Kalihi

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Roland Cazimero

 

In honor of the late Roland Cazimero, PBS Hawai‘i presents this in-memoriam encore of this episode recorded in January.

 

Roland Cazimero was just a boy from Kalihi before he became a Hawaiian music legend. He and his younger brother Robert, as The Brothers Cazimero, played an essential role in the evolution of modern Hawaiian music. However, Roland’s success was not without consequences, and he fell victim to many of the temptations that accompany fame. Roland tells how faith, family and the support of his wife, Lauwa‘e, helped him heal.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Aug. 6, at 4:00 pm.

 

Roland Cazimero Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

[SINGING] At home in the islands, at home in the middle of the sea.

 

Have you told Robert that you don’t think Brothers Cazimero will ever play again?

 

No, I haven’t told him. I think he knows. I tell him that I’m very proud of him doing what he’s doing, and that I want him to continue. I miss playing with him a lot. I would love to play with him again, if possible.

 

Roland Cazimero, together with his brother Robert, are the very definition of contemporary Hawaiian music. While Robert continues to perform, Roland’s life journey has taken him in a different direction. Roland Cazimero, 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 kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Roland Cazimero was hospitalized after falling ill during a May Day performance on Maui in 2014. Since then, Roland’s health problems have prevented the Brothers Cazimero from continuing their highly successful forty-year run. Today, this composer, singer, master guitarist, and self-described bradda from Kalihi, remembers how it all started, playing in his parents’ band.

 

Mama had a group called Betty and Her Leo Aloha, which was Betty and her Voices of Love. Leo, voices; aloha, love. I gotta tell you. Betty and Her Leo Aloha; I would go with my dad and we would set up for the gigs, you know. And we’d go down to like, the Pearl Harbor substation or destroyer, or wherever the place we’re gonna play. People, you know: Hi, Leo; Hi, Leo. My dad go, Hi! You know, like that.

 

And moving around. I’m going—

 

Who’s Leo?

 

–What the hell? Who’s Leo? You know. And finally, one day, I was looking at a poster, and it said Betty and Her Leo Aloha. And I went, Oh, my god; Betty and Leo, and our last name is Aloha.

My mom had a couple of bands. Like, my Auntie Lovey played piano, this other lady, Rose Kamauna played piano after her. Daddy Camacho; all these different players that would come to the house, and every Tuesday night they would have rehearsals, or Thursday, depending. And by the time we were six years old, we would start remembering the songs. And Robert and I always had good ears. So, we would learn the melodies. My sister Tootsie, we made her sing the lead, ‘cause she wasn’t good at parts. And Robert and I would fill in, depending on what key it was in, and who would take the second part, who would take the third.

 

No formal training?

 

Well, Robert had piano lessons. He was my Mama and Daddy’s pride and joy, you know. My dad would always say, Robert, keep playing the piano, I’ll buy you your own college.

 

You know. He never said that to me, ever.

 

Now, why not?

 

Um … kolohe.

 

Oh …

 

I was very kolohe.

 

So, you had the talent, but you didn’t have the discipline. Or the desire?

 

I don’t know. But Robert played piano. And he was playing the song The Nearness of You in F. And my dad pulled out the bass and taught me how to play The Nearness of You in the Key of F. And he taught me the basics. I was about seven years old, I guess.

 

With a bass?

 

And I played bass; yeah.

 

I wish I had a picture of that.

 

Oh; it was funny. Because when I started playing with my mom, I would sit on a high stool with a big jacket, a long jacket, so it looked like I’m a big guy. And play at the back of the stage. And after we take a break, I would have to go outside in the car, ‘cause I wasn’t allowed to stay in the bar. My dad was dating the female bass player at the time, and my mom got mad and fired her. And I got drafted.

 

And you started with the bass, which is later what Robert played when you played with him.

 

When I became part of the Sunday Manoa, I taught myself how to play guitar. And then, when Robert and I played with Peter, I taught Robert how to play bass. When my mom sang, you know, she loved to drink, love her inu. And she drank scotch, which became my drink. But I would sing the high parts for her. That’s why when you listen to The Brothers Caz, you hear the high part? That’s because I sang behind Mama. Whatever song she sang, I always doubled her part.

 

So, before you learned to do Hawaiian falsetto, you were singing a woman’s part?

 

Yeah.

 

Wow.

 

Because Mama needed the help. We played at all their parties, you know. And I even got to go with my mom on the Lurline, you know. We’d get on a tugboat, the Mikioi, and take us out and we’d get onboard and ride in. And you know, along with all the old-timers, Auntie Flossie, all these wonderful ladies, you know. And they took Robert and I under their arms. Come babe; baby, baby come, come. You know. You make stink ear, ‘cause Auntie Flossie not too good today; okay?

 

You make stink ear?

 

Yeah; make stink ear.

 

Auntie Flossie not quite singing that good today. And you know, we would laugh with her, but whatever they wanted, you know.

 

Your dad worked at Pearl Harbor Public Works?

 

Yeah, the Public Works Center. My dad, you know, I gotta thank my dad because one day, I was sick, and he says to me, Boy, are you sick? And I said, Oh, yes, Dad. And I was; I said, Oh, yes, Dad, I’m really sick, Dad. He goes, Mm, are you dead? I went, No, Dad, I’m not dead. He goes, Okay, go change your clothes, get in the car, we going work.

 

That’s a life lesson.

 

That stayed with me all my life. Am I dead? No. Get up, go to work.

 

Tell us where you grew up, and who were your siblings? What was life like in the home, besides the entertainment part?

 

My dad and mom were married before. My dad had married a Spencer woman, and then, they had four. My mom married a Heirakuji man; they had four. And then, they got together and had the last four, which was my brother Rodney, Robert, my sister Tootsie, and I. When they came here, they lived in the Pali Hotel.

 

Where were they from?

 

Daddy was the luna for the sugarcane company.

 

Where?

 

In Kohala.

 

In Kohala; okay.

 

And Mama was from Kohala.

