement of it. The—what is that—they’re meeting is gonna cause something, it’s action and reaction. And so uh, in that scene when they dance, uh, we start with tango, but it’s also—there’s a girl on point. Um, uh, what they’re singing about is—is uh, is this love tension happening, and—and with new love, you never know. They’re being drawn to each other, but they don’t know what that is. And—and so a tango was the thing. In the awa section, in uh, Naupaka, it’s about the drink of awa. But what is the cup that is used? It’s a coconut. So we used uh, more of a traditional—well, Samoan coconut style dancing, and—and we used the slap dancing or—or Hawaiian, they use the pai umauma to uh, start it. It’s a very physical kinda male thing. And I use those genres and—to tell that story. So um, my whole as artistic director or as a storyteller through dance and movement is to identify what is the most appropriate movement tool to tell that story. We’re not a halau, so we’re not uh, um, left to uh, confines of one genre. Uh, I use all of the styles possible to tell a story, as long as it helps tell the story, not detract from the telling of it.


Do you ever use traditional Hawaiian music for your modern uh, productions?


I do. Um … now again, you’re talking about tradition. And um, if it’s a—for instance, if it’s a m—if you’re talking about music and tradition, if it’s a mele or an oli that is uh, existing, um, I tend not to touch them. If I do touch them, they—they will pre—be presented in the form that is most um, appropriate. If it’s gonna be, for instance, a Kalakaua chant, it’s gonna be done the way it’s supposed to be in, an olapa style. No changes, no nothing. Um, so we rarely go there. We um, we tend to want to create new uh, oli or mele, and then create—then we can go on from there.


So you write your own music or you have your own music written for your productions.


Correct. Uh, I think it’s safer, and it’s more respectful. That way, um, if you’re gonna touch something, it’s not gonna be um … misused, uh, misinterpreted. And uh, I think it’s safer.


You know, respect is a word you use almost as often as you use identify. But very important to you, both of these concepts.


M-hm. I—I think it’s uh, um, it’s the basis of what Tau Dance Theater is all about. Um, without the—the core base tradition, I’m nothing. Without the traditionalists keeping their traditions alive and—and without people understanding the base, um, I’m just—we’re just a bunch of people jumping around, doing weird things. And that’s not my goal. My goal is to understand that there is a connection. Um, it’s just like modern art against um, against, you know, like a uh, a traditional type of form uh, a s—uh, a study of fruit against, maybe, something like this piece of uh, art. It—there—it could be there. And uh, my job is to help you identify and understand that connection, that piece is connected to this in some way. The hala, the beauty of the—and the scent that it gives off, and the traditions. I’m—I am both of these things. And as a—as a modernist, my job is to uh, help you understand that the reason why I’m here is because of the connection to these. And uh, I wa—I—I’m asking for respect also. I’m ak—and I’m asking for pe—to understand that you have to understand both, and uh, I am asking for respect to um, my genre and where I’m going. ‘Cause I’m not just doing anything; I’m—I’m trying to keep the traditions alive by identifying who I am. So …


To do this, you have to understand all of the genres and yourself.


And not be afraid to take those steps. ‘Cause um, you know, you put something out there, you’re leaving yourself open for people to uh, you know, not agree. And I don’t need you to like my work or agree; I need you to understand that this is one person’s view, my view. I don’t expect to be correct; I just expect you to understand that I’m expressing myself artistically, respectfully, and trying to find my own identity.


Did you ever miss the mark for yourself?


Oh, man; more often than not. And I—I myself sometimes don’t like my own work. And I’m very honest about it. I’m learning, I’m—I’m uh, still a student. And uh, I don’t think I’ll ever master any of it. But um, if uh, uh, I think that sometimes I do miss the mark, and uh, the other thing to remember is to um, apologize if you do miss the mark. It’s—


Well, how—what have you ever had to apologize for?


Well, sometimes I feel like I um … I uh, maybe get close to a line, and uh, I will um—in the um, liner notes of the program say, If for some reason this offends you, uh, that’s never my intention. My intention is to try to identify that there’s a problem, and that—that—maybe that um, my artistic renderings will help you—uh, us as a people to identify those—those problems. Um, and Naupaka was one of those things where I thought um, understanding that … what you do, your actions, will cause a reaction. And maybe your intentions were not to cause uh … any uh, problems, but uh, you have to understand that whatever you do will cause a uh, a reaction.


So what was a reaction that uh, you wish hadn’t happened?


Um … sometimes on my—what I’m doing is misinterpreted, or you know, uh, I think that um—I mean, I know when I first started, a lot of traditionalists did have a problem with what I was doing. And I uh, I think they thought that I was maybe um … uh … maybe um, uh, causing uh, a uh, a problem with understanding uh, the traditional side. But uh, you know, it’s—I don’t know; it’s hard for me to articulate that.


But uh, you put yourself out there, and uh, and uh, you do become something of a lightning rod.


You do. And uh, you—you have to understand, I mean, um—and uh, you—you have to understand, I mean, uh, that um, you have to do your homework and be able to under—explain what it is that you’re trying to say. ‘Cause you know, people might not get what you’re trying to do.


But you know, and—and probably related to some of the leading figures in traditional hula.


I do. Uh, and I continue to study my—my um—my first kumu hula was the late John Kaimikaua. Uh, my auana teacher was the late Uncle George uh, Kananiokeakua uh, Holokai. Um, I now study uh, olapa uh, traditional with Auntie Cissy Akim, and Mel—Melvin Lantaka. Um, uh, I do take ballet class on a regular basis, and take modern with my original modern dance teacher, Betty Jones, who was a founding member of the Jose Limon Modern Dance Company in New York. So I keep my tradition, you know, base solid. But uh, I also try to keep myself open to new things.


So you’re a dancer and a dance student. And um, Tau Dance Theater is a 501C3 nonprofit foundation, and you do everything, right? You—you choreograph, you do the business side, you—the promotional side—




–must be intense.




You market, you fundraise.


Yeah. [chuckle]


How do you all of that?


You know, it’s a—it’s a matter of survival. I mean, I—I have to believe th—that um, eventually the right people will come into play. Um, it’s—it’s real sensitive, what Tau Dance Theater is all about, and uh, uh, the circle is very small. I don’t do that on—I—I don’t do that on purpose; it’s just, you know, if you’re not—the right people have to come. So uh, unfortunately, I do wear many hats, uh, including grant writing, um, budget projections, final reports, keep—making sure our 5013C is healthy, fundraising, and—and the vision of that, as well as kokua groups that I think are—are important to support. Um, it’s all part of the kuleana, and I—I know you understand that, because um, with Lokahi and uh, a lot of other things, uh, you know, you’re—that’s part of who you are, and that’s important to you. So—


But it’s hard to do all of those things well, because they each take time.


They take a lot of time. And uh, um … sometimes I don’t have enough time for just myself. And uh, and we were talking about fishing, and that’s where I—that’s my—my time. Yeah.


And how much fishing do you—how much ulua fishing do you get to do?


Well, uh, I go once a year to the uh, Hilo Casting Club uh, uh, competition where they—they do a state um, um, island wide competition. So I try to go maybe three or four times a year. And uh, um … uh, an—any time I go to Hawaii Island, even for research, uh, I go out and—and fish. If not ulua, maybe small game; which is always good.


So I noticed that even in your recreation, your hobby, uh, you know, you can catch fish that weren’t predators. But ulua are strong, fierce, smart fish, as fish go.


Uh-huh. And they—


An—and that’s what you choose to try to catch.


Yeah; I never thought about that. I never thought about that. It’s—uh, I think it’s challenging, ‘cause you’re—you’re—you’re restricted, once again, to the shore. We’re not doing off—of the boat.




And uh, the elements, and what have you. And—


You’re trying to get them into your turf.


That’s right; they have to—they have to come into that small, little area that you’re at, and hopefully you’ll be successful in catching. And we’ve been pretty successful.


Does your mind really clear when you are out there fishing?


I call it um—I call it artistic detoxation. Um, I think that uh, when I’m fishing, I—I can let go of all the stresses of—of—and it is stressful—and all the—all the things that are my responsibility and kuleana, and I can actually just look at the elements and—and uh, whether we catch fish or not. And I’ve been lucky enough where we usually always do. But um, it’s just [INDISTINCT]. Places like Kau, or Kalowalo, or you know, Hamakua side, or um, uh, Kalapana area; um, these are all Hawaii Island areas, ‘cause that’s where I choose to go and stomp, and—and—and travel. But um, those are … places where my electronics won’t work. I can bring my computer, but it won’t be able to connect, my cell phone might not work, and uh, that—


And that’s a good thing, right?


That’s a great thing. I look forward to it.


Well, when we come back, I’d like to ask you uh, just uh, whether you’ve ever met anybody like yourself, if you’ve sensed a kindred soul. Because you’re complex, you’re very original, very different. Uh, we’ll find out from Peter Rockford Espiritu when we come back.



We’re back on Long Story Short with the founder of the Tau Dance Theater, and that is Peter Rockford Espiritu. Welcome back.


Thank you.


You’re so … different, yet you meld so many ways and are aware of so many genres. And you say you like to keep the Tau Dance Theater small uh, because you need to work with people who truly understand. How many people do you find who—who are kindred souls?


