Explore the life story of the influential “Migrant Mother” photographer through her granddaughter’s eyes. Never-before-seen photos and film footage, family memories and new interviews reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself.
Explore the life story of the influential “Migrant Mother” photographer through her granddaughter’s eyes. Never-before-seen photos and film footage, family memories and new interviews reveal the artist who challenged America to know itself.
Celebrate the grandeur and majesty of Utah’s five national parks set to glorious music from the Utah Symphony. See stunning iconic images, grand vistas and secret locations in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches National Parks.
Students from Ka Waihona o ka Naauao Public Charter School in Nanakuli on Oahu tell the story of Joseph Kekuku, the Native Hawaiian musician from Laie who discovered the Hawaiian Steel Guitar over 100 years ago. Legend has it that Kekuku accidentally dropped his comb on the strings of his guitar one day and liked what he heard. He then developed the sound and technique that became known as Hawaiian steel guitar. When he took that sound abroad it caught on and was one of the reasons why Hawaiian music enjoyed world-wide popularity in the 1920s and 30s. The story includes interviews with Kekuku’s grandson Uncle Joe Ah Quin and grandnieces Aunty Kaiwa Meyer and Aunty Gladys Pualoa-Ahuna.
Students from Kauai High School on the Garden Isle tell the story of a science-trained farmer who turned his love of the science of food into a thriving, family-run food truck.
Students from Kapaa Middle School on Kauai show us how to turn old, discarded crayons into colorful abstract art.
For a very different approach to art, we tap the HIKI NŌ archives to revisit a story from Iolani School on Oahu about a young conceptual artist/photographer.
Students from Kainalu Elementary School in Windward Oahu show us the therapeutic value of miniature horses for special needs children.
Students from Saint Francis School on Oahu introduce us to a teacher who is dedicated to bridging the communication gap between the deaf and hearing communities through American Sign Language.
This program encores Saturday, June 4 at 12:00 pm and Sunday, June 5 at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.
Discover the life and work of Mexican American photographer Pedro E. Guerrero, who collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson.
This is the story of the pioneering African American photographers – men and women, celebrated and anonymous – who have recorded the lives and aspirations of generations, from slavery to the present. The film opens a window into the lives of black families, whose experiences and perspectives are often missing from the traditional historical canon.
Original air date: Tues., Oct. 23, 2007
Passionate, Intelligent, Talented and Truly “Hawaiian”
Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian” are just a few words that describe Aunty Nona Beamer.
Join Leslie Wilcox as she “talks story” with the woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer – the irrepressible Nona Beamer.
Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another wonderful conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down with Aunty Nona Beamer whose life as an educator and composer began simply enough – teaching hula to young, local girls in Kaka‘ako and to America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford. But, as a student herself, young Nona would be expelled from school – for chanting in her beloved language. And it was her love for that school – Kamehameha – that would lead her to write a letter as an adult demanding reform of… well, let’s let Aunty Nona tell her stories herself. We got together with her at her friend’s house at Diamond Head.
You wanted to do this interview near Kamapua‘a. What’s the significance?
Well you know, we are not here very often. And so much of our family background is mythology and legends and history and the Pele family and the love affair between Kamapua‘a and Pele you know, and all that exciting passion going on. Here’s a chance to see a replica of that symbol of the legends of the story; so I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to come and say, ‘Thank you!” We are so happy to have the myths and legends to pass on to our children and have my daughter with me, and you know.
You mentioned passions. Look at you. You still have such a passion for life. Have you slowed down at all? I mean, I know you were sidelined in the hospital for four months. But there you are back at it again.
You know, I’m having so much fun and I am so grateful and I think, look where we are in all of this beauty and no matter where we look around us it is glorious. How lucky can we be? How lucky?
You’re in your mid 80’s now.
Sweetheart, I was 84 last week. Is that mid?
And a couple of years ago you where in the hospital for 4 months. You had a bypass surgery, you had a stroke and lots of people were very worried about you.
Bye bye Nona (laughs). I guess God had another plan for me and I thought, well I better get off my arse and do something. So I am trying to do something. Yeah, life is so beautiful. And it’s so beautiful because of each other, you know? Our kindness with each other, our voices, our smiles, the way we touch each other’s hands. It seems so corny but it works.
And you saw some of that when you were ill in the hospital.
Yes, and people that I did not know, reams of cards, school children. And I’m reading them and I had no idea who these people were, but the healing vibes were just so powerful and all the prayers. They’d come to the door and say a prayer standing in the doorway, and I’d look and couldn’t make out who they were. And sometimes I couldn’t hold my head up and somebody would be chanting at my door. I thought, isn’t that wonderful that people would give up themselves and their healing energy is healing me, you know? This business of kindness and love, it’s so, so real. And it works Leslie, in every aspect of your life. And we say to live pono. That’s not very easy, pono spiritually, pono emotionally, pono physically in every aspect of your life. Moderato, you know? So you don’t overeat, you don’t get overemotional, so your blood pressure doesn’t go, you do things moderately and that’s a pretty good recipe for us, you know?
And that’s exactly what you’re doing with management of your diabetes. You are, you are, talk about structure, you are using structure to keep healthy.