 

That’s right; the Cazimeros are from Kohala.

 

Yeah. And then, eventually, they moved to Kalihi, where we lived at Palena Street, P Street.

 

With all the kids?

 

At one time, yeah.

 

That’s twelve kids.

 

You know, that wasn’t the, the heavy part. The heavy part was during football season. One would come home crying, one would come home happy.

 

Different schools.

 

Yeah. The rest of ‘em could give a rip. You know. But next week, another sister would be crying, another brother would be, you know, cheering.

 

And you were the baby; you’re even younger than your twin, right?

 

Yeah.

 

Kanoe.

 

Fifteen minutes.

 

Yeah, I was the baby. And eventually, came to the point where, a force to be scared of. ‘Cause you know, when we started having family meetings, you know, if I didn’t think things were right, I’d go straight to my number one brother and tell him where I stood about that, and what I thought about it, and that I wanted to bring it up at the meetings, and you know, whether he would back me up or not.

 

So, you needed permission to speak.

 

Well, in a sense. But you know, I didn’t want to say anything and get shot down. I was bullied a lot. And so, I learned to fight.

 

Bullied by …

 

Classmates. You know, ‘cause I was kind of skinny and runty. I got bust up. You know. And then, I started lifting weights, and then I started taking martial arts, some. And the best thing I did for myself was learning how to punch stone walls.

 

Ouch. Really?

 

Yeah.

 

Literally?

 

Literally. You know, just bleeding. But every day, go out there and punch stone walls. And knowing that if I hit you, you won’t get up.

 

Wow …

 

And so, I stopped being bullied.

 

After Roland Cazimero graduated from Kamehameha Schools, he and his brother Robert joined Peter Moon’s band, The Sunday Manoa. In 1969, this trio released Guava Jam, which sparked the beginning of a new movement in Hawaiian music.

 

When we joined Peter, it was a given, you know, that Peter wanted to do Hawaiian music, and so did Robert and I. And the rest is history.

 

You and Robert, and others woke up and—well, Peter Moon was one—woke up Hawai‘i. You were at the vanguard of the Hawaiian renaissance.

 

I still can’t spell that.

 

But you know you were there. How did all of that happen? You know, Hawaiian music, Hawaiian culture, Hawaiian language, all of a sudden became something to be proud of. Because truth be told, for years, there wasn’t a lot of pride on the part of Hawaiians because of what had happened in history.

 

Yeah. We didn’t know. We didn’t know. We were having fun, you know. We just played music. You know, Robert and I had enough repertoire that when Peter came up with an intro or something, we had the music to fit in there.

 

And you knew Hawaiian music. You knew mostly contemporary Hawaiian music; right?

 

Well, we knew both.

 

Both; you knew traditional and contemporary. And then, you put your own spin on contemporary Hawaiian music, with Guava Jam.

 

Yeah.

 

That wonderful, wonderful recording.

 

And it was a wonderful time. So, you know, how did it grow? We don’t know. It just kept growing. We just kept: Well, let’s do another album. And people gravitated to the stuff we were doing.

 

You mentioned how sometimes you, Peter, Robert, you all played off each other, and magic happened. Music is an art, and the eye is in the beholder. So, I’m sure it must have happened the other way too, where maybe one had a great idea, and somebody else didn’t like that way of doing it.

 

I mean, you guys must have bumped up against each other, too; right?

 

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

 

How was that? Because it’s kind of personal when someone doesn’t like your art.

 

Usually, they didn’t like me.

 

Really? The others too, would tend to agree with each other?

 

Too rock and roll.

 

Oh, too rock and roll; got it. ‘Cause Jimi Hendrix is your hero, always.

 

All Along the Watchtower, you know.

 

And I love that. You know, I love that, eeee. You know.

 

Always Jimi for you.

 

Yeah. And you know, sometimes, my suggestions or what I wanted to use or do at the time, it didn’t sell with them. But, you know, I didn’t care. I didn’t care. You know, I didn’t make a big thing about it. I said, Oh, okay, that’s fine. And then, whatever they brought up, I’d make sure that I put my flavor in there.

 

Roland Cazimero and his brother Robert formed their own band in 1974, The Brothers Cazimero. They played together for so long that they became an institution, performing for years at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and at the Waikiki Shell on May Day. When The Brothers weren’t performing or producing albums together, Roland was a solo artist. He recorded several albums, each with its own cultural inspiration.

 

That is such a magical album you did; Pele. How does it begin in your head? I mean, do you hear the music in your head before you ever play it?

 

In Pele, I heard a great canoe came in from the universe, carrying a woman called Pele. A big canoe; a canoe so huge. You know. And I see it coming in from the cosmos, with Kaumualiʻi standing there. And what you see is Earth … coming in from Kuahelani to Earth, bringing Pele carrying an egg in her bosom. Hiʻiaka i ka poli o Pele; Hiʻiaka in the bosom of Pele. You know. And so, I hear the thunderous . . .

 

I am ruler of this land, I rule with a strong hand. I am Pele. I am Pele. I am Pele. Pele. I am here to stay. I’m your nows and yesterdays.

 

So, you visualize, and then you hear it.

 

Am everything you see.

 

Lot of times, I just write the words; they just come.

 

While Roland Cazimero was busy pushing the envelope of Hawaiian music, garnering recognition and awards for his work, his personal life was a different story. It was careening out of control.

 

You were a bad boy?

 

Yeah.

 

Playboy?

 

A player. Sometimes your lust … that’s the word I want to use, your lust overrides you, to the point where, you know, my lust took me down to the point of like, I didn’t care.

 

Didn’t care about what?

 

About what I was doing, with who I was doing it with, and where I was going, if at all. Whether it was hurting me or not, I didn’t care. I was in such lust that, you know, I’d fight the person to tell me that, You shouldn’t be there. But I didn’t care. You know. But one day, I took a good look at my two twins. You know. And when they said, Dad, Dad, you know, I knew it was time to stop. And at that point … people that I felt very close to me were not around. You know, I was there for them, I helped them out, I did whatever I could, you know, stood up for them, whatever. And when I needed them to stand up for me, they were gone. You know, alone; alone. You know, when you’re alone, what’s the use of being here? What’s the use of being a part of all this? It means nothing.