You know, um … actually, there’s a good uh—on average, the dancers that I used about thirteen to fifteen strong. For a large production um, it usually bumps up to double that. But uh … kindred souls. I think uh, uh, collectively, the people that I work with become one for me.


But they don’t have to have the same vision you do; you just have to tell them of your vision right now, right?


Yeah; and they don’t necessarily have to agree with me. They have to be strong enough to call me on things and say, You know, I don’t understand where you’re going with this. So—and uh … yeah; they have to understand what I’m all about, but they also have to be strong within what they do.


And now you’re taking your efforts out to the schools; you’re—you’re—you’re working with kids.


We are. We’ve always been in the school system, and we’ve always done um, youth and outreach. And all—every production we’ve done has always had a educational element. We are actually now in the process of starting a youth group; it’s called Tau W2, like Y squared. And uh, it’s because uh, after ten years of being uh, a company, I felt that it was time to take a step towards uh, really investing in our future. The ideas that this youth group will uh, not only represent us as youth, but down the line. Uh, hopefully, they will be the feeder uh, company to uh, to the Tau Dance Theater, which is the—the adult company.


Are they more open than others, say, to o—to mixing genres, combining?


You know, the—what we’re doing now is identi—helping them identify the different genres. Truthfully, a lot of these uh, youths do one genre. They’ll take—or they’ll go to a school and learn jazz, ballet, tap, and all that. But I—I think a lot of them tend to excel in one form. Or they’ll go and only do one form; they’ll do only jazz, or only ballet, and uh, not understand how all of those genres can actually create a new form. That’s where Tau Dance Theater um … has evolved to. And that’s where our job is to, one, identify—help them identify what the genres are that make Tau Dance Theater, which is ballet, modern, uh, hula, and—and maybe a little jazz, hip-hop. And then understanding how those genres have helped evolve Tau into what it is now.


How are most dancers that you work with at uh, moving from one genre to another? I mean, you’d think most people would be best at one, and they have a second, and they’d have a distant third.




How easy is that for them?


It’s not easy at all. Uh, a lot of my dancers uh, have one form that they are comfortable with. I push them to be comfortable with two or three. Uh, truthfully, many of the dancers who naturally fall into Tau Dance Theater, um, have had hula background, um, uh, but chose Western form. And so uh, uh, I think uh, a lot of them—uh, or they’ve had ballet, and then have had others. I don’t think I have too many that are just, you know, specialty. You know, that’s very rare when I’m—I’m using a dancer that way.


Is there any dance form that you say, Forget it, I’m not putting that in one of my productions? Tap dancing; anything?


Uh, we haven’t done tap yet, and I’m not gonna say no. But uh, also cultural—you know, it’s—it’s hard to fake something, and I don’t ever want to fake something. Um, and so uh, there’s many genres we haven’t done. There’s some that I—uh, there’s not one that I have said no to. There’s some that I would like to, you know.


For example?


Um, I think um … Balinese would be interesting. You know, very, very interesting to add into. Uh, I’ve been Bali a couple times, and I—I really like the genre of—of how they move and the—and the expressiveness of the hands and the—and the fingers. And the eyes.






Sounds like that would be very hard to get a grasp on in a short number of years.


I think you’d ha—have to be really selective on how you use it, and—and—and find a special uh, s—uh, someone who understands the movement to help us integrate uh, respectfully, again.


Do you think what you’re doing will always be an alternative form of the arts, or can you see yourself going mainstream with this?


Uh, you know, I—I think um, we, once again, walk that fine line of mainstream. I mean, we do convention work, and we do that kind of um, corporate business kind of thing, where it’s uh—to me, that’s not reality. I mean, and—and I have no problem with that side, ‘cause I …


When’s the last time you used this for a corporate deal?


We just did two major things. We did the Governor’s Ball, which was the March of Dimes uh .. large fundraiser, just this weekend. And uh, my—I—my job was to help connect, once again, the cultural base with corporate identity. And then also, help it … ease into understanding uh, on a fundraising level. A large—


Well, how did you do that?


Well, you know, the—uh, I’m very strong with my cultural ties, and I understand the corporate side. Um, and I understand the connection to it. So for instance, we ended up using uh, elements and uh, for instance, water. Now, culturally sound wise, I—first thing that came into my mind was, ohe, the—the uh, nose flute. So using the nose flute, and going into an oli, going into hula, and then that nose flute transcends into a jazz flute. And now you have a connection. And the jazz flute can go into the corporate—the uh, phonetic movement of the, you know, of every day kind of thing. An—and uh, my … I kept using those kinds of themes; using fire, using earth, and—and—and trying to help translate the Hawaiian base into a corporate theme. Um, the other thing was, we just did uh, Hyundai, which is the Korean car company. And uh, that was another big challenge, ‘cause we were unveiling cars. And so they wanted two different styles. So you know, uh, reinventing what I do, and then trying to keep our integrity, um, will—even when it’s a commercial venture, um, is challenging, but I—I welcome the challenge.


So you were say Hyundai.




How do you translate art at that point?


Um … that’s a good question. I have to identify the car; what is the—what is their vision to that car, and what—how do they want to connect that. So for instance, I had a halau; it was Sonny Ching’s halau, Na—Halau Na Mamo O Puuuanahulu. And they did—the women did uh … the implement number; I think it was Moku—Moku O Keawe, where they did uh, puili, bamboo, uh, uh, ipu, and—and uh, uliuli, and went into uh, Kamapua traditional, uh, the men. And the men did all this whole oli thing, and we went into this whole other—that when the car came, this was where the transition came in, where we had this beautiful kind of goddess girl bring the car in. And uh, and she did this dance, which was part of—you know. So then it wasn’t disrep—disrespectful to the Hawaiian side. And at the end, they wanted this big celebration thing. I chose a mele mai. ‘Cause to me, it was uh, a birth; it was about creation. And—


What is a mele mai?


It’s uh, procreation. And uh, I don’t think they—to this day, they know what it was all about. They loved it. But it was my creative way of using tradition to—to still uh, continue traditions, but at the same time, you know, maybe use the time to educate them.


An—and not everything has to be literal.


It doesn’t—


In the translation.


–have to be literal. They don’t even have to understand it. And that’s another thing about my productions. Maybe—uh, uh, I try to layer things. You can choose to enjoy just the beauty of the movement and the sound, and the—and the music. Or you can choose to go deeper, ‘cause there’s always gonna be layers, and you can actually dig deeper to try to find the cultural connections to what I’m trying to say.


And you are a person of many layers. You know, I’m—I’m kind of surprised that hala, with its uh, beginnings and endings—




–is—is what you think of. Because you seem to me at the core to be a person of transition and—and bridging.


Uh-huh. But for that transition to happen, there has to be an ending. So it’s not necessarily and ending, but uh, it has to—there has to be a finite thing that happens. I’m good at connecting, and I’m always trying to make it seamless. But at the same time, maybe um, that’s part of what I do, is to make it seem like there is no ending.


And what’s uh, what do you do—what are you gonna connect with next in—in your career?


We are actually working on a uh, piece of work that will honor Poliahu, the goddess of uh, of uh, Mauna Kea and the snow. And uh, we’re going to start to lay down the—the basis to where we’re gonna go with that. That—we’re projecting the winter of 2010.


Well, it’s been wonderful talking with you.


My pleasure.


And you’ve been so patient with me; I’ve had a hard time with—with part of your name, because I pronounce it local style.




And you have an artistic um, interpretation. Could you explain that?


Sure. I mean, a lot of people go, Oh, Espiritu. E—Espiritu—


Which I—




Which I’ve done again, and again, by the way.


Yeah. And—and—and truthfully, a lot of my family members say that. I tend to go more towards the um … the, I guess, Latin version, which is Espiritu, like [LATIN LANGUAGE].


Peter Rockford Espiritu; thank you so much for being with us on Long Story Short.


Thank you for having us. Aloha.






Ralph Goto


Original air date: Tues., July 10, 2012


Leslie Wilcox talks with Ralph Goto, administrator of the City and County of Honolulu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. Over the past 30 years, he has helped to bring professionalism and respect to an occupation once viewed as being only for beach boys and surfers. Ralph is recognized in the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field of water safety.


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Lifeguards then, I think, were viewed as beach boys, surfers. That’s a real job, and you get paid to do this. So we addressed that, and we looked at what do we need to do to raise the level of training, what do we need to do to raise the level of funding, and try to stay within reality, and eventually worked our way—what’s this, thirty years now, to an operation I think that’s pretty well respected. And I think, given the resources that we get, I think we do a pretty good job.


For more than thirty years, one man has been at the helm of Oahu’s Division of Ocean Safety, and in that time, he’s helped bring professional standing and respect to the men and women who guard our beaches. Join us, as we meet Ralph Goto, here, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll get to know Ralph Goto, the administrator of the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division of the City and County of Honolulu. In his career at the City, he’s taken strategic steps to bring lifesaving into the modern era. In May of 2012, he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field of water safety. And that’s not the first time Ralph Goto has received recognition.


You’ve won the prestigious Paragon Award from the International Swimming Hall of Fame, but you didn’t need to do anything other than be born in order to have a claim to fame.