My dear hanai sister has taught me how to do that. Yeah. And I have felt so much better since I’ve known the alternative, I keep to this rigid regimen because I know it’s keeping me healthy. So there’s no, no possible way to cheat. And I feel badly with so many Hawaiians, wonderful talent, beautiful people, stuffing their mouths, drinking the sodas. Oh the big uh, I forgot what you call them, with the rice, egg, hamburger, gravy. Loco moco, oh loco moco and I think so unhealthy, oh dear, if we could just get the Hawaiians to eat sensibly, they won’t all die of diabetes before they’re 20.
You are really watching yourself, you’re measuring your water intake even.
Yes, because the kidneys are not happy if you don’t give them enough water. Then I swell up if I give them too much water. So you just have to learn what that balance is, you know.
On the other hand, you were telling me that yours is now a life without laulau.
Yes, but I can have a half a cup of poi twice a week. So I’m happy about that. But no laulau. We make it with won bok. It’s the luau leaves – that has too much potassium for the kidneys.
So you are motivated just to keep going. Your body may be slipping up a bit but you’re all there in every other way.
I’m having a good time. But I’m looking for some mischief to get into. Do you have a grandfather for me? (laughs)
Having a good time and waiting for some mischief at age 84. You gotta love Aunty Nona. And there’s much more to her story. Did you know that it was none other than Nona Beamer who coined the term “Hawaiiana” back in 1949? We’ll find out how – and why – next.
You know, you’ve done so many things in your life. I mean it’s, you’re one of those “hyphen” people: educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer. How did all that happen?
Well of course we’re a big family. So that we had to take care of the children, telling them stories so they would go to sleep. And then my mother was ill one summer. I was 12 and getting ready to come to Kamehameha. And my father said that your mother can’t go to the studio, Nona. You have to go and your sister will go and help you, you know. I think my sister was 10 or 9, somewhere around there, so she was going to answer the phones. And I looked on the appointment book and the first student was Mary Pickford. And I said to my father, “Oh I can’t teach this lady. She’s a very important movie star. My father said, “Get in there.” And she came with Buddy Rogers. I think they were on their honeymoon and he was so nice. She was tiny – she was smaller than I was. And her little hands, little feet, she was completely charming. Got me over the fear of teaching because we were talking and singing and doing lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds. And I got over my fear. Well I get to Kamehameha in September and there’s a notice on the board. “Any girls interested in teaching at the Kaka‘ako Mission, sign up.” I thought, I taught, I know how to teach, so I signed up. And here were little preschool children at Kaka‘ako. It was a very deprived area, you know? And they didn’t know about soap and water. So the children had sores all over their legs. And they smelled bad. And ah, so the first thing we did was get big washtubs and bathe the children with tar soap, smelly brown tar soap. And I’m crying and trying to sing and then the children would say, “Oh, come to the singing lady. Come to the…” So my line gets long as the children were waiting for their baths and nobody at the other tubs. I thought, “Hmm, singing is the way to interest children,” you know? So the first class I faced I started telling them stories and then began chanting about the kahuli and the kolea birds (sings a bit). “Spooky, spooky, spooky!.” And they were frightened. So then I put one note in the song (sings a bit more). And they smiled and weren’t frightened anymore. I thought, “That’s how I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach them little songs, tell them the history and they’ll be smiling and learning their history all in one fell swoop.”
You composed music that stands forever. Every school kid, virtually, in Hawaii knows Pupu Hinuhinu. You wrote it. How does that feel? I mean, virtually every child grows up knowing your song.
Well it’s a sweet little simple thing, you know. But I think that it’s appealing to all levels, children and grandparents, just the sweetness of it, you know? I think we are very lucky, if we can sing sweet little songs it kind of calms us down and maybe we’re not raising our voices, maybe there is more calmness in the family, you know? So I think it has a lot of uses.
So storytelling is really the basis of so much of what you’ve done and what your family has done as well.
It is, yes. Well we didn’t have books, we didn’t have you know, lot of authors writing about Hawaiian culture. In fact, I didn’t even know about the overthrow until I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission. I didn’t even know about the politics of those times, you know?
Where do you get your knowledge of Hawaiianess? From your family experience?
Yes, well it was from grandparents, grandmother.
But you don’t speak fluent Hawaiian?
No, no. We were not allowed to. And then the suppression at Kamehameha. I think psychologically it caused a lot of damage among a lot of Hawaiians in my age group, you know? Because we were forbidden, we were punished. Yeah, it was a psychological block.
And yet, as a teacher you had to have structure?
Well you know we didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t have curriculum, you know? We didn’t have a term Hawai‘iana until ‘49 when I coined it. And it was at a workshop with the department of education teachers. Well it was called Department of Public Instruction then – D.P.I. So I wrote on the board “Hawai – glottal i – dash – ana.” So I turned around, I looked at the teachers.. I said, “I’d like for us to study this word ‘Hawaiiana… Hawaiiana.’” Now the “ana” is the root word “to measure, to evaluate, to determine what is the best.” So we’re going to concern ourselves with that and teach only the best of Hawaiian culture in the classroom. And that was my reason for that word “Hawaiiana.”
You made it up.
Yes. And I didn’t mean “-ana” like Americana, Mexicana like a conglomerate of things, you know. But I meant to measure everything that we’re going to teach, and offer the children the very best in the culture.