 

And you’re saying you were alone, even though you had all kinds of admiring audiences, and professional respect, but you felt alone.

 

Alone. And you know, I was ready to just end it all, commit suicide. You know, ‘cause there was nothing for me to stick around for. At that point, I was so alone, I didn’t even think about my own children. And you know, when you’re at that point in your life, you’ll just step off the edge, or whatever. A good friend of mine, John, I heard him in my head. If you ever need me, Boz, call me. He and I would go to the mountains, you know, in his jeep. And I did; I called him. And he came within five minutes, and he took my hand, and he says, Pray with me, and ask the Lord to forgive you of all your sins. And I did. You know, he said, Sinners pray with me. And it was just like a whole lot was lifted off my soul, off my body, and it looked like a good day again. You know. And I hated Him; I hated the Lord, because he took my good friend away from me. We were close pals, smoking pals, hit the mountains and, you know. But when I was at the lowest point in my life, I believe it was like he was right here in my heart and in my head. Call me, Boz; call me. And I did. And when he left that day, I said to him, So what, you going take me to the ocean tomorrow and baptize me? He goes, See, you got the program already.

 

And that’s what happened?

 

Yup. He took me to Pokai Bay. We drove all the way down to the country, and blessed me. And I’ve never looked back. It was a good time. All of that was a good time. I don’t say I regret it, ‘cause I don’t. You know, it was part of me learning and part of my writing. And I’m glad that time is pau. You know.

 

Why are you glad it’s pau?

 

Because I have my wife. You know.

 

You’ve had a lot of health problems in the last two and a half years. And you’ve been right there by his side. It must be really challenging for both of you.

 

Yes, it is.

 

I went from zero doctors, to eight. And my doctors kept telling me that if I kept up this stressful life I was living, I would be dead by the end of the year. And so, they made me change my diet. They kept changing my medicines.

 

So, what’s your outlook? You know, you haven’t played music, except as on a drop-in basis, I think.

 

Not even.

 

Not even. So, no music since you left the stage on May Day, 2014?

 

I play funerals. You know, I’m still playing funerals. I go in, and I do a few songs. I kinda developed carpal tunnel. So, I can’t squeeze, you know, although, I hope to get better.

 

So, carpal tunnel. Is it your heart?

 

ROLAND:        Yeah; I have … what?

 

LAUWA‘E:            Congestive heart.

 

ROLAND:        Diabetes, you know.

 

LAUWA‘E:            All of the above.

 

ROLAND:        All of the above. You know.

 

And they all act on each other, I’m sure.

 

LAUWA‘E:            Yeah. They all interact.

 

Your public image is, you’re the bantering, smart aleck, funny half of the The Brothers Cazimero.

And you were just giving your brother a hard time, and it was super-funny.

 

I knew what song was coming up, so I’d start hitting it; I’d start hitting it. And then, you know, as soon as I knew he was gonna start singing, I start strumming. You learn that after years of playing. You know, I love playing with my brother. I told him once, I don’t have to play with you, I love playing with you. But if you want to go on and go do your halau, go right ahead, because I don’t need you, Robert. I can go build a band. And I have. You know, I can go work with this, I can do this. But I love playing with you. I don’t get that kick with anybody else in the world, that I do with you.

 

But, you know, I’m still writing, I’m still in the recording business. I have a lot of things that I want to record.

 

But you know that your main concern has to be your health; right? That’s your real business right now.

 

Yeah. I have to take care of myself, and still record. You know. Otherwise, I’ll just go back into the same spin. And I don’t like that spin. I’ve been there long enough, you know, so I think the only thing I want to spin is a record or something like that. But for spinning in my life all the way to the cosmos and goodbye. You know. No; the Lord has better things for me to do.

 

Mahalo to Roland Cazimero for your tremendous musical achievements. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawaiʻi 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 to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Are you still a rebel, though? ‘Cause bad boy and rebel are not necessarily the same thing.

 

I’m still a rebel. You know. I stand for Hawaiʻi. I stand for everybody to be treated right. But I put away the bad boy that hung with the bad people. You know. Lot of people don’t know that about me, but I did hang around with the hoodlums. And I don’t regret it, because you know, there was a camaraderie there that you can’t put aside, you know. At times when you needed it, you know, they’d come next to you, and they stand up with you. And if need be, they’d back you up. You know. In the world of entertainment, you know, I always tell people, John DeMello took care of all the high makamakas, you know, Robert and Ala take care of the middle ground and some of the high makamakas. And I hung out with the hoodlums. ‘Cause you know, you gotta respect them, too.

 

[END]

 




INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
Honolulu City Council District 7 / State House District 20

 

In nonpartisan Honolulu City Council District 7 (a sprawling and diverse area of Honolulu with Kalihi at its core), Councilmember Joey Manahan is seeking a second four-year term. His opponent, former state legislative aide Chace Shigemasa, has never held public office and strongly believes incumbents need to be challenged.

 

Then, in State House District 20 (Palolo, Wai‘alae, St. Louis), a longtime incumbent State Representative, former House Speaker Calvin Say (D), is facing his seventh challenge from Republican Julia Allen. She says that with “government literally running off the tracks,” it’s an especially important election, with Republicans very much needed in public office.

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
462-5000 on Oahu or 800-238-4847 on the Neighbor Islands.

 

Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

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INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
State Senate District 9 / State House District 29

 

Former City Councilman Stanley Chang is challenging the State Senate’s only Republican incumbent, Sam Slom, in the race to represent East Honolulu, which includes Kahala, Diamond Head, ‘Aina Haina and Hawai‘i Kai. Chang and Slom are scheduled to answer your questions and concerns.