[CHUCKLE] Thanks, Leslie.




Yeah, my claim to fame, what I tell people is that in 1946, I was born in Japan, in Sapporo. My dad was sent over there right after the war with the Intelligence Forces and the occupation troops, and so my claim to fame is that I was the first American baby born in Occupied Japan. And I’ve lived with that ever since.


[CHUCKLE] So your parents were from Hawaii?


They were originally from Hawaii; yeah.


And your father was sent as an interpreter, translator?


Military intelligence. He was an interpreter during the war, because he was bilingual. He didn’t speak about it very much. You know how those second generation Nisei were. But he did a lot of military intelligence, and that’s why he went to Japan right after the war.


Where did you grow up?


First ten years of my life, in Japan.


So you speak fluent Japanese?


I used to. And I speak survival Japanese, which I can catch the train and I can order some food.


Go to the bathroom.


Right; go the bathroom. But the Japanese influence is very strong. We have some of those values that were passed on by our folks, and we try to live through those.


Ten years in Japan, then where?


Ten years in Japan, then one year at Palolo Elementary School. Wonderful place. Sixth grade, and then went back to Japan for my junior high school years. And then, my dad was transferred to Baltimore, Maryland in the early 60s, and we went to Baltimore. We were the first Asians that they had seen in this neighborhood. And in the early 60s, Baltimore County was still segregated, so they had the White school, and then they had the Black school.


And where did you fit in?


Well, [CHUCKLE] there was a little debate, and I believe the officials decided that my brother and I could go to the White school. So we went to the White school, and my mother was told that, It’s because you guys are so clean and you’re nice, and so we’re gonna let you try there. We did fine. Brother and I played sports, and I think that’s why we were accepted. We did great.


Did you think about what your life would be like if you didn’t play sports and have that affinity with the other players?


I tried to relate that to my sons when they that age, and tried to tell them about my experiences in going to different places. And the sports really helped us, assimilate and get along with folks, and I think that was a really important part of our lives.


Because if you didn’t have that, you don’t know what you would have done?


Right. It’s just like, okay, who are you guys and, where did you come from, and what do you guys do? So I think just being able to shoot a basket or hit a ball, you establish some common ground.


Did you experience racism?


A little bit, but not really that much. I think we were more of kind of a novelty. Like, Oh, you guys are from Hawaii, do you still dance the hula, do live in a house or a shack. So, there was definitely racism, because it was segregated, but I don’t think that we experienced it seriously.


So at that time, your parents were the ones with the real experience in Hawaii. You had a year at Palolo School.


Right. [CHUCKLE]


But you did come back, and that was your first real in-depth experience in Hawaii.


Right. And it was not until after I graduated from high school. ‘Cause we went back to Japan, I graduated there, and then came to Hawaii in ’64. And I’ve been here since.


Did you come back with your parents after graduation?


I came back to go to the University of Hawaii in 1964.


And what was your major?


Well, I played basketball for the freshman team, and decided that I was going to be an English major, then decided I was gonna be a philosophy major. So the first bachelor’s degree was in philosophy.


The first bachelor’s? And what was the second?


The second was in PE, in secondary education.


Did you know how you were going to use that?


Philosophy was, why is there air? You know, that’s Bill Cosby’s line. And then, PE telling you that there’s air to blow up basketballs. So, that was the extent of my experience at the University.


Well, what happened when the UH turned you loose with your BA? Or BAs.


Where did we go? I worked at the YMCA for eight years in Kailua and ran the aquatics program there. And they’re the ones that sent me back to school to get my PE credentials. That kind of prepared me for the real world, and I applied for the job in the City in 1981, and have been there since.


So there wasn’t a driving urge to keep Oahu’s beaches safe that drove you?










I think that developed along the way.


Were you looking for a civil service job?


Yeah. You know, you want to get a job with the City.


And you aimed high, ‘cause that was a head of a department; right?


That was the head of a division.


Division; right.




And you already had experience in management in—


Through the Y.




And we taught lifesaving, and we taught the instructors for the Red Cross, and things like that. So, it was a fit, and I used to go to the beach a lot. I used to go to Makapuu a lot, and I knew the guards there, and there was familiarity with them.


A lot has changed in life guarding in three decades. What was once perceived as an easy job for surf bums has become more professional and disciplined, with some recruits even taking college degrees to the beach. Ralph Goto has done quite a bit to elevate professional standards and the image of a lifeguard.


What’s the profile? I don’t know if there is a typical lifeguard. I mean, you’ve had some people who are award-winning watermen there, and there are people we don’t know. What’s the typical lifeguard like?


The old guy or the new guy? [CHUCKLE]


Okay; is there a difference?


I think so. I mean, some of the veterans. Brian Keaulana, retired, Buffalo Keaulana, his father, was a lifeguard, Mark Cunningham, who’s a retired lifeguard. Those guys, in addition to being legends in the ocean, were also excellent lifeguards. They did it on their skill, they did it on their knowledge of the environment, and fortunately, they passed a lot of that on to the newer people. The new guys, I’d say, they’re quicker, they stronger, they’re faster. We have young people that come into recruit training with college degrees. We have people that are trained as paramedics. We have all kinds of people that come through our recruit training. I don’t know what it is that really attracts them. I get a hundred emails a day; I want to be a lifeguard in Hawaii; what do I have to do to be a lifeguard on the North Shore. They all have to do the same thing; they have to have the certifications and they have to take the swim test, and then they have to go through our training. But I think we’re getting now a more qualified, more motivated young person that comes into the Department. And there’s constant turnover, there’s people retiring, it’s the graying of the workforce, as in any kind of organization.


Have most lifeguards stayed in for the career? I would imagine people would get out earlier than that.


We’ve lost some to the Fire Department. We’ve had really good lifeguards go to the Fire Department because it’s a better schedule, it’s better pay, it’s better benefits. And you really can’t blame these guys for going. But we’ve also had people that have said, Hey, I don’t want to be a fireman, I don’t want to be a policeman, I want to be a lifeguard. And they can retire after twenty-five years, so they stay.


But you know, it is stressful.




And there’s not a lot of upward mobility; right?




And there’s the threat of skin cancer.


There’s threat of skin cancer.


And injury during rescues.




And aggravation from people who won’t listen.


We have had employees that have resigned to go get real jobs. My wife wants me to get a real job. Most of them come back. We’ve had people go down and work as stevedores on the docks for that great schedule and the great pay. We’ve had people go into other Public Safety agencies and come back and say, Hey, I’m a lifeguard, this is what I do and this is what I love to do. It’s interesting, Leslie, because the pay isn’t that great. We do it because we love to do it.


How much does an experienced lifeguard make in the City and County of Honolulu?


An experienced lifeguard.


And this is 2012, as we speak.


It’s based definitely on years of service. About four or five thousand a month. You know, the majority of the working lifeguards, not the supervisors, are probably about forty-eight thousand a year. It’s not that great. I think one of the common elements of why people are attracted to it, well, they love the outdoors or they love the ocean. They surf, they swim, they dive. But there’s also this common thread, I think, of helping people. You get some satisfaction out of helping people. And saving a life is probably the heaviest thing you can do, I mean, in terms of, how you feel about things in the grand scheme of things. I mean, saving a life is a pretty significant event.


But when Ralph Goto first started as an administrator back in 1981, things were different. The Division didn’t get the respect or the resources of other City emergency services. It became Ralph Goto’s mission to bring recognized standards to the City’s life guarding operation.


You could have taken another approach and gone to the beaches and said, Hey, you guys, you gotta shape up, I need you to do this, this, this, and that. But you said you opted for just investing in training.


Listening to what was going on, seeing what was needed, talking to the guards, and then beginning to implement some of those.


You did some really smart strategy, because it’s all people. It’s people on one side, and it’s resources on the other, and you figured out a way to bring one to the other.


It took a while, Leslie. Believe me, it took a while.


Did you have any experience? Essentially, this is politics. I mean, you’re working your way through a dense bureaucracy with lots of competing needs. And you’re working on perceptions, too, that are grounded in old stuff.


Yes. No management courses that taught you how to run a lifeguard service. We went around and looked at different places. I was told, If you want to learn about life guarding, you have to go to Australia, and you have to go to Los Angeles, and see the two best lifeguard operations in the world. We did that, and looked, and we said, Yeah, this is great, and we learned from places that we went to. We learned from what they did, we learned how they did certain things. But Hawaii is unique. The culture is unique, the environment’s unique, and understanding that, you have to pick and choose which things are gonna work. And we did that.


Were there some big disputes over, shall we do this or that, this approach, that approach?


Life guarding in some areas of the country is pretty military. It’s paramilitary, if you will. And it’s not to say that we don’t do that here. We have a chain of command, we have captains, we have lieutenants, we have senior lifeguards. But some places run it pretty formally. And I just didn’t think that that was gonna work here.


So you gave discretion and latitude?


There is discretion, yes, there is latitude. Because who knows more about a beach than the person that works there all week? He’s may not be an engineer, he may not be an architect, he may not be an oceanographer, but you know, in a real sense, they’re all of that, and they’re the guys who know what’s going on at the beach.


What have you done to professionalize life guarding? I mean, these are fulltime jobs, a lot of people, like you said, think it’s a lark. It’s certainly not. What have you done to raise the standing?