That’s one of the many one-of-a-kind things you’ve done, firsts you’ve done. What about when you were a student at Kamehameha Schools and got briefly expelled?
(Nona holds up two fingers)
Twice you got expelled?
Well it was strange. The first time, the President of the Trustees, Frank Midkiff, was having a tea in the pink garden, in the bougainvillea garden – so pretty. And so he asked me, I had started the Hawaiian Club and it was simply because my friends had said, “Can we learn a song? Can we learn a chant? Tell us a story.” So we’d gather Monday after school and we would learn a chant. Unbeknownst to anybody else, but Mr. Midkiff was a champion of mine, a personal friend and hero. So for him I would do anything. So we came into the garden chanting (sings the chant). And we finished our chant and we bowed to everybody and we walked out. And then my principal said, “Winona you may pack your bag and leave this campus.” It was a sacrilege that I committed – to chant and do motions as we were walking.
Because it wasn’t allowed. No language, no chanting, no dancing, no nothing.
But you could do western dancing?
Oh yeah, we could do anything else, yeah.
But that’s how it was in those days at Kamehameha Schools.
Because everyone was on this western path.
Well, it was just the mindset of the time, I think, you know? They were there to school good and industrious men and women, you know? And there was no further look about advancing us, as students or Hawaiians! I wanted to go to college. “Winona, there’s no reason to go to college.” I mean, my principal! I though, what kind of principal would tell you not to think about going to college? So it kind of hurt me that they wanted to keep us so subservient.
Have you had kind of a love-hate relationship with the school since you were a kid?
You know, I’ve loved them all my life, all my life. In 1927 my grandmother took me to the old chapel where Farrington School is now and I heard the voices of the Kamehameha men. Oh, the stone walls were just vibrating with these wonderful voices and I fell in love with Kamehameha. Didn’t know anything about it except just a name, you know? And I knew later on about the campus where my father had lived as a child. And then later on when I was hired we were given living quarters there where my father was when he was 6 years old. He was in his dormitory, you know? So there was a lot of joy in my heart for Kamehameha just from that initial love of the sound of their voices, the men singing. Of course, my grandmother was a graduate and my parents had attended. Of course all of us in our family had attended. And now it was time for the grandchild, and you know, they have been as close to me as my own blood family.
The school which expelled you twice was the school where you dedicated 40 years of your teaching life.
And $87,864 scholarship money I have raised in 35 years for scholarships for Kamehameha. Yes, I love them like my family. Well now they’re coming into the sunlight.
And you were part of that. You were part of bringing back the Hawaiianess into the school.
I like to think I was, but there’s a whole faction of us. Class members, students, they were asking. Why can’t we have Hawaiian? Why can’t we be what we are? Why do we have to be who we are not?
And the school was acting in what it thought was your best interest?
Yes, and yet they said Princess Pauahi, in her will, stated that we were not to speak, we were not to chant, we were not to dance. So when they hired me, the first thing I did, “Could I see the will? Please may I see the will?” Nothing in it about Princess Pauahi saying there would be no language, there would be no dancing, there would be no – they lied to me, they lied to me all those years. So my estimation of administration went (motion of hands going down).
Well and then what happens many years later, your idea of the administration had again fallen. You wrote a letter to the State Supreme Court in the late 1990s, in which you said, “Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Lokelani Lindsey, a trustee’s micromanagement methodology is an utterly diabolical plan of a self-serving egoist.”
Oh, I didn’t know her at all. But it was just an abomination that had happened.
In your letter, you were expressing what had been an inner angst, many people upset with what was happening at the trustee level at the old Bishop Estate. But so many people didn’t want to lose what they had and you were the one who brought it out.
Well, you know they were afraid of their jobs. The students were afraid of their scholarships. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had no children in school. I had retired. And I thought this was just not right. So when my hanai son Kaliko Beamer Trapp came home and told me that Lokelani had sent a directive to the University Language Department that the vocabulary they were developing could not be taught at the Kamehameha Schools, you know? So I just felt that because if it was spoken during Pauahi’s time we could have spoken it. But I thought ah, we’re back to the middle ages. We can’t speak it ‘cause Pauahi didn’t speak it 50 years ago. Something’s wrong, you know? So that really sort of capsulated it from there. We had to do something about it. That was the straw.
And there was a firestorm after you wrote the letter.
True. Well, I think it gave other people the courage to speak up too.
And that triggered an overhaul, a reform of the old Bishop Estate.
It was about time, about time. Well, I wish it were as lasting and as meaningful now. But they aren’t there yet, they aren’t there yet. I think they have to do more on campus with the old guard. I love them dearly. We’re all good friends. But they have to be more mindful of Hawaiianess, you know? Not to be thinking of all the business and the dollars and the cash register. Think about the students. That’s why we’re there – for the students. Not to amass fortunes in the bank.
The woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – lives it. Aunty Nona Beamer stands up for what she thinks is right – what she feels is pono. We don’t have much time left, so we’ll make the rest of this long story, short. Stay with us as we continue “talking story” with the irrepressible Nona Beamer.
Are we going to see you in future years standing up again, doing the kind of things that got you expelled, that triggered reform in the old Bishop Estate?