 

The House District 29 seat is up for grabs, since incumbent Karl Rhoads is running for the State Senate seat vacated by Suzanne Chun Oakland. The candidates vying to represent Chinatown, Kalihi and Iwilei – Democrat Daniel Holt and Republican Kaiwiola Coakley – are scheduled for a discussion during the second half of this program.

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

Phone Lines:
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Email:
insights@pbshawaii.org

 

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Raising the Bar – The Best Way to Express Our Gratitude

Viewer thank you note

Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS HawaiiMy job is essentially to be a problem-solver. There’s certainly enough to reach for, as the fragmented worlds of media and education require more focus, more engagement, more depth, more context. And in this rapidly changing world, answers are a moving target.

 

But that’s not the toughest part of my job. As in other things in life, the simplest things can be the most difficult. And quite simply, it is very difficult to adequately express thanks.

 

Our unpaid Board of Directors and lean staff could spend most of the day writing thank-you letters or making calls – and it simply wouldn’t be enough to express the gratitude we feel here for what citizens are supporting.

 

After we lost our lease at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the people of Hawai‘i and several mainland-based charitable foundations with ties to Hawaii gave us more than $30 million to establish a modern stand-alone multimedia center on Nimitz Highway at the entrance to Sand Island, PBS Hawai‘i’s Clarence T.C. Ching Campus. This nonprofit now owns an acre of land and a two-story building, which (thankfully) came in on time and on budget.

 

And still, after building us a new house, some viewers thank us. Here’s an example, from a woman who wrote by hand: “I hope you don’t get tired of my thank-you notes but I gotta say how much it means to me to watch [PBS Hawai‘i].” Here’s another hand-written note: “PBS Hawai‘i is contributing to society. I want PBS to continue this way. That’s why I make my donation.”

 

See what I mean? With a heart full of gratitude, I want you to know that we are dedicated to making the most out of your gift of a new building and your support of programming. We want to raise the bar on our stories and in quality in all areas, including our events for adults and keiki. We want to “be there” for our state – all of it, not just metropolitan Oahu. We want to be trusted for fairness and accuracy. And when we make mistakes, we want to own up and do better. Maybe that’s the best way to convey our thanks.

 

Also, we’re offering all the thousands of building donors a guided tour of the television station. Next month, after we complete technical troubleshooting, install a photovoltaic energy system and add donor signage, we’ll have an opening ceremony. But because of space concerns, we can’t invite all who made the building possible. So we invite NEW HOME donors to arrange a personal tour, now or later, by calling Christina Sumida at (808) 462-5045. Quite simply, we’d like to thank you in person.

 

Mahalo piha,
Leslie signature

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Nake’u Awai

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Nake’u Awai

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 7, 2011

 

Designing Timeless and Unique Island Wear

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Nake’u Awai, a Kalihi-based clothing designer renowned for his timeless and unique island wear. Nake’u initially pursued an entertainment career that led him to Broadway and Hollywood. Eventually he returned home, where he found his calling in fashion design. For three decades, Nake’u’s creative Hawaiian prints and equally stunning fashion shows have wowed clientele throughout the islands.

 

Nake’u Awai Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I used to often tell my mom, How come we can’t go shopping in slippers and wear shorts? And was, No, any time you’re Downtown, it’s pants and shoes. Well, all the Haole tourists wear slipper and shorts. But, yeah.

 

It’s a long way from Kalihi to New York, to Hollywood and back, but it’s the journey of a man whose life has been dedicated to entertainment and design, from a big city to a little shop at the foot of Kamehameha Heights. It’s Nake‘u Awai, on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, you’ll meet a Honolulu man who’s had a fascinated—well, careers, really. After graduating from Kamehameha Schools with an interest in drama, Nake‘u Awai went on to take his shot in the bright lights of the New York theater scene. Later, he appeared in network television shows in the heyday of live TV production.

 

But these are careers that few in Hawaii really know much about, because since he returned home, he’s made a name for himself as a fashion designer. To have a Nake‘u Awai design in your collection is to have a dress or shirt that will never go out of style.

 

Where did you grow up?

 

I grew up in Punchbowl.

 

What was that like?

 

Sidewalk skating. Golden Wall Theater—swim and tap at the YWCA down on Richards Street.

 

Tap, as in tap dance?

 

Tap dance; Mrs. Barnes. My first try at dancing, and swim, it was mainly swimming, and I got interested. Oh, I want to take tap, I want to take tapping. And then, I snuck into Alice Keawekane’s, some of her classes, and that’s Alicia Smith, Loyal’s mother is Alice Keawekane. And Loyal and Alicia, I mean, they’re all connected, Loyal and Alicia. And she taught hula. And because, when you’re waiting for your parents to pick you up … Come on, keiki, come join. So I snuck into some of her hula classes. So that was my early exposure to dance, which I would use later on. Golden Wall Theater, lot of my background comes from the movies, from the time we were little, during war years when blackout was part of our living. I don’t remember that part of it, ‘cause I was a baby. But Mom would take the kids and she, so it was brother and two sisters, and we’d go to the Golden Wall. And she’d come out and it would be all dark, and she’d hold me as the baby, and everybody would grab around her skirt, and we’d make it home.

 

And Golden Wall showed the latest Hollywood movies?

 

All and one day, I thought maybe if I had enough money, I’d bring back Saturday matinees. It was where all the kids came. And ee screamed our hearts out, because it was all the Westerns, and they would have serial chapters where at the end, the guy would be falling off the cliff. Next week—

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

—follow through what happens. And when he fell off the cliff, he grabbed a branch, so he was saved, yeah.

 

Do you remember how much it cost to go to those matinees?

 

No.

 

What did you have for snacks?

 

I wasn’t too much of a snacker, but popcorn, I guess. And they had seed mui in bags, the paper bags. I mean, they dug it out like this, and that’s how you got it.

 

Influenced by all those afternoons at the movies in the Golden Wall Theater in Nuuanu, Nakeu Awai began to see a future in art and design, eventually merging theater and fashion.

 

But you’re a visual person, so movies—

 

But this helped—

 

—were preferable for you.