I think probably the most important thing that we’ve done—and I’m just Ralph Goto, it’s been everyone in the Department, is to understand the job that our lifeguards do. They’re not just out there sitting on a tower waiting for something to happen. Educated, lot of guys have degrees, college degrees. A lot of them are certified at the EMT level, so their medical training is comparable to a person that’s riding in the ambulance. It’s raising that level of professionalism and getting the employees to understand the importance of it. It’s projecting image. Wearing a uniform, being at work on time, those simple things that I think have really helped develop our division to where it is now.


What kinds of training have you given, or has the Division given the lifeguards to make them more effective?


It’s pretty extensive training, I think when people actually realize what’s going on. We’re running a recruit class right now, and those kids will be in recruit training for a month. They just finished their emergency medical training, and then they’ll be exposed to our environments. They’ll take them around the island and put them in the Moy Hole, and put them at Sandy’s, and put them on the North Shore. So that training is at least a month, unpaid, and after that, they do on-the-job training if they make it through there. The other thing we do, I have to throw this in. The physical performance standards are pretty stringent. You have to do a thousand run, thousand swim, a board paddle and a run-swim-run every year. I think we’re the only agency that does that. And if you don’t pass the swim test, you don’t work on the beach. I mean, we give you time to train and be able to do that, but I don’t know of any other agency, at least here, that makes their employees do that.


Tell me some of the dances you had to do to get to where you arrived.


The dances. I don’t know how to jitterbug.




The first City Council meeting I went to, in my exuberance and being naïve, I was asked, Well, do you need anything else? And I said, Sure, we needed some more money, we need some more equipment. And I was told that, No, you don’t go to the City Council and say you need that. You tow the party line and you say we’re doing well with what we have. That’s one of the dances you have do, the political dance, if you will. The other dance is working within the system, you know, and it takes a while to learn that, as you know.


And the characters change.


Sure; every four years.


Yes, with every election.


Every four years; right. And you just learn. I think you learn from experience, you learn from your mistakes, which there were a lot of those. And you just learn how to deal with people. That’s what I think it’s about, it’s the importance of relating to people.


And you’re known for your light touch with people.


Well … depends who you speak with. [CHUCKLE]


Okay; who would say otherwise?


Well, let’s see. Probably my two sons.




Thanks, boys. But that’s what I’ve tried to do, is listen. There’s always two sides of the story, and then somewhere in between there’s what’s really going on. And I’ve tried to believe in that and use that outlook on things as problems have come up.


There are a lot of parents who would say that a calm, measured approach to training goes out the window when you apply it to your own children. For Ralph Goto, running a City division populated with rugged individuals might not have taxed him as much as the challenge of raising two boys.


You said that your kids might not agree that you have a light touch. Why is that?


[CHUCKLE] My two sons who live on the mainland … the older one, Clark, went to Punahou, went to the University of San Francisco, has a degree in computer science, and works on the mainland for a medical software company. The younger son, Scott, went to Kalaheo High School, and went to Portland, Oregon to live the dream. He plays in a punk band, and he makes sushi in a sushi restaurant, and he’s living the dream. I coached both of them when they were younger in basketball, and ended up running the PAL league in Kailua for a while. And I don’t know if uh, that was a great idea.


To coach your kids?


To coach my kids and then, have those expectations of them. And as a father and a coach, you tend to push them. And they don’t play ball now. [CHUCKLE]


Have you talked about it with them?


I’ve talked to Clark about it, and he said, Yeah, he said, you’re a pretty hard act to follow, Dad. And that kinda shed some light on what goes on. But they’re both great, they’re doing very well.


What do you think your sons took away from you, that helps them most in their lives?


[CHUCKLE] Interesting. I don’t know. I think you’d have to interview them. Like, my older son told me a few years back that comment about you’re a hard act to follow. I mean, that had some impact on me, because I think any child or any offspring wants to do so much, with their life, and I’m sure that you look at your parents, how much your parents have accomplished in life, and you’re gonna either do that, or strive to attain that level. And I don’t know about Scotty, my young punk rocker, but I know that Clark’s more serious about it. And I know he’s thought about it, but hopefully, and what we tried to do while they were growing up, or what I tried to do is, at some point in life, your children are gonna be gone, they’re not gonna live in your house anymore. They’re gonna be on their own, and they’re gonna have to make some decisions on their own. And hopefully, they’re gonna be able to make good decisions. And I think that’s all you can really expect.


Have you ever seen your grown sons doing something that they reacted badly against when they were kids, but now they do that too, because, that’s what you taught them.


[CHUCKLE] Yeah, I think so. Young Scott called the other day about his taxes. And it’s like, Okay, Dad, I went to get my taxes done, and I owe money. And I’m like, Well, Son, you gotta file these things. He goes, Yeah, I know, that. And I think that they both are beginning to realize there’s certain things that you have to do in life. And you know, hopefully, some of that carries on from their father and, you know, their parents.


And right there beside him at every step of the journey has been Ralph Goto’s wife, Roberta, a registered nurse with a long career at the State Hospital in Kaneohe. She has provided him with a safe haven away from the stress of work. He says that what attracted him was how different she was from this guarded, quiet, third generation Japanese American.


Roberta’s just the opposite. Blond hair, blue eyes, very outgoing, very opinionated, very open, and because she’s a psychiatric mental health worker, keeps me straight. And I think that had a lot to do with the attraction.


Because she’s a mental health worker, she keeps you straight?


Yeah; right. [CHUCKLE]


What’s that mean? [CHUCKLE]


Keeps me grounded. How’s that?


Yeah. ‘Cause she’s very stable? Is that what you’re saying?


She’s very creative. What we say, and what people say is, because we’re so opposite, that’s why we were attracted to each other.


As life goes along, you start to think about retirement, and what do I do after this. Have you thought about that?


Oh, yes.


What’s next?


Oh, yes. Thinking about retirement, it’s interesting, because when you start your career, that’s the last thing you’re thinking about. But after thirty years, then you seriously begin to think about, okay, how much money am I gonna have, what am I gonna be able to do, and how much is left on the mortgage. And believe me, both Roberta and I have talked about it because we’re close, and it’s, okay, what are you gonna do. You’re not gonna sit at home and just look at each other. You’re gonna have a plan. Someone just told me, a former retired City official who has come back to work for the City told me a couple weeks ago, You better have a plan. If you’re gonna retire, you better have a plan. So some people travel some people volunteer at the church. And I would like to do more of that creative stuff that is an outlet for me now, and I’d like to do it a little more. So that turning wood, cutting wood, stapling it together appeals to me.


Yeah; a lot of people have too much time on their hands, and it doesn’t work for them.




So you have to have a passion that you pursue that is, you know, productive and feels good to you.


Right. And working with wood, I’ve always liked to do that. I kinda had a hand in building the two houses that we’ve lived in, and it’s an outlet, it’s a creative outlet.


And then, do you sell those bowls?


Not yet.


But that’s the plan?


You know, you give ‘em to Mom, and you give ‘em to friends for Christmas, and things like that.


But would you be pau working for money?


No, ‘cause I think we’re gonna need to have on top of the retirement income to do the things you want to do. I think that that’s important to plan out, what is it that you want to do.


It’s a good exercise, isn’t it?


Yeah; it’s great.


Who are you now, as opposed to when you made other big decisions.


You know, and it really has kinda changed my—not changed, but matured my outlook on my work. It’s like, Well, you can’t do this because, you gotta think about this now. And now, if it feels like the right thing to do, we’re gonna do it. And it’s nice to be able to do that.


While the man who has devoted his life to bettering the working conditions and professionalism of Oahu’s lifeguards is nearing the end of his career, he won’t go quietly. In 2012, Ralph Goto continues to fight for better pay and benefits for the men and women on the beach, those first responders when we run into trouble in the waters of paradise. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


And you were working with some of the legends of Hawaii, Buffalo Keaulana, et cetera. How did you manage?


I went around and met everyone. And you’re right; Buffalo Keaulana, what are you gonna say to Buffalo about life guarding or about the ocean, or anything. And I learned a lot from him, and tried to figure out what it was that the operation needed, and what we could to do to help bolster that up. Met a lot of really good people in my career, ocean guys that, you know, I consider friends, as well as colleagues and subordinates.


Alice Greenwood


Original air date: Tues., Jan. 21, 2014


“It takes a village to raise a child.” For Alice Greenwood, it’s a theme that repeats itself throughout her life. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, the Waianae community advocate talks about how a series of unforeseen events left her homeless for nine months. Through stories of illness, racism and squalor, Greenwood touches on themes of courage, determination and compassion.


Alice Greenwood Audio


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My father was pure Hawaiian, and so was my mother. And I remember when he did our delayed Hawaiian birth, he says, I lied throughout the whole thing. So I says, Why, Dad? He says, Because according to the State, he needed witness, so he asked his sisters to confirm that they were present at my birth. He says, But it was only me and your mom. He says, But I needed witness, so they lied throughout the whole thing. And I says, Well, that’s all right, I understand. Sometimes we gotta go according to what the systems needs.