(Laughs) You know I am getting a little more outspoken and Keola says, ”Ma, you’re swearing more these days.” I used to say dammit, but now I say dammit to hell. (Laughs) Well I think that’s one of the perks of the elderly – that we can speak up, that we’ve been there and we have the courage ‘cause we know what it feels like to be denied your language, denied being a Hawaiian. So there’s no, I don’t think there’s any guilt. It’s just positive affirmations.
You’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again.
Do it again? (laughs) Thank you honey.
You know, you have so much love, so much aloha and yet you believe in principles and standing up even if it ruffles feathers and makes people lose their jobs.
Yes. Well it seems, if it’s right, if it’s reasonable, it’s good you know, you should try to keep as much goodness as you can. And sometimes we just need a little help from one other. Just hang on to one another and make it better.
But I think what you’re telling us is it’s not just about being nicey nice. It’s about following principles, and values.
True, true, yeah.
Let me ask you one question – this may be dicey so let me know. One of the things that we do is we ask viewers what would you like to ask Aunty Nona? One of the questions that people always ask about and you may not want to talk about it, I understand. A viewer in Hilo would like to know if you see any mending between your sons Keola and Kapono Beamer?
Well you know there doesn’t need to be mending. They have diverse careers.
So your sons had a personal and professional parting of the ways. Does it hurt or is it something a family deals with?
Well I miss them together, I miss the sound of their singing. At my father’s funeral I was just weeping because I heard them singing together when I hadn’t heard them for a while. I miss the mellowness of their sound. But I see it coming in my grandson now. And I think of all the good things we’ve done. So if their direction is different, so be it. We can’t just stagnate in our same place. We got to grow or we die. So I don’t see that there’s a lot of mending because the love is still there. I don’t know that they’ll sing Honolulu City Lights together again. I don’t know.
But they both came to see you when you were in the hospital?
Yes they did.
Must have been nice to see both of them at once?
The same room – we were all talking together. Yes, yes. And I’m glad that it happened before I “make die dead”! (Laughs) Well I do think that they have a lot to contribute. I don’t know what direction. But I think we’re going to see something through Kamana. And his generation will probably mend the fences that their parents have knocked down.
They’re the next Beamers.
I think so. I think we are going to see some interesting things from him.
So what do you, what do you look ahead to? What’s ahead for you?
Well you know, I want to keep the Hawaiianess in things as much as possible. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that important. In fact, it’s kind of corny when you say, “What is the Hawaiianess?” you know? It’s this aloha feeling – the kindness between people. You know, speaking nicely, looking at each other smiling, you know. Oh, it seems like so little. But it’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world. And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts – to keep this aloha. Not easy.
You know when people who’ve known you a long time and know you well describe you, the personal qualities they tend to talk about are: courage, stubbornness – and they say you’re full of aloha. Are they right?
Well, you know I’m very grateful and that’s a big stabilizer in my life – that I’m so grateful for all the things, the goodness of family and everything you’ve had behind you, you know. But you’re not here by yourself. Oh, my great-grandmother’s here, my grandmother’s here, everybody’s here behind me. And I think oh this is part of our aumakua, our belief in our guardians that are around us. But we have to listen. We have to be in tune because they’re all here to help us. But sometimes we get so busy we just run rough shot over everything. And life has so much beauty underneath it. If you just be quiet enough to listen to it.
Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian”… just a few words that describe Nona Beamer. It was a pleasure sharing stories from Aunty Nona – and sharing them with you. I wish we had more time. But we have to make this Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!
Original air date: Tues., Apr. 17, 2012
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.
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.
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?
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—
—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—
Did you look up mangoes? Did you see what the—
—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—
—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.
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]
Original air date: Tues., Mar. 31, 2009
Hawaii’s History Detective
Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O’ahu Cemetery in Nu’uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.
…it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much.
“She has dedicated her life’s work to something mostly associated with death. But she doesn’t see it that way, because to her graveyards give us fascinated view into people’s lives. That’s Nanette Napoleon on Long Story Short.
Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short,” You’ll meet a vivacious, athletic, upbeat person who—from the job she created for herself—may see obsessed with death. Nanette Napoleon is considered Hawaii’s leading expert on graveyards. A trustee of O‘ahu Cemetery in Nu‘uanu, she’s the author and photographer of a book on Hawaii’s oldest public graveyard. She gives walking tours of the site and she supervised documentation of more than 300 graveyards and 30,000 tombstone inscriptions throughout the state.
Because of her pre-occupation and profession, one might suspect that this Kailua High School graduate had grown up a gloomy isolated child. Absolutely not true-not true at all!
…you have a big family. How many relatives do you have?
Oh, my gosh. Yeah; I come from a big Hawaiian family. Both my mother and my father are part-Hawaiian, and they both come from big families. My father was one of eight, and my mother was one of fourteen. And I still have probably um … seventeen living aunts and uncles, and about sixty-something first cousins.
Your dad was Nappy Napoleon; but not the Nappy Napoleon people associate with canoe racing.
Right. Uh, but that’s the Nappy Napoleon who’s a paddler. But my father was also well known, and his name was Nappy. His real name was Nathan Nihi Napoleon, Sr.; but all his life, he went um, as Nappy, as did his father and uh, another one of his brothers.