 

Yeah. This helped me, yes. Yes. And then television came after that, from black and white into color. Yeah. So a lot of things that I create today because aside from fashions, it’s putting fashions into visuals that is I enjoy that more.

 

More?

 

More.

 

So putting fashions into, say, musical revues?

 

Yeah.

 

And … shows.

 

I enjoy—

 

Fashion shows.

 

I enjoy that. I enjoy that the most. And using other people’s—you know, so I will use my clothes as well as the other people and do shows. Because drama was what I majored in at University of Washington.

 

So the shows are more important than the clothes that you have designed?

 

I feel that. The segments that I do are universal emotions that we all experience.

 

Have you thought of doing other than your fashion-related shows as musical revues?

 

I’m open to, I’m always open to being creative. I’ve already started my Christmas show this year. I’m thinking about next year up at the Waikoloa. You know, Pili Pang’s haula in Waimea.

 

So you’re that generation that sort of—you were before the Hawaiian renaissance. You didn’t speak Hawaiian.

 

No. In fact, we grew up speaking only English.

 

And Kamehameha insisted on it when you were a student there.

 

And Kamehameha had a Hawaiian language teacher. His name was Reverend Judd. But I felt so bad, and I guess I wasn’t strong enough to stand up against my peers. But it was after lunch, and the movie The Blue Angel, where the guy becomes taken advantage of, where he plays the dummy in the club, and all these horrible things happen to him. In the movie The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, yeah. So the same thing I thought about this man. See, so I relate back to when I saw this man. After lunch, kids brought straws back from the dining hall and was doing spitballs at him. And this old man was going, Oh, ooh.

 

And he was the Hawaiian teacher.

 

Yeah, language. And so, did we learn the language?

 

What did your parents do for a living?

 

My dad was a land abstracter.

 

What’s a land abstracter?

 

Well, he worked at the Land Office, and it was reading land deeds and stuffs, and translating them. So on his own, he helped a lot of Hawaiians find land that was due them, that they weren’t aware of. He’d ask them, Where were you born, who’s your parents? And he’d go do research kind of stuff. And my mom was an educator. And every weekend, my dad because see, we grew up without cars, because Mother and Dad never drove. We’d get on the taxi down at Aala Park. The kind that had all the extra seats, and go to Haleiwa because—

 

Is that a jitney?

 

Huh?

 

Was that a jitney, with extra seats?

 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, but it was called the Waialua Taxicab, and it drove you to your homes in Haleiwa, Waialua. And then it’d come back and pick you up. But we’d spend weekends there because he’d work up in the taro patch. Every weekend, he was in the loi, because—and by himself. And loi and kalo, as kalo people today will know, it’s hard work

 

It’s very hard work.

 

And you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go by, because—

 

So he worked five days a week, and then he goes to the taro patches—

 

Yeah.

 

—on the weekends?

 

Yeah.

 

That’s not a weekend. That’s not a break.

 

But he enjoyed that. And he would bring back a bag of taro, and he would cook, we would have to peel.

 

That’s what he did it for, a bag of taro?

 

And he also sold. He started selling some of his kalo to Chun Hoon’s Market, the old market on Nuuanu. So we had fresh poi. It was lumpy. I preferred the factory poi, because it was smoother, but we’d peel. Oh, and I still have his boards somewhere in my shop, the poi boards that he used and pounded poi.

 

Did you tell him his poi was too lumpy for you?

 

No.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

‘Cause he’d just strain it, yeah. And so, I mean, it was fine. It was fresh. But, after you get spoiled by having some factory made poi.

 

What was your mom like?

 

Mom was a hard worker. She believed in education, so she pushed all of us. After I graduated from Kamehameha School, I really wanted to get out and get into the working field. But, No, you gotta to go to college. So she pushed for that. Hard worker, a woman that wore the same pair of shoes until it kaputsed, then she got a new pair of shoes. So she gave up a lot. But then she wanted to see the world, so my first year after University of Washington, she wanted to see America. And Father hated traveling. So she ployed me into going, and so we saw America on Greyhound. From Seattle, we went straight across the northern route to visit friends and upstate New York, and then went down south, and came back across. Yeah.

 

Was she still very frugal?

 

Yeah. As she got older, because see, I was the last one. Everybody was—the two sisters were on their own, Brother was on his own, so maybe she felt a little more freer to do these trips. Because then she and Dad went to China, with Char’s Tours. I still remember that, because it was such a negative thing.

 

After graduating from the University of Washington, and seeing North America by bus, it was time for graduate school. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was a fine school; but for a young man from Hawaii in the 1950s, D.C. was not quite the place to study theater. Where would Nake‘u Awai head next?

 

So I told my parents. What are you going to do? I said, Live. Pause, pause. And they hung up on me, click. Next episode. So I moved to New York. But, I went all over New York. And when you’re young, you’re really kinda daring, so I looked up every conceivable rental. The nice thing about New York is they have rentals by price. So you can look for what you want to spend, and they’re right there. Well, I went Bowery, I went Harlem, I went all over New York. And after when I settled in New York, I said to myself, I would never, ever go back to all the areas that I went into. But one wintry morning, I was in Brooklyn Heights, and this woman in—you know, they have brownstones. She opened this tall black door. And she had a place, and it was within my price range, and it was a … so everytime I watch TV, they have those steps going up into the brownstones, and to the side they have these two steps that go underneath. I was there. It went from sidewalk, all the way to the back of the house. It was long rental.

 

And did you think you were gonna be a lifelong New Yorker at that point?

 

I wanted to. Because New York will always be my happiest years.

 

Why did you leave New York?

 

Winter.

 

[CHUCKLE] How many winters did you get through?

 

Four. And the last winter, I had electric blankets. But when you’re sleeping, you go, [GRUNT]. Just slight turning. It was freezing. And I had moved, how you move around, you find a better place. So my last rental was on the fifth floor of this walkup. Wonderful. I wish I still did that. Overlooked the—you could see the Statue of Liberty, and the lower rivers before they split off the Hudson, and the Hudson and the other river, and subway and stuff, and stuff, and stuffs. Yeah, but New York, the energy, there’s no city that has the energy that keeps you, keeps you going.