Alice Greenwood went along with the system for much of her life, even when it meant homelessness. Today, Alice is a respected advocate for environmental and social justice in the Waianae community. Alice Greenwood, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. People become homeless for many different reasons. For Alice Greenwood, a series of unforeseen events, one thing after another, caused her to lose her home. Yet, her experience with homelessness is only a small part of her life story of resilience and discovery. Alice Ululani Kaholo Greenwood was born on Maui, the sixth of ten children. When she was five, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium. Most of Alice Greenwood’s siblings stayed on Maui with their grandmother. Alice and a brother moved to Oahu.


I was raised all over Oahu. I attended Waianae School, and that was kindergarten. Then half of kindergarten, I went to Barbers Point. Then half of that, I went — I mean, I traveled so many different schools.


Is that because you were living with your father?


I was living with my father. He was a custodian for DOE. He worked over at Waianae Elementary, then he worked at Barbers Point. And then, they transferred him over to Kalihi, Kalihi Waena, Kalihi Uka. He always was constantly working. When he would have drinking during the weekends when he drinks with his friends, he would ask them, Oh, do you have children? Yeah. Would you mind having one more child? He has a wife and his children, so I ended staying with them.


For how long?


Depends; sometimes for the summer. Majority was for the summertime.


So, he was drinking with guys, and he said, Would you take my little girl home with you?


Yeah. And he paid them for my upkeep and everything.


How did that make you feel?


To tell you the truth, I felt they were my aunties and uncles.


And they treated you well, all of them?


Yeah. I was part of the household.


M – hm.


Except for one incident I remember in Kalihi, when I seen the girl, the mother would always lovingly do her hair. And so, what I did for the weekend — that’s when I was going go Kalihi Uka. So, what I did is, I turned in bottles and got my own bobby pins, and tried to do my hair. And then, it didn’t turn out the way it should be. And then, I realized there’s a difference between my upbringing and the children that I lived with.


And what was it like for you, going to all those different schools, different areas?


It was hard; very hard. I didn’t know my ABCs until I reached maybe like the fourth, fifth grade. I didn’t know there was any numbers past twenty. So, it was very hard. And then, to try to put it into words was even harder for me.


Did you have anybody to talk with during this time, an adult who kind of watched out for you, besides your dad, who sometimes wasn’t there all summer?


I had a sister, a stepsister that was staying with us off and on. And I spoke to her, but I didn’t really have anyone I could really confide with. It was, whatever you see, that’s it.


M – hm. ‘Cause I saw the list of schools you attended, and there were a lot of schools. You even went all the way over to East Honolulu. And that’s a major culture change. What was that like?


Talk about major cultural change. Yeah. I remember when I went to Kaimuki and Waialae. The living condition was so much different. I seen children with beautiful dresses. I seen the girls with beautiful dresses, crinolines. Like, it was an envy for me. And the type of shoes I had were oxford, the oxford shoes. So, when I looked at that, I was like, I wish I could be like them.


And the families didn’t share and share alike with you? You were sort of the guest, you brought your own stuff?


Yeah. Majority of the times, I brought whatever hand – me – downs, whatever I had.


And I don’t know your dad, but a lot of guys wouldn’t be into buying — they don’t know what to buy. Maybe now, they’re more in tune, but in those days …


No; my dad, he didn’t know what to buy. Sometimes, I would have clothes mismatched. Now, I look it as mismatched.


M – hm.


But at that time, I was just thankful that I had clothes.


When you built relationships in one home, it must have been hard to leave for points unknown, the next home.


Not really, ‘cause I enjoyed being with my dad and my brother.


So, you leave a family home for the summer, go back to your dad and brothers, and then — or one brother; right?




And then, did you dread the next summer when you’d probably have to go again?


No; I didn’t look at it that way. It’s like going on vacation, I guess. It was like exposing to something else. I always met different people; that’s the thing.


Did you get disciplined at these homes that you stayed at for the summer?


Several times; I remember several times, we were all in a group. But it’s like a neighborhood. You get yelled at; that’s all your aunties and uncles.


It’s the village raising you; right?


Yeah; a village raising me. Just like everybody had permission to yell at us, and everybody had permission to give us licking if we got in trouble. Yeah. It’s like a family, like an ohana unit.


Alice Greenwood did not finish high school, choosing instead to get married. She knew early on that her husband had a privileged upbringing, and she felt culture shock when he took her to live near his family in Missouri.


I got married when I was eighteen. No; seventeen, ‘cause my father had to sign the paperwork. And he was from a wealthy family. I didn’t know he was from a wealthy family, and prejudiced. And I remember what had happened was, I was at Rainbow Roller Rink.


I remember Rainbow Roller Rink.




You weren’t a skater, were you?


Well, I was trying to skate. That’s how I met him. He really fell in love with my girlfriend. He got the wrong person. And he asked me for a date. And how I knew he was a wealthy person is because in Waikiki, the car stopped. It wouldn’t go. So I says, Oh, all you have to do is push it on the side. So, he looked at me, he says, What do you mean, push it on the side? I said, Get out of the car, and push it on the side. I ended up pushing the car.


‘Cause he wasn’t used to doing that kind of thing.


No. He didn’t know what to do.


But you fell in love with him?


Yeah. I fell in love with him. The reason why I fell in love with him is because he was naïve. You know. [CHUCKLE] He seemed so innocent in lot of the things that I knew about people. He seemed like he was so sheltered.


And you liked that; that was attractive to you.


Yeah. ‘Cause I could control him.


Oh; is that what you liked? You liked controlling him?


Yeah. I felt like I could control him and everything. And then, the love was there. The love was there. And then, I had my son, and that was even more strength into it. Then we moved to Missouri. There was prejudice at that time. I didn’t know what prejudice was. What happened was, from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, we moved to St. Louis, Missouri. And because he had to go work, I had to do all the moving. This couple stopped by and he says, Do you need help? It was a Black couple.


M – hm.


And I said, Oh, yeah, thank you. And when they helped move in. My sister – in – law seen the whole works, and they didn’t help me or anything, but this couple helped me. And then the next morning, he says, My sister’s calling me Boy. I wonder why she’s calling me Boy. I said, Well, go check it out, maybe something’s wrong with her. Then he came back and he says, I heard you had these N – words, they were in my house. And I said, No, they were in our house. So, he says, Well, I don’t want them here. I says, Guess who’s coming for dinner? And he says, You’re not gonna have ‘em in this house. See, the thing is, he did the wrong thing. He was speaking to me while I had the iron pan in my hand.




I was cooking breakfast. And he says, No, you’re not. I says, Really? Watch this. I hit him over the head with it. He went next door, called his brother – in – law. He came over. I says, What you here for? He said, What you went do to my brother – in – law? And I said, This. And I whacked him too with the iron pan.  And then, my sister – in – law came over. So, they called the cops. And I remember trying to fight with all of ‘em. And the chief of police turned around and he says, Hey, you, what’s the matter with you? And I looked at him, and I said, I married one of your kind. So, he helped me. He said, You know, Alice, being that your in – laws are wealthy, I would advise you to get on the plane and go back to the islands.


So, you did take that advice and get on a plane?




Did you ever look back?


Well, I was offered a million dollars for my son, ‘cause I brought him with me. And I told them, no thank you.


Alice Greenwood met her second husband after she returned home. But a devastating accident disabled him. Eventually, the marriage disintegrated. She spent the next twenty – five years of her life with James Hatchie, a retired Marine, who stepped into the role of father to her children. For the first time, Alice Greenwood had stability in her life, and she began to blossom in new ways.


He was my next door neighbor. And over time, he started taking care of the children too when go to work and everything. And then we got close. We never got married, you know, though we ended up staying with each other and everything. I think the whole idea was, ‘cause he was on pension, and I was working, and he didn’t want to give up his pension pay.


This is the former Marine.


Yeah, the Marine.


What was life like for you and him, and the kids?


He was very, very stern with the children. We had a little farm, and they had to do their chores. ‘Cause he took care of them. And he was the one that did the cooking of the house, too. And he would take us camping all around the island. He would choose like, Okay, this year let’s go to Waimanalo. And we’d go over there, and he would teach the children how to like, pick up pipipi, opihi, all those things. And we would be singing, and and he would tell us stories. And he was a very much matured person. But he taught me the correct things that I needed to know.


Which were?


How to raise children, for one thing. He also made sure that the rules in the house, that we all eat together. And if we have any problems, then we say it right there.


You hadn’t had that kind of family structure in your life at all. So, now, your life is very stable. You share a home, and you’ve got a job, he’s got a pension, he takes care of the kids. So, are you feeling happy at this point?


Not really, because he was an educated person. You need to get your GED. You need to know what’s happening in your neighborhood, your community. And he was the person that made me an activist. Like with the birth, death, marriage certificates. It went from two dollars to ten dollars. He said, Are you going to let that happen? I said, Yes. It’s one of those things, the Legislature is the one saying that we gotta do it. He said, But they want to raise it again. He said, Are you gonna let that happen? And then, when I was riding a bus coming home from attending my school over at Honolulu Community College, I seen this young girl crying, a young couple. So, I told him, Is she okay? He says, Well, with the way of the price of the birth, death, marriage certificate, we’re from the Island of Niihau, and we don’t know our family, but we want to get us benefits for Hawaiians, like Hawaiian Homes, education, and all that. We have to prove our lineage. He says, Ten dollars; do we pay for food, hospital bill, or for the certificate to prove we’re Hawaiian? I went home and I told that to my husband, he says, Well, what are you gonna do about it? I said, I can’t do nothing. He said, Go to the Legislature and fight it. So, today, that’s why we only pay ten dollars. Otherwise, we’d be paying twenty – five dollars today.