It’s a—so—natural. Yeah; it’s a natural name for Napoleon. So um, people always ask that. But I always correct them and say, No, not the paddling Nappy, but the beach boy Nappy, um, who was a beach boy at the Halekulani Hotel for uh, over twenty years.
What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up, or—or did you actually grow up pretty much on the beach at the Halekulani?
Uh, in my uh, mid-years, I—we did. But my family um … I was born in Kailua. And then when I was two, my family moved to Al—Alameda, California. My father went to work for Matson. And we stayed there for eight years, and then came back to Kailua. And then my father and his uh, two brothers opened a beach boy stand in uh, Waikiki, next to the Moana Hotel. And then a few years after that, my dad started his own concession at the Halekulani Hotel.
And did—was that a family affair?
Uh, it really was. Um, my … all of us six kids, as we were growing up, as we got older, um, we all worked for my dad on the weekends; extra money. And when we weren’t working, we were there anyway, because we just wanted to go to the beach and surf, and sail, and play in—play around, and have a good time. When you uh, finished high school, you did give it a shot, working fulltime with your dad on the beach.
I did. I thought I wanted to um, be a beach girl for the rest of my life. ‘Cause I really loved the beach and surfing, and all that. Uh, and so right out of high school, I had no plans to go to college, and I went uh, to work for my dad fulltime. But after about six months, it started getting a little old for me. [chuckle] I wasn’t active enough. I—I was used to doing it on weekends and holiday, summers, like that, and it was always very much fun. But I found out that doing it every day was a little bit different. And so I wanted to do a little bit more than that. And so the—I decided—after a year I spent on the beach, I decided to go to college. And I was the first one in … in my whole Napoleon line, I think … uh … to go to college, and graduate from college.
And it wasn’t like a bolt of lightning that hit me, and so all of a sudden I’m gonna be this cemetery researcher person. Um … but it was in—started in my consciousness, and as I went around, I no—I started just noticing graveyards here, and graveyards there. And then the next thing I knew, I was … walking into them, and seeing what I could see. And the first thing that I—I realized after visiting several, was that they’re aesthetically very um, interesting places to look at. Because I’ve als—always been, since uh, high school, interested in photography. So um, I started going back to take pictures of the graveyards. And after a while, um, I started actually looking, and reading the tombstones, and I—I realized that, Wow, this is some interesting information here. And I saw some well known names that uh—from history, Hawaiian history. And I thought, Wow, these places are, you know, pretty interesting, and they’re kind of historical. So that piqued my interest, and then you know, I graduated from—went on, graduated from college. And I—but I always had that interest, and I would always visit graveyards wherever I was, whatever island if I traveled.
For years Nanette Napoleon kept her passion for cemeteries to herself. Then at a change meeting at a cocktail party, she discovered she was not alone in her interest.
And then I found that uh, one of the men in the group um, had lived on the East Coast, and that he had been interested in graveyard for many, many years. And so he and I kinda went off, and we sat on a couch and got into this long conversation about graveyards. And I thought, Wow, this is great.
The first time I ever met somebody like me, who is interested in graveyards, right?
Because—Because—Because your friends and family had—
They said—everybody said, Oh, that’s weird, or Isn’t that kinda morbid that you have this interest, right?
And you didn’t consider it morbid?
Not at all; not at all. Um, so one—kind of not tell people sometimes, because I didn’t like the reaction that I got, right? But here was a guy who was just as much into it as I was. And then he turned me onto the fact that um—or told me about a group on the East Coast called the Association for Gravestone Studies, which is an international uh, group of cemetery researchers. Um, some academics and non-academics. And then uh, I immediately wrote them, and found out, wow, there’s a whole group of us out there. [chuckle] And so I joined up, and—and for twenty years now, I’ve been going to uh, annual conferences uh, throughout the United States. We have a journal, and we have a quarterly newsletter. So that’s—um, I’ve learned so much from that organization.
Nanette Napoleon had connected. She found her place in the world…and soon delved into one particular cemetery in Nu‘uanu as the centerpiece of her research.
…and you did a book about Oahu Ceme—tery.
Would that be your favorite cemetery?
It is. Because um, it’s visually the most stunning, and there’s so many different kinds of markers to look at, and to talk about. And plus, there are so many uh, famous people from Hawaiian history there; hundreds, hundreds of famous people.
James Campbell, who uh, came from Europe and he—as a carpenter. And he settled here and became fabulously rich as a sugar planter.
After buying land that everybody else thought was worthless.
But he found out you can get water to it.
That’s right; in the Ewa plain.
And he brought in a special drill team, because nobody had—had drill bits to drill through the hard coral uh, rock after the soil. And nobody could irrigate out there. Uh, but he had the—brought in some technology, new technology that could drill, and then hit water, and … the land that he had bought for pennies was all—all of a sudden worth, you know, many hundreds of dollars. So that’s how he made most of his money.
And the man they call the father of baseball is buried there.
The father of American baseball is right here in Hawaii. And don’t let anybody tell you it’s Abner Doubleday. It’s—Because—
It’s Alexander J. Cartwright. And he came out here from New York. Um, he had an interesting story. Um, he and his brother, in 1849, went west as—to go to California, as … in 1849.