 

Did you feel your Hawaiianess in New York?

 

Yes. I have some pictures somewhere that we’ll see Rowena Akana and I, and this Filipino guy doing a Hawaiian revue down in Atlantic City for Tutasi Wilson. She was a woman that lived in Florida, and would come up and do these big Hawaiian conventions in Atlantic City. And that was the only time I did Hawaiian. I never really studied Hawaiian. There was a Hawaiian restaurant that all the Hawaiians gathered, but I quickly stayed away from it, because even back then in the 60s, the Alamihi Syndrome … Hawaiians—

 

Explain that.

 

The alamihi is the black crab that goes crawling up, yeah? And as it gets up to the top, another one will come and grab and pull them both down. So, I didn’t want to be part of the Alamihi Syndrome.

 

Definitely not. The ambitious Nake‘u Awai had a lot more that he wanted to do, and he kept on his path, a path which eventually led him back to Kalihi. But first, there would be a stop in Hollywood.

 

I keep expecting that you’re gonna say, And then I became a costumer and a design person. But you’re not saying that.

 

No.

 

When did that come along?

 

Not until my years in Hollywood. Because then, after the last winter, I came home, and got right into My Fair Lady with Linda Ryan. And the choreographer who came from Vegas saw that I had potential, so he pushed me to get the role of Carpathy the Hungarian. So besides being a dancer, I played a secondary part. And so I did that. While I was doing that, the people that I worked with in Atlantic City, Flower Drum Song, were being hired for this show in Reno. Direct from Japan, Hello Tokyo. We need another guy. Well, there’s Joel Awai, he lives in Honolulu. So they called me. I got hired to go up to Reno. And the three male singer dancers were myself, Jimmy Borges, and Bob Ito. Now, Bob Ito … Quincy. Remember that show? It was where he was the mortician.

 

Right.

 

His assistant was this very well spoken Japanese guy, Bob Ito.

 

I remember him. Okay, that’s Bob Ito.

 

And he spoke so well. See, Bob Ito is a Canadian, so of course, he will speak very well.

 

And that’s where you met Jimmy Borges?

 

And that’s where I met Jimmy Borges.

 

What was he like then?

 

Well, like all the dancers, they make fun of the singer’s walk, Jimmy.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

In other words, the same leg and the same arm swing. Instead of opposition, yeah? That’s the natural walk. They walk da, da, da, da. Yeah.

 

So he was definitely a singer, the way he walked.

 

Yeah, but the three of us had to do singing and dancing. I stayed in West Hollywood until I found my own place. Then I started going to auditions, and I started dancing on television. So that is the next nine years of my life.

 

Nine years dancing on television and other venues. What kind of dancing did you do?

 

Jazz; modern dance. Back then, musical specials were big, so I performed like the Jack Benny Special, or the Petula Clark Special, or Elvis had a special I was a part of.

 

Now, you said you weren’t an extraordinary dancer, but it sounds like you’re getting some good roles. You’re getting hired.

 

Well, so maybe I was better than some of the others. But I mean, I don’t consider myself a solo dancer, because I worked with a number of people who were great solo dancers, like in the Elvis Presley Special.

 

So what was it like? Did you actually encounter Elvis? You saw him on the set?

 

Well, Elvis was a very quiet, timid fellow who was like a school kid. And when he tried to relax and socialize, the moment Colonel Parker came in Elvis.

 

How old was Elvis then? Was he out of the Army?

 

He was out of the Army, yeah. I don’t know. Because this was in preparation for him to go to—because Elvis performed, then he went to movies, then he went into the Army. Now he’s out of the Army, and he’s gearing to go back to— because then he made a big—after television special, he went to Vegas, yeah? I think Elvis and I would be about the same age. I don’t remember. Do you know how old he is, or would be?

 

No, I don’t know how old he would be.

 

Okay.

 

So did you have any interaction with him?

 

No. No. Because he didn’t socialize with us, because he was under wraps, or when he did come in and the Colonel would come in, he would jump up and he would disappear. Yeah; so dancers, they’re like cattle. They’re just kept in some room until they need them. And the thing with television, which is really junk, is you don’t have time to really warm up. So we call it the warm up special. We’d come to work, go get our face done. So you go to make up, get your face done, then we greased up our bodies with um, Bengay. Because then—

 

You didn’t want to hurt. [CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah. No, because then when you got up to dance, you would be all warmed up. Because Bengay would get your muscles and bones ready for performing. Because you never knew; sometimes you would wait hours before they’d call you. Dancers! So like when these musicals started to dwindle, the first people they got rid of were the dancers. The second people they got rid of were the singers. The last people they got rid of were the actors. That pecking order; yeah. So I worked with a lot of big names. Bill Cosby was one, his special. I came back to do Don Ho’s special, because the dancers were hired in LA, and so we came back when he did his special. And I still remember getting flown, a few of us getting flown to Lahaina to work with the children at the elementary school there, where they did this One Paddle, Two Paddle, walking down Front Street. And we were like guides, yeah, or aides or guides, I mean, as dancers. So that was Do Ho’s special.

 

It was in Lahaina, during the shooting of a Don Ho television special, that the germ of the idea of a career in fashion design finally took hold in Nake‘u Awai. Remember those photos of jumpsuit Elvis, macramé’d beaded belt flying? That was his handiwork.