You figured out how to submit the testimony, who to see, find your way around that square box of a building.


And, like I said, the hardest thing was for me to put it in words, and to put things together. But he taught me how to do it. He even taught me how to fight the courts.


And he thought you had the stuff to be a community activist, and he was right.


I don’t know whether he trained me that way, or whatever it is, but he always told me; he says, If you don’t ask the questions, you will never know.


James Hatchie passed away in 2001. Only one month before that, he had persuaded Alice Greenwood to raise his newly-born nephew, James Daniel Makalii Hatchie, whom she later adopted. Not long afterward, the house she had rented for thirty – five years was sold, and she could not afford the jump in rent from three hundred dollars to almost one thousand dollars a month. Her other children had grown up, moved away, and were unable to help.


In 2005, June, I became homeless. I moved down the beach; I lived at Maili Beach Park, thinking like everybody else, it was only gonna be for a little while. I didn’t realize the rent, ‘cause I was paying only three hundred. At five hundred ninety – nine dollars, I could afford it. But the rent was over eight hundred to a thousand dollars. So, five hundred ninety – nine dollars, I couldn’t afford it. So, when I moved to Maili Beach Park, it was a pop – up tent. There was a man that was sleeping; he was homeless, and you had all the rest homeless people that were surrounding me. Anyway, when he got out of his tent, he seen me and he says, Do you have anything? And I says, No, not really. He says, I’ll be back. So, he went, and he came back with breakfast, the most delicious breakfast my son and I ever ate. And you know what? It was a weekend, so my son didn’t have to go to school. And then, he came back with a one – man tent. And then before you know it, everybody around there gave me some baskets, and everything. They formed a little bed inside, and then they had a stove. And he also came back with lunch. And they taught me how to live on the beach.


You found another village.


Yeah. But the problem with this is that there were drug addicts and alcoholic guys all around me.


Single woman, young boy.


But, the other part of it; even though they were on drugs and alcohol, they cared for me and my son. Especially for my son; they really cared for him. They made sure that I was protected, they ensured that I have the right things to live with.


You didn’t have any trouble?


No. I had problems with the people outside that was looking in.


What kind of problem with them? Saying you can’t pitch your tent over here? That kinda thing?


Yeah. They would come and harass the homeless in my area.


You’re talking about official people?


Not only official, but other public people come and harass them.


Saying you shouldn’t be on the beach, because we want to use the beach?


Yeah. Oh, you guys over here, how come, you guys lazy. Everything that I was calling the homeless prior before I moved down the beach, alcoholic, drug addicts, lazy people. Exactly the words they were using on me and the people that surrounds me. So, I knew what everybody was talking about. But like I said, my husband taught me, and taught me well.


One of the stories about you that is just so classic is, how you took care of the restrooms at Maili.


Yeah. See, like I said, among us, we had lot of the drug, alcoholics. We also had women that were selling themselves. And the only way they could really do it was in the bathrooms. I remember the woman next to me had brought down her two daughters. And when they used to go and take a shower at night, we had all this activity happening. And then one day, I said, No more, no more. Before the girls go to school in the morning, I am getting up four o’clock in the morning, I am cleaning that bathroom.


Were there still activities going on in the bathroom while you were cleaning?


I am cleaning up the bathroom. They didn’t like it. I said, I’m sorry, but I’m cleaning up the bathroom.


So, you were in there, and you’re getting in their way.




You’re discouraging them from whatever they were doing.


I ensured that I got in their way, to make sure that the bathroom was clean.


But, you were interfering with commerce; right?




Were you personally afraid?


No. Because the attitude of everyone, I guess, being my age and everything. Like I said, when my car broke down, they helped me. When I had my injury, going from the car to where my tent is at, I was looking at all the groceries that I need. This guy, being drunk and everything, he said, Oh, don’t worry, I’ll handle. And he carried the whole thing, put it on the table.


Did you limp? What was your injury?


I limped. I have a herniated disc on my neck and lower back, and it’s spinal.


I would think cleaning the bathroom would be really hard on your injury.


It was. But I was looking at the children. I was looking at the two girls. All I could see was their faces. And I was determined that they were gonna have a clean bathroom.


So, what happened?


They had a clean bathroom.


People moved out, they took their business elsewhere?


Yeah; they took their business elsewhere and everything. And then, a month later, the men’s bathroom was so sparkling, you wouldn’t believe. In fact, before you walked in, they sprayed your leg with Pine – O.


So, did you do the men’s room too?




Somebody else did the …


The men did their own.


So, they picked up and they said, That’s a good idea, we’re gonna do that too?


And that’s what they did. And then, it ended up going into the campgrounds, where they ended up lawn – mowering, cleaning up. All the park people had to do was come over there and give us trash bags. We even put the trash bags real nice, cleaned up the parking lot.


That’s a wonderful story. What’s your sense of who was living there? You mentioned drug addicts and mentally ill people.




What about people, you know, and —


And kupuna.


And kupuna who just have fixed incomes or no income.


Several times when the police officers would come, they fell short of their quota for giving tickets, and they would give it to the homeless. And lot of the homeless was the elderly. Our young ones can run; the older people couldn’t. I had a ticket, too. When I went to court, there was thirteen of us, and was all the elderly except for one young girl who had a baby. So, we all had a ticket. And then, everybody was telling me, Just pay the twenty – five dollars, and you’ll be let go. So, I said, Oh, okay, I’ll listen. And when I went up there, the prosecuting attorney told me, How do you plead? I said, Not guilty. And she looked at me and she says, Well, I’ll plea bargain with you. You pay just twenty – five dollars, you admit to trespassing on private property. I said, No, ma’am; I’m in a public park. And what the police officer got me for was for not camping in a designated campsite. I am in a campsite, Campsite 1. But you need to follow the park’s rules. I said, What the police officer got me on was for not camping in a designated campsite. And when you stated you plea bargain with me, you just broke the law. So, we went back for trial, she asked for a continuance. The judge says, Denied. Looked at me and he says, Not guilty, with prejudice.


Meaning, the prosecutor couldn’t bring it up again.


Yeah. See, I had done my research. I found out that under the State of Hawaii Constitution, Article 12, the Splinter Paddle Law, under the police badge holds the insignia of the splinter paddle. What is the splinter paddle? Men, women, and children may lie at the roadside without any harm.


What about people who just don’t want to follow the rules; did you see people like that?


Oh, yeah.


They could have done life a different way, but they just chose to occupy the beach.


Yeah; we had all of those, all of those in our neighborhood. But, when you have people determined that the place is gonna look good, even the hardhead stubborn ones would either move out, or they will change. Because the men rose up to be our men. They really ensured that the place was properly kept. I guess we ended up having pride in the area we was living.


Alice Greenwood lived at Maili Beach Park for nine months before moving to an emergency shelter, and later transitional housing. Today, she rents space in a home where she and her son, now a teenager, have their own rooms. Being raised by a village has been a recurring theme in Alice Greenwood’s life, whether it was as a child sent off to live with new aunties and uncles, or as a homeless mother who, along with her young son, was taken care of by people who often had even less than she did. In return, Alice Greenwood has given back to her community, from cleaning public restrooms to fighting for social and environmental justice. Mahalo to Alice Greenwood of the Waianae Coast for sharing her story of resilience with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.


As you look back at your life, what are you most grateful for?


I think change, and being homeless.


Being homeless is one of the things you’re grateful for?


Yeah. It taught me the compassion of life. When I was homeless when I was small, it was different. But when I’m homeless as an adult, I find out that was the best education I ever had in my whole life. It taught me about people. It taught me about the right and wrongs, and not to judge.



Hoala Greevy


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2014


On this episode of LONG STORY SHORT, my guest is Hoala Greevy, founder of one of the earliest locally owned email spam and virus filtering companies, Pau Spam. The son of Hawaii community activists, Hoala is intent on his career and dedicated to his business, sometimes working so late he sleeps in his office. Later in life, he intends to be part of the solution in addressing social issues affecting Native Hawaiians. Many Native Hawaiians believe children grow into their name. Hoala’s Hawaiian name, which came to his mother in a dream, means “awakening” or “new beginning.”


Hoala Greevy Audio


Download the Transcript




The earliest career I wanted was when I was in Kapahulu, and they had the trash day, and those garbage guys were pretty cool. So, taking out the trash, that was the first job I wanted to have. ‘Cause they’d be whistling and running, and the compactor’s coming down, and they’d be throwing stuff right at the right moment. I remember kids would come out, and I wouldn’t be the only kid watching them. So, I guess in a way, that’s what Pau Spam does, is take out people’s garbage.