Gold rush. They rushed to California. They went broke, like all of their friends. And then um, the brother went back across country, but Alexander decided to take the sea route. And so he got on a ship that was going to eventually get back to Boston. But that particular ship uh, like many did in those days, came out to Hawaii first, and then went around the Horn. They picked up goods, dropped off goods. So his ship came to Hawaii. When he got here, he—he was feeling pretty sick, so he said, Okay, I’m gonna stay in the islands ‘til get we—better, and then get on another ship and go home. Uh, and he did. But he liked it here so much, that when he got back to his home, he picked up his whole family, and they uh, emigrated to the islands.
Wow. Who else?
Uh … oh, Sterling Mossman, musicians, uh … recently, one is uh, um … gla—uh, Gladys Brandt, from the University of—
–Hawaii, and other things.
And Kamehameha Schools.
There’s one uh, statue; uh, it’s a tombstone at uh, Oahu Cemetery, where it’s so different from all the rest. But on the other hand, it feels like it’s in keeping. I—I believe it’s a life-sized statue of Duke Kahanamoku’s sister.
Right; right. Um, and I have that—a picture of it in my book. Um … her name was Maria, spelled like Maria, but pronounced Mariah. And she was uh, baby of the family. There were seven brothers, and then her, the baby. And unfortunately, she got a—uh, was ill, sickly as a young adult, and she died when she was only in her mid-twenties. But at the time of her death, she was uh, um … betrothed to an Italian baron. And the baron was heartbroken and he went back to Italy, he ordered—took a picture of her, and ordered uh, a life-sized statue of uh, to be carved in marble. And it was, and it was brought back and installed in the graveyard. That’s the only life-sized uh, full-body image of a person I’ve seen in all—in Hawaii. But when I tour uh, graveyards all around America, I see many, many more um, full-sized bodies.
It seems as though um … cemeteries are the place where you find out people’s histories. And in fact, uh, aren’t there some wonderful stories of how people died?
You know, I mean, uh, the tombstone actually explain; uh, sailors who went to the aid of their fallen friend—
–and died themselves, trying to rescue him.
That’s right. Um, some of them say, like, um … fallen from the mast, you know, and—they don’t say drowned, they say um … or they, drown—drowned whilst bathing. [chuckle] You know; taking a bath in the ocean water. And they—they—most of the sailors, people don’t realize, in that era, couldn’t swim. So they had to have a rope tied around them, and they would jump in the water. But sometimes they drowned doing that, or they—they fell of the mast, or—it was such a dangerous profession. Uh, in the storms, the big blocks, tackles and ropes and things, um, you know, would swing around and they’d hit somebody in the head, kill them. Um … so it was a very dangerous profession. And—and so many of the uh … well, in those days, in the 1800s, uh, you couldn’t … keep a body on a ship, because there was no refrigeration, and bring them home. So they all had to be buried at sea. But then the next port the ship landed at, the—the fellow sailors would go out and buy a tombstone for their falling sailor, shipmate, and erect it in the local cemetery, and say this—on such-and-such date, to commemorate their passing.
There—there’s one here that’s—I mean, there—there are a number that are so sad, in that a guy who was twenty-eight years old was in Hawaii only fifteen days, and apparently was sick the entire time, and then is laid to rest—
–in this place where he knew so few people, and had lived—
Right. And um, you know, the parents, would never … have the opportunity to come and see the marker or anything, but they felt very strongly that they should be commemorated in a physical way, you know, even though the body wasn’t there.
There—there are a lot of different areas of Oahu Cemetery.
Some are ethnic.
And uh … aren’t there—
Aren’t—aren’t there some Civil War differentiations, too?
The … Oahu Cemetery is the only cemetery that has a Civil War plot. It’s called the … uh, listed as the Grand Army of the Republic Plot, or the GAR. And these were veterans of the Northern Army, Marines, and uh, uh, Navy veterans who survived the Civil War, and went about their lives, and ended up in Hawaii and settling in Hawaii, and—and died in Hawaii. And after the war, the veterans formed a uh, veterans’ organization called the GAR, which actually became a very uh, prominent political group in America, in general. Uh, so they started a branch of the GAR in Hawaii, and those guys that were veterans joined, and they had a thing going, and they—part of their dues went to buying a plot in Oahu Cemetery, so that when they died, they could be buried together.
What about Confederates?
No Confederates. Uh, it was only for um, the uh, Northern forces. The GA—this particular plot. But there are other um … um … Civil War Confederates buried in the cemetery; a few.
Among the many aesthetic riches found in cemeteries is a very specialized photographic process. As Nanette Napoleon points out in her book on O‘ahu Cemetery, “Tombstone photos bring the dead to life for the casual viewer.”
If I do another book, it’ll be about those porcelain portraits, ‘cause I love them. Um, and they’re very important, actually, for families. Because in those days, people—the regular person didn’t have cameras. Cameras weren’t even invented ‘til 1860s. Um, so the average person didn’t have them. So if you wanted a photo, you had to go to a studio and pay for a photograph. So families did that. And then when somebody died, and they went to the funeral parlor, and they wanted one of those, they had to bring a family photo in, give it to the mortician. They would send it off to um, the mainland. There was only a few places on the mainland who did it. They would take a picture of the picture, and with that negative, then expose that negative onto that uh, piece of porcelain which is chemically coated with photographic chemicals. So you expose it onto that, and it … goes on there as a picture. And because it’s on porcelain, uh, and you put it up there, it lasts ten—it lasts … sometimes I’ve seen them as old as a hundred years old.