 

While I was there, I was fortunate to have a close friend from Japan teach us how to do macramé. And because all Japanese children grow up learning knots, what the sailors do, the art of knotting. And so he taught us how to do macramé. And so this other fellow from Hawaii and I decided to go into business doing macramé belts. This was before the hippies then got hemp and were doing macramé baskets, macramé wall hanging and stuffs. We did belts and accessories. So I sold these belts to stores in Beverly Hills, to fur shops in Beverly Hills, to designers like Bob Mackey, where I still have some drawings. ‘Cause Bob Mackey was a good artist, and that’s how he started before he got into fashions. He was an artist who drew for designers. And so, he gave me some sketches of macramé that we did for Carol Burnett and stuffs and stuffs, where we did the macramé, and he did these sketches. Because he could make the drawing look like Carol Burnett. And so I got to meet designers besides he, Jean Louis, which is the old film that Lana Turner did, her gowns by Jean Louis. Jean Louis, who was a French designer who also, for a long time, did the uniforms for United Airlines, long ago. Well, he had a factory in Beverly Hills. And what’s interesting, half of his factory were Japanese, and the other half of his factory were Haole. And you could tell the difference, because the Japanese factory was zz, zz, zz. The Haole factory, [GIBBERISH]. So, I became aware of clothing design there. My Black choreographer mentor, Claude Thompson, felt that I could do it. So he gave me this job where I was doing costumes for Sammy Davis’ girls, because Claude was choreographing them. And he wanted me to do the costumes, so I was given this wonderful budget to do costumes for six girls. And that was my first try at clothing.

 

What did you do for them? What kind of costumes did you come up with?

 

I had fun. I was very creative. I went downtown LA and found all these places like where you could buy leather. And I bought chamois. The stuff you clean cars with? I bought skeins of chamois and cut them into—left parts of it rough, because the edges of chamois uncut, and did a wrap blouse for them, and sewed and hung beads on them. And then I got scarves that they did what the Blacks do, a do-wrap, the tight um, head wrap with a knot here, and bought a whole bunch of scarves, and did a scarf skirt. So I asked friends of mine, Well, if I want a scarf skirt, how do you do it? Well, you hang the scarf point-to-point, you sew from point to this point, from point to that point. And so, as long as I knew the construction, then I could pass it on to a seamstress. So they had these scarf skirts. So when they stood … would be all scarves hanging, but when they spun, it didn’t split apart, it connected. And with that, I had these big clunky boots.

 

And it worked.

 

Yeah. He loved it, and Sammy loved it too. So on a couple of times, I met Sammy and his wife Altovise, who was one of his dancers that he ended up marrying, and Sammy’s little black poodle, who I hated, because he’d run down from the house, and he’d straddle your foot, and shee all over you.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

And I’d go … [GAGGING]. [CHUCKLE]

 

When you look at your career, and you’re still going, how do you describe it?

 

Well, it’s something that I look forward to every morning. It’s not like I don’t want to go to work. I get ready, I get up at five-fifteen, I do my things.

 

What’s in your shop? Tell us about your shop.

 

My shop is a collection of my fashions, and a collection of things that I like, and have cluttered my shop with. Like I have these blown-out Portuguese man-o- war [CHUCKLE] that Colleen Kimura did. So it’s like this blue spacey thing, and it has all the tendrils hanging down. And I have an old wreath that Noelani Pomroy did when she came from Kauai. I have an old, old, old, old wreath that Amelia Bailey brought to the shop many years ago, that’s still hanging up there. So it’s like going in a Chinese shop full of all kinds of—I mean, people come in, and they’re like [CHUCKLE]—the look is … Or they’ll come in, and they’ll take a long time, because there are too many textures and colors, and blends, and things to look at. I mean, yeah. And I like it. Everybody says, You need a bigger shop. No, I’ve gotten used to it.

 

At the time of this conversation in the summer of 2011, Nake‘u Awai continues to create and design, an icon of Hawaiian fashion. From his overflowing shop in Kalihi, he continues the dance of life, inspiring a new generation with his timeless textiles. 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.

 

When you see Elvis and he has these gyrating hips with these belts with beads on them, those were the belts that we did for Bill Ballou was the designer. A lot of things, as I look back, I’ve done stuffs that people didn’t understand what I did, and why I was doing it until later, and then you see them doing it and understanding it.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Olin Lagon

 

Original air date: Tues., Sept. 10, 2013

 

Olin Lagon is the director of Kanu Hawaii, an environmental and social movement. He calls himself a “geek” raised in Kalihi and Palolo public housing. In his teen years, Olin says he skipped school to catch waves, and jokes that his blood alcohol level was higher than his GPA. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, see how Olin found new paths in life and became a tech entrepreneur and community champion.

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

The last tsunami scare we had, it was interesting ‘cause I went to pick up my mom, and she lives in Waimanalo near the beach, and so went driving there, and, you know, I saw all these lines at stores, and it’s so orderly. People are buying water, and they’re like, “Oh, you can take the last one” and stuff. I went to put gas in, and they’d run out of the cheap gas, and so they put the sign saying, “All gas same price, at the lowest price.” And so even the owners could have gouged, but they didn’t; they actually dropped the price. And everyone’s waiting very patiently. And then I saw a video of the last scare in L.A., where people are fighting and duking it out for water and stuff, and it really made me reinforce that there’s still a mass amount of compassion in our state, that people do care.

 

Olin Lagon believes that compassion is the secret of life. He’s a successful software developer and entrepreneur, yet his passions are community and sustainability. Olin Lagon’s lifestyle and work reflect his deep beliefs in simplicity and family, values instilled in him at a young age by his mother. Olin Lagon 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 am Leslie Wilcox. Olin Lagon developed his first computer program when he was a boy. Since then he’s had a successful career creating tech companies and selling his designs to companies worldwide. Now, he has Kanu Hawaii, an organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future. Olin Lagon grew up in Honolulu, but there’s very little about his childhood that prepared him to become both a successful businessman and a leader in the non-profit world. His family had to overcome many obstacles, and it was his mother’s faith and love for her son that got them through.

 

When I was six and my dad died, my mom only went to the sixth grade or so, and so she had a really hard time in finding a job. We lived in public housing, and so she’s trying to raise her three kids and — actually four kids with myself, and not being able to find a job. McDonald’s or fast food, she wasn’t able to get employment. So it took a long time before she’d get a job, and it affected everything about what we could do, what we could buy, what we could eat, where we could go, and so that was really hard period for us.