Hoala Greevy discovered his passion for software development in college, and at age twenty – four created Pau Spam, one of the first locally – owned computer spam and virus filtering companies. Hoala Greevy stays on the forefront of the latest technology while saving some time to pursue other interests. Hoala Greevy, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Hoala Greevy is a successful entrepreneur and businessman. He’s a strong believer in public schools, and a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu. His young life was also shaped by his two parents, Ed Greevy and Haaheo Mansfield, who were community and political activists.


Your father was known for being this wonderful behind the scenes photographer who was the only person with a camera, using it well, at really just touching moments in community activism protests. Save Our Surf, for example.


Yeah. From what I understand, he made friends with Uncle John Kelly, and he noticed when he was at these meetings and rallies that he was doing all the talking, but no one was taking any pictures. So, that was their bond. He’d take the pictures, Uncle John would do the talking, and then … yeah, my dad just has this knack of disappearing in a crowd. Which I don’t know how he does it with five cameras. [CHUCKLE]


But he was always there. It was a labor of love, he was working; he wasn’t just attending a rally.


Right; yeah, hobby. He had a day job. A lot of it was Save Our Surf, protecting all these spots from development. And then, out of that, kinda spurring the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. And then, they started helping out these other groups of people. And then, yeah; so, in some circles, my dad is regarded as the documenter of the Hawaiian renaissance of the 70s and 80s.


Did your parents tell you much about meeting at the Stop H – 3 rally?


No. But there’s a picture in my dad’s book. They went into the Wilson Tunnel, I think in 1975, 76. And they were just cleaning the walls, but of course, there was letters behind it, and so that one of their clever marketing techniques about a rally they were gonna have at the Capitol. Stop H – 3 rally, Capitol, three o’clock; whatever.


Oh, they put it right in the tunnel.


Yeah; so they were just cleaning off the walls, and …


But they didn’t clean some parts of the walls.




I see. Did your parents explicitly give you life wisdom and rules for life?


My dad is an artist; he’s very much an artist. And my mom is very practical, Hawaiian, loving. And they’re both very supportive of whatever I chose to do. Except football; they wouldn’t let me play football.


You are one of those people who’ve done very well professionally, having gone to public school all the way.


Oh, yeah. I’m a big fan of public schools.


Starting with Hokulani School.


Yeah. Went to Hokulani, and then Washington, and then McKinley.


Washington Intermediate had some town tough guys, and so did McKinley.


Yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]. So, I learned in college, all you needed to do was ask: You know what is search take? And people who went to private school, for obvious reasons, don’t know what that means.


Search take; no.


Yeah. So, you’re in the cafeteria, and the bull walks up and he’s like, Eh, I like dollar. And of course, Oh, I no more. And then, the guy: Oh, what, search take? Oh, hold on a second. [CHUCKLE] But I thought that was just normal stuff.


How often did that happen to you?


Freshman year, quite a bit. And then, it was good to play baseball, I guess, and kinda keep out of that.


They didn’t bother athletes?


Yeah, ‘cause their friends would be on the football team, or whatever, and like, Eh, no bother that guy, he’s on the baseball team.


So, in that sense, athletics was an escape and a passion?


Yeah, yeah; I love baseball. So, that was my thing in high school.


Did you worry that you wouldn’t get to go to college?


No, I figured I was gonna go. My parents were pretty adamant about that. And I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, so that’s why I got away to Portland State in Oregon.


Hoala Greevy’s parents encouraged him to pursue his dreams. A gift from his father at a young age turned out to be an inspiration for his future career.


How did you begin your journey with computers? When did it start?


My dad got me a Commodore when I was kid.


How old were you?


Ten, I think. And then, so that was cool.


Big, hulky thing?


Yeah; yeah, yeah. Five and a quarter disc. And then, when I got to college, when I first logged in on that, what, ninety – six – hundred baud modem, and I was in some friend’s room, and just connecting on the Internet was just … I just knew it. I was like, Wow, all this information, all these people … wow.


So, in college, that’s when it really got sparked as far as what you could possibly do with it.


Yeah; I was sitting in a computer science class in Portland State, and they had a job posting board. And someone wanted a small utility app that was almost identical to the homework we just turned in. And I couldn’t believe no one else had called, or maybe they had. So, I followed up as soon as I could, and I don’t know, four or five days later, I met the guy in a Safeway parking lot with a three and a half inch disc. And my friend Andrew Lanning [PHONETIC], he says, You know, in business you can have it good, fast, or cheap. So, he got it good and fast, but it wasn’t cheap. [CHUCKLE] He wasn’t too happy about that, but that was fine.


Because you valued your work, and you charged big time?


I thought it was; for college, yeah, it was a pretty good crip. And he popped it in his laptop, it worked, he kinda mumbled about signing the check. And then, that was it. So, to me, it was solving a problem and being creative about it. So, that was kinda neat.


But that’s so interesting to know that meeting in a Safeway parking lot, you valued your work, and you said, This is what it’s gonna take to get you this.


I could tell he was motivated. So, I guess maybe the salesman in me came out.


Were you making it up as you went along?


Yeah, pretty much. [CHUCKLE]


You weren’t quite sure what you were gonna charge?


And then, I split it with my buddy back home, ‘cause he had a compiler that I needed. So, I had the code, he had the compiler, and we split the profits. So, it was fun.


So, that was the first business transaction.


I guess; yeah. And then, just kept doing stuff like that. Staying up late, sleeping at the office, all – nighters, things like that.


You’re in college, still, at this point; right?


Oh, even out of college, sleep at the office, for sure. I think it’s maybe a subconscious thing that if you’re sleeping at the office, then you must be doing something right. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] You’re ready anyway; right?


Yeah; yeah.


So, whatever it takes, you’re gonna do it. If it takes sleeping over, you’re gonna do it.

Yeah. I remember reading in the late 90s, this reporter was doing a profile on the two Yahoo cofounders. I think it was Jerry Yang. He would routinely sleep under his desk in a sleeping bag, and I just thought that was kinda neat. This was in the late 90s, so when Yahoo was on a tear.


How did you get the resources to start business? Did you go seat of the pants at first?


Yeah; just bootstrap. Yeah, I don’t know. Just make it happen.


You didn’t major in business.


No; geography. [CHUCKLE] Hard one; the hard major.


And why was that?


I just wanted to get out of school. I was a computer science major, and then I figured that was gonna take me about seven years to get out. I was on scholarship. I was like, Nah, let me just take something I like. And then, I just studied in the computer labs, and still pursued computer stuff, but just took something I liked, just to graduate.


What excited you about software? Were you trying to do any particular thing, or just go wherever it went?


Oh; I just thought it was a way to express yourself and be creative, and solve a problem, and help people. And I still feel like that. I mean, I think it’s just getting started. We’re in the midst of a huge mobile adoption that’s just getting started. And that’s really exciting.


What kind of a mind do you need to be a really successful software developer?


Naïve. [CHUCKLE]


Thinking it can be done, and then having to work.


Yeah; forcing it.


And sleeping overnight to make it happen.


Yeah, I guess so. Shoot; I mean, there’s a lot of different types, I think.


Well, what are the problems you wanted to solve, and did, with your development?


Well, I worked at an email company in the Bay Area. I moved back home in 2001. I was doing some Linux consulting, which at the time was really hard to explain to people. It still is. It’s an open source operating syste And then, the few clients I had were complaining about the same thing over, and over again, viruses and spam. So, I just sat down and pulled a few all – nighters, and came up with Pau Spam. And then, used that as a subscription – based model to help people out, and restore productivity to business.


And how rare was that contribution you made and that business that you created? I mean, because a lot of businesses have fallen by the wayside; but not yours.


Oh; yeah, I don’t know. I guess no one’s really put the stamp out on spam. It’s still a huge problem. Probably ninety – four, ninety – five percent of all email on the Internet is rubbish. So, I guess, just got lucky in that regard that it’s still a service that’s needed.


Well, you’ve had to keep upgrading and working on opposition, and competition.


Yeah; sure. It’s constant cat and mouse, upgrades, features. For sure.


Do you like that?


Yeah; it’s fun. I mean, it’s always changing, it’s never boring.


It sounds like you’ve found an area that will always require work, and so it’s great job security if you can keep up with demand.


Yeah. We’re seeing some changes on the landscape the last couple years, so definitely gotta think ahead and plan for what’s next on the horizon. And I see that as mobile. I mean, without a doubt.


I just read a stat, and this is 2013 as we’re speaking. But mobile video use exploded by thirty – seven percent last year.


Oh, yeah. And I think the amount of Smartphones on the market was one billion last November, projected to be one – point – eight billion this December. And then, five billion by 2015. Seventy – five percent of all mobile usage is a game or a social network. People check their phones every six minutes, or a hundred and fifty times a day. And you’ve got this wild adoption of Smartphones, with no end in sight. I mean, I just don’t see any stop to it. I think it’s super – exciting.


And people are saying, I don’t need a personal computer anymore; I can do this on my phone.




Do you like that, working in a field where it’s just changing all the time, and you’ve really got to be on your game all the time?


Yeah; it’s a lot of fun, for sure. I mean, we’re seeing now with apps that people use, it’s impossible to advertise your way to the top. So, what they do is, they create a habit for you. And so, the top apps have actually created habits out of people. So, when you ask someone, What do you when you’re bored?, a lot of Millennials, they’re not gonna say TV or call a friend, they’re gonna say, I’m checking an app on my phone, that’s what I do when I’m bored. What do you do when you need a laugh? There are some huge shifts in human behavior, all within the last four or five years. So, that’s pretty exciting, I think.