We have Oahu Cemetery, which is—I mean, I—I love the—the wrought iron and the—and the … shape of the tombstones. But there are others that are tucked away in places where—
–today you wonder, Why would they put a cemetery—
–there? But of course, Hawaii has changed, and you wouldn’t put a cemetery next to an onramp of a freeway, but that’s—
–what we have. Right?
Onramps of freeways, um … in the middle of a parking lot at Windward Mall, in the back side. There used to be St. Ann’s Church located in that spot. Uh, the church moved across the street, and that lot was abandoned for many, many years, and the—the church eventually was torn down, but the graveyard um, that—that … associated with the church remained at that location. Even though it was all grown over, and everything. But then in the 70s, was it, they were gonna build Windward Mall. And uh, they were going to first bulldoze it over, but um, some people in the community, including myself, um, petitioned that and said, No, save the cemetery. So they did. And they cleaned it up, and put a fence, white picket fence around it.
It’s the back lot of the—
The—the shopping center parking lot.
Yeah, and you park right next to it, and everything.
Isn’t that where um … Kau’i Zuttermeister is buried?
Yeah; Kau’i Zuttermeister is over there. Who else, uh … oh. One of the more interesting ones from that graveyard is uh, a couple of men who, on December 7, 1941,uh, were one of sixty-five civilians who died, uh, as the result of the attack on Oahu. A—a lot of people don’t realize that that attack not only happened at Pearl Harbor and Hickam, but um, throughout the i—our island, Oahu Island. And that there were actually civilians who had no connection with Pearl Harbor or any of the military bases, that were killed. And uh, there are two buried in that cemetery who were relatives, who worked at Pearl Harbor, both of them. And [CLEARS THROAT] when they heard on the radio uh, pearl—this is not a drill, and they called all the people who worked at Pearl Harbor to report to your stations. So it was four men who got in a car, and they were all related, and all from the windward side; they got into this black sedan. As they went—that’s how they went to work every day. They went over the Pali, came down the Pali, and then they were going over a—the hill in uh, Alewa Heights.
And right in the middle of the intersection, um, an American anti-aircraft shell came, and fell, and hit them directly on the top of the car. And you’ve probably seen the uh, photo from—it’s always uh, in … when they’re talking about Pearl Harbor things. Uh, so it hit the car, and all four men were killed.
Knowledge of the incident led Nanette Napoleon to uncover more stories of civilian deaths in the December 7th attack.
And there were two markers of two little girls, young girls. And … uh, with the same last name, and the same death date; December 7, 1941. And I said, Okay, wait a minute. I don’t think—unless they were killed on the same day in a car crash, or something, something’s going on here. So I called up um … the historian at uh, Pearl Harbor, and I asked him, You know where—anything about civilians who died on December 7th? He said, Yeah. You know, we have some information, and it’s—they’re in these boxes over here. Uh—
It wasn’t a readymade report.
Not at all.
No; no. So uh, I said, Oh, can I come and look at that? So he allowed me to do that. And I—I instantly got interested in the story. And … and uh, for a number of years, I’ve been collecting uh, data about them; who they were, exactly who they were, how old they were, where they were, how they died.
And nobody had done that before?
Nobody; no, nobody had done that. Ev—not even the Pearl Harbor guys. They had all this data, they—but they hadn’t put it together. So I was the first one to kinda do that, and um … and then …uh, comes the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And … um … I wanted to do something to commemorate those civilians. ‘Cause every Pearl Harbor day comes along, and they always talk about the military casualties, right? And we have Arizona Memorial, and all kinds of things. But nothing for the civilians. So … I just happened to be going to Washington, DC to study—uh, do some cemetery research in the archives over there. And I—I made a trip to uh, Senator Akaka’s office. I wrote him ahead of time, and I said, You know, is there anything we can do about these civilians? And so um … as a result of that, um, he generated uh, a resolution to acknowledge uh, those civilians.
You know, you are known for having picnics at Oahu Cemetery—
–just to enjoy the … the … the rural charm in—in the—the—
And to—to honor folks, you know, to feel at—at home there. Um, and I thought of you when one Memorial Day, I went to Valley of the Temples, uh, where my grandmother is buried. And there was a … several large families with picnic uh, chairs—
–and they had hibachis,
–they had …
I love it.
–Subway sandwiches, and they were playing music.
And it was the most natural, warm, wonderful thing—
–I—I’d seen at a cemetery. It was just um … people were at home with their loved one, and—
–they were actually telling stories, and—
It was as if the person buried there, or … aro—whose spirit was still around, could hear.
Yeah. And I love that about Hawaii. It’s probably the only place in the United States where people do that. Because there’s a long history in doing that. Um, and it comes from the Hawaiian culture, where Hawaiians um, remember family gravesites, and they put uh, makana, um, gifts at the gravesites. And that has sort of been um, a—adopted by other cultures. An—and um, it used to be more popular in my parents’ generation, where the whole family would, you know, pack up for the day, and go to one cemetery and spend the whole day, or go to several during the day. And there used to be a lot more families that you’d see in the graveyards. Um, but unfortunately, generations later, um, we don’t have as much connection to … the graves. And so we don’t see that as much. But um … as part of my mission in … when uh … is the reason why I’ve developed walking tours and lectures. I—I want to see people get more connected back, the way they used to be connected to the graveyards and—and do those kind of family things. So that—so that our generations below us will remember and pay tribute to their ancestors.
You see the most interesting things left on gravestones. For example, can you give me some of the—the—the more unusual ones you’ve seen, besides the orange that—
–Asian families often leave.
Uh, well, the orange is actually … uh, for specific ethnic groups; that’s for either Chinese or Japanese. Not—Not everybody—
Uh … not so much Koreans. Japanese—yeah—or Chinese. More Chinese and Japanese. Okinawan. And—and that has to do with bon season and Buddhist ritual of uh, they call it feeding the ha—hungry ghosts. So you go to the family gravesite to pay homage to ancestor, you leave foods to feed the hungry ghost. Because if you don’t, then the ghost can turn to an angry ghost, and can do bad things to the living. So that’s why you must do that. And then uh, foodstuff uh, incense, you burn incense to awaken the spirits. And—and that’s sort of like a calling card saying, Okay, we’re here.
And they—they smell the incense, they know you’re there. And then you do your ceremonies, and then at the end, you burn firecrackers to chase away any angry spirits around the area, and keep the place uh, sacred.
You get a sense of what a person was like, sometimes. I—I—I know this one place where I always see a uh, a can of a certain kind of beer.
And there’s cigarettes.
Cigarettes, uh … candy. If it’s a child, uh, toys, little toys if it’s children.
Or a pinwheel, sometimes.
A pinwheel; lots of pinwheels.
I—I read a book recently where um, uh, one of the smallest self-governing states in the world in the Pacific, uh, Niue—
–um … they have these family graveyards, and you always put something that reminded you of the person there, or their favorite possession. And so there—um, a number of the women have sewing machines—
–on their graves.
Toy sewing machines? Or little—
Real—sewing machines. Real sewing machines? I’ve not heard about that one. Oh, that’s cool.
…what are the rules? I mean, there are people who say, Oh, that’s … you know, you—don’t be stepping near—
–and what—what are you doing, being so curious.
I mean, i—is there—are you not supposed to step on the gravestone, are you—what—what—what’s … what’s not proper?
That’s a good question. And what I tell people when I go on tours, ‘cause they always ask me that, is that it’s dependent upon your culture. That every culture, be it Chinese, Japanese, um … Filipino … all have different beliefs on the afterlife, about death and dying rituals. So what I tell people is that whatever you come from, whatever tradition you come from, that’s what’s … right for you. If somebody else has something different, like y—your family may say, Oh, we don’t—don’t step on graveyards, ‘cause you’re interfering with the spirits, or something.
Or don’t eat lunch over there.
Yeah; don’t eat lunch, don’t wear something.
Don’t play your happy music.
Yeah; yeah. Um … so it just depends on what you learned from your culture. An—and nothing is uh … more right or wrong than anything else; everybody … is—to me, has um, is valid…
When I hear you talking about cemeteries, I hear you talking about the history of Hawaii, and what—
–what a cemetery can tell you about what people did in life.
And that’s the attraction for you?
That’s the attraction for me, and—and I like to pass that on. Because … a lot of people just think of cemeteries as just simple … repositories for their dead; okay, someplace to bury their dead. But they uh … but are they—who are they for more? Are they more for the dead, or are they more for the living? In my mind, they’re—they’re more for the living. Um, they’re—they’re a place that we can physically go to, to connect us with our ancestors. Um, some people don’t need that connection, that physical connection. But um, most people in our cu—Western culture need that, and—and most cultures around the world. That’s why almost every single culture has some kind of burial ground of some kind. Not all, but most.
If you had to describe to people, and make them really understand what your—what your um, joy in this is, what is it?
I get a lot of joy from um … the physical way that cemeteries look, and how they feel. They’re very peaceful, park-like settings. And some people have a hard time—they say, Oh, I’d never live next to a graveyard, or they don’t like just wandering around a graveyard. They’ll go there for a funeral or something, then they kinda dig out of there. But um … for me, it’s really relaxing and it takes me—transports me back in time. And when I’m in, particularly like Oahu Cemetery, I just go blank, and I’m like in this other world in—in the 1800s all the time. [chuckle] And it’s fascinating for me, you know.
So the next time you’re in a cemetery, pay attention to the little details—the doors into the past left slightly ajar, beckoning you to enter a different world. They’re not necessarily spooky of morbid places. It all depends on your perspective. I hope you’ve enjoyed this half hour of Nanette Napoleon’s refreshing perspective. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.
What else have you seen on uh, gravesites?
Um, you know, we talked about Alexander J. Cartwright, the baseball guy.
Um, for many years now, people uh, who know baseball um, they make special pil—pilgrimages to his grave, and they will put baseballs with—signed by them. Or uh, Little League teams will go, and it’ll say From the … Pearl City Little League Team, and dated and everything. And—and I fi—and all the balls are still there. And um, sometimes bats uh, baseball cards, baseball caps. Uh, I remember touring some graveyards uh … during a cemetery conference, and we went to the gravesite of Joe DiMaggio. And he had choke, all kind—
–you know, memorabilia stuff.