And are they going to the app store and just looking at whatever there is, or are they looking at some other means to find like the ten best apps? Or do they go word of mouth?


Facebook, word of mouth, the viral effect, stuff they see on You Tube. Yeah; it’s pretty interesting right now.


You’re very lucky to have found out in college what you wanted to do. It doesn’t happen to very many people. Some people go their whole lives, and don’t know what will really jazz them in terms of a career.


Yeah; I did get lucky, I guess. I mean, we have this app called DareShare that we released in June, which is a spinoff company. And it’s an app that gets people to do silly, funny things and share it. And that excites me to no end. I mean, we’re in forty – three countries right now, we’re trying to grow our user base. And to express yourself to all these people out there, and hopefully a lot, lot more. I mean, that’s really fun.


It must be hard to talk to non – tech people about what you do, because it is, quote, technical.


I think on the general level, people can relate. Especially for what we’re doing now with DareShare and being an app, and something silly and fun and new. I think it transcends boundaries and language, and culture.


That’s interesting, that you do one really practical and necessary thing, Pau Spam, and then this is silly. But you could argue it’s necessary to have a joke and to blow off stress.


Yeah. To me, mobile, ferality, silly things, photo sharing, those are really big macro trends. And I think DareShare is greatly affected by my interpretation of macro trends going on right now in the world. So, it’s a scientific approach to being funny and silly, is what we’re doing.


That sounds kind of just like you.




Scientific approach to being silly. [CHUCKLE]


In addition to his passion for developing computer software that will make people laugh and protect people from unwanted email, Hoala Greevy has another side to him, a hobby that probably would have pleased his great – great – grandfather, who was an expert fisherman.


Your middle name, I don’t know if there’s an okina, but it can either mean king or fish.




Is it fish?






Moi; fish.






And you have become a fisherman.


Yeah; I got into it. Yeah. I enjoy kayak fishing, for sure. Yeah.


Oh, I’ve seen some crazy videos on You Tube with people hooking huge things, and being dragged in the kayak.




Real dangerous, especially getting it onboard.


Yeah, yeah, yeah.


With a gaff.


That’s the lure, man. That’s who’s hunting who? [CHUCKLE]


What kind of fish are you looking for?


Oh, well, on a kayak, you can almost catch anything the guys on a boat are catching. But, when I first started, I was like, Man, what’s the biggest, baddest fish in the water? It’s marlin, right? So, I’m like, Okay, I want to get that.




So, I kinda chased that fish for about three years, and I got lucky, and a couple years ago, I caught a couple, and that was exciting.


Don’t they have bills? I mean, you know —




That could just stab you, it could go right through you.


It’s the only fish with a weapon of its own, so that was a big, big lure for me to hunt one of ‘em.


And they go deep, they try to drag you under; right?


Yeah; aerials, turn you in circles, all kinds of stuff.


And you don’t have a lot of protection. I mean, you’re in a kayak.




Out far.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, it just feels kind of primal. I don’t know what you want to call it, but definitely you versus the fish. Yeah; there’s no boat to anchor you down or anything. If it wants to take you, it’s gonna take you.


Have you rolled over, or had a real close call?


Oh, that still happens. But when I caught those marlin, I got lucky, I didn’t huli. So, just stabilized the best I could. Yeah.


And they’re wiggling, they’re flopping around next to you in the kayak?




Oh! What other things have you caught? What other kind of fish have you caught?


I mean, the mahi, ono, the usual stuff.


And mahi are strong, too.


Yeah; they’re good fighters, and they give you the aerial display, and it’s kinda neat. And then, I got lucky this year. It’s an ugly fish, but I got the State record for the fine scale triggerfish, or hagi most fishermen call it.


What does a triggerfish look like?


Ugly, trigger, big gross thing. And I just got lucky and … I don’t know. State record, and I submitted it, and it became a world record.




For that particular fish.


And how big was it?


I think it was about fifteen or sixteen pounds. So, kinda big for that.


What was the challenge in getting it in?


[CHUCKLE] It was so ugly.




I didn’t know quite what to do with it. [CHUCKLE] Yeah; not a good – looking fish. But I figured, just bring it in and see what happens.


Was it good eating?


No; no, no. My friends ate it, and they got sick.


Oh! But you got a world record.


Yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know if it’s any consolation to their stomachs, but yeah, I got the world record.


So, it’s obviously dangerous, but nothing has happened to you that scared you out there?


No; I mean, it’s humbling, but I haven’t had any close calls yet. We carry radios, our phones, I have an EPIRB emergency locater. So, we try our best.


So, what happens to you if you go over?


Yeah; you gotta try your best to stay with the kayak and your paddle. But I don’t know; I guess that’s part of the mystique, I guess, is maybe harkening back to olden days, and guys paddling out on their canoes, and stuff.


Do you feel something Hawaiian from your Hawaiian side about that?


I do. I mean, we have more equipment, sonar, fish finder, bait well, things like that. But, a lot of the spots are the same, the techniques are very the same. A lot of it involves catching opelu, which is, kind of a family fish.


That’s really different from what you do for a living.


Yeah, I guess so. But to me, the water is an escape, and humbling, playground, vast, infinite. Kinda neat. You feel so small and nothing.


In addition to his affinity for fishing and the ocean, Hoala Greevy feels a deep connection to the Hawaiian culture in other ways as well. Many of his Hawa iian values come from his mother.


Why is your name Hoala?


Well, my mom had a dream, and I don’t know what was in the dream, but they said, Hey, name your kid Hoala.


And what does it mean?


Awaken, or new beginning. So, it’s either a family member, a dream, or something happening at the time of birth; those are usually the three ways people get their names.


Yours is a dream name.


Yeah; and I think what I do after business will be the realization of that name. Why would a person like my mom have that dream? And if you’ve ever met my mom, she’s a pretty interesting and special person. Why would she have that dream? How do I go about realizing the meaning of that?


But interesting; you don’t think it’s in the tech field, especially.


To some degree, but I want to create something that outlives me. So, yeah; I think that’s something special.


Let’s talk about being Hawaiian.




What does that mean to you?


A vibrant, beautiful past, a troubling present, and an uncertain future. That’s what it means.


Do you think tech could help, will help?


Yeah. I mean, I think it can help in a lot of ways. But I’m so focused on — yeah, I don’t know. I think that’s down the road.


That’s not where your passions run?


No; later. Later, I’d like to do stuff. But right now, it’s business and hit that homerun, and then go hit another one. I mean, for sure; business is definitely where it’s at right now, for me.


How many hours a week do you work? Do you have any idea?


No. Probably not as many as you. [CHUCKLE]


I don’t know about that. I’m not sleeping at the office.


[CHUCKLE] Yeah; I don’t if that’s a good thing, still. But, I think there’s a lot of good and a lot of troubling things about being Hawaiian now. And so, I’d like to help out with that. My mom’s a social worker, right? So, you see or you hear about stuff, and there’s a perpetual cycle of poverty, and how is that in Hawaiian culture. And it’s like, you got the self – medicating drug abuse, you got issues at home, not going to college, and it kinda spins upon itself and perpetuates through generations. And I don’t know if I know the answer to that, but you know, I’d like to help out with that at some point. For sure.


So many causes.


Yeah. I mean, incarceration, diabetes, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol. I mean, I don’t even have to look farther than my own family to see all of that. And I think ninety – eight percent of every Hawaiian out there, if they really think about it, it’s all right in front of them.


You have a passion that you’re deferring to better the condition of Hawaiians, if you can.




What are your thoughts about quality of life today? You keep your business here because of quality of life.


Yeah. I mean, I think, shoot, since maybe the recession in 2008, I think a lot of the middleclass has gone down to a notch below that, especially on the Hawaiian side. We see this a lot with other minorities on the mainland. It’s a larger class teetering on the poverty line. So, like the disappearance of the middleclass, I think is a definite reality in a lot of Hawaiian families. And then, we see the wealthy side getting exponentially richer. Which I don’t know if you can fault people for that, but within the last five years, there’s been a big vacuum, I think, in the middleclass.


And that’s a cause for concern; right? And also, not having a college degree really affects people’s ability to work in an era where it’s the knowledge era, it’s the information era. And that means tech.


Yeah. I’d really like to make an impact on people’s going to college, for sure, once I get some other stuff done. For sure. [CHUCKLE]


Competitive business and hardcore fishing now, activism and altruism later. Mahalo to Hoala Greevy, founder of the computer spam and virus filtering system Pau Spam, for sharing his story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.


Are you still close to people you went to school with?


Yeah; more so my college friends, I guess. But, I still keep in touch. I’m still very, very into McKinley.


I know you’ve participated with the McKinley School Foundation, which is just an awesome supportive fundraising arm of McKinley.


Oh, yeah.


Or supportive of McKinley.


We created our own Class of 1994 Scholarship. We have a two – year and a four – year category. The amounts aren’t big, but it’s a good start. And I think that our society, college is the equalizer. It’s your ticket out, so the more people we can get in college, I think it just helps society as a whole.


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