You remember thinking about when am I gonna eat next? What am I gonna eat?

 

No, but I had this memory where I remember we were eating flour and water, and we had this — and I remember it being good, like wow, and I think some sugar in it and stuff like that, and she created some kind of stew with flour. And so I tried to recreate that when I was in college, and I it just tasted awful. [laughter]. So, I know that I probably ate a lot of food that wasn’t healthy or wasn’t, — was what we could get. So, I remember getting blocks of cheese from the government. I’m not trying to like say everything was really bad, but there were long periods of time where we didn’t have a lot of food to eat.

 

And did you think of yourself as a poor kid?

 

Absolutely. And so the thing with living in public housing is that you live in some of the poorest communities in the country, in one of the wealthiest countries. So, the disparity is huge, and kids are not blind to that. I’ve been to 20-some-odd countries, and I’ve seen poverty first-hand, but what makes my childhood different is that we were sort of trapped in this bubble where everyone around us is rich, except for us. And so, we couldn’t get clothes for school, we couldn’t do a lot of things that we thought other kids could do. And I remember this one episode where I wanted to buy baggy pants, ‘cause everybody was popping, and I thought I wanted to be a dancer, and so I stole five dollars from my mom’s wallet, and I opened it up, and she had, I think, six bucks in it. So, I took the five, and I hid it in a book. And then she came up to me after — I think she knew I took it — and she said, “You know, I’m missing five dollars, and we really need it.” So, I remember pretending to look for it, and then — I think I was about eight at the time. And then one night, sort of pretended to find it. I didn’t find it. When she went away, I took it out, and I put it back in her purse. Never stole again. That’s how I — I guess even as a kid, I knew that even five dollars meant a lot to my family.

 

Did that reduce the size of your dreams?

 

I think it reduced the size of my social circle, because I felt embarrassed being in the situations, where we grew up in public housing. I felt like I couldn’t bring friends over. I couldn’t … I didn’t relate to a lot of different people because we didn’t have a lot of the things that the culture said we should have. And so, from that perspective, I think it did reduce my social circle. And I’m sure it had an impact on myself, as well, my self-worth and esteem.

 

What about your mom?

 

She lived a very spartan and simple life, and I rejected that, and I hated that, and I thought I would want nothing to do with that growing up. And I’ve come full circle, and so it’s that, to me, is a really amazing lesson that I’m still trying to learn; it’s just this full-circle aspect of simplicity and sustainability.

 

Your mom sounds like she had a lot of faith.

 

She never felt embarrassed that we lived in the housing. I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t something that she hid. She lived as she lived, and it is what it is, and where she worked was where she worked. I was embarrassed that she worked at Zippy’s at one point, where she ended up getting a job, and now I love Zippy’s ‘cause they gave her a chance.

 

What was life like within your unit at Kuhio Park Terrace or Palolo Housing? How did you guys handle that?

 

This story might illustrate that. So, I was seven at the time, and I had some chalk, and I was drawing on the sidewalk, minding my own business, and then I felt this sting in the back of my head. And then I turned around and saw these neighbor kids laughing, and they ran into their unit. And as I was rubbing my head, it hurt like I’ve never felt before, and then it felt weird. So, I looked at my hand, and my entire hand was covered in blood. And so they had stabbed my head with a piece of metal that they found. And then so, of course, I went home. By the time I got home, this side is just all bloody. But what, I guess the surprise is not what … that happened, but what my mom did about that. So, I got home, my mom’s freaking out. And she didn’t call 911, she didn’t call the ambulance, she called her pastor. Because I found out years later is that I needed to go to ER, and he took me to the ER, but she needed comfort because she felt how is it that I can’t take care of my own kid and keep him safe within a few feet of our own home? And so from that context, that, I think, illustrates some of the pressures that went on, living in housing. That’s why I went back for years once a month to volunteer with Parents and Children Together and other organizations, because there’s still a lot of injustice in public housing. Shortly after that, I went to live with my sister. And my sister took me in, and she lived in Waipahu at the time.

 

And she was much older, yes?

 

Fourteen years older.

 

So, that was a safety precaution for you?

 

I think so. Yeah, I think so. It was just really difficult for me. And I’m a geek, and so, I don’t know other geeks in the public housing at that time. And so, I was not only sort of this unusual kid, but I didn’t have a lot of peers that I could relate with.

 

Explain how you were a geek in public housing.

 

My Mom, bless her heart, she didn’t have a lot of money, but her pastor gave her a hundred dollar loan, which she used to buy a used computer back in the early ‘80s. It was a Texas Instrument TI-994A, had no monitor, had no disk drive, and then we went to Radio Shack and bought a tape player. And then I set it up as a computer, went to the library, and then I borrowed — there were three books on computer programming. And that’s in an entire library. So, I borrowed all three …

 

Which library was this?

 

This was the Waikiki library. And so, I borrowed the three. I read them, and then I learned how to program, wrote my first program. It was a funny program where I — you put in your name, and it would tell you your future. And so when I put in my name, it had all these amazing things to say [laughter]. And my sister put in her name, and then it had some not so good things to say, but those are the kinds of things that I did as a kid. And so, — and from there, I started doing design work and programming different things.

 

You taught yourself from a remnant of a computer?

 

It wasn’t that difficult cause I had some books that I could read, yeah.

 

But nobody else was doing it, you were just self-motivated to check it out?

 

Right … that was my Mom. She had the foresight to do that.

 

When he was young, Olin Lagon’s only ambition was to become a professional surfer. That didn’t work out for him. But some of the people he met along the way had a profound impact on many of the choices he’s made in his life.

 

Did you know you were smart?

 

I don’t know if I can answer that now. I think that I’m okay …

 

So, at the time did you have a sense of your self-worth?

 

I didn’t.

 

And you didn’t know what was going to happen to you?

 

No. I just kind of went with the flow, thinking that I was going to be a surfer, and that I was gonna make money doing that and just have that career.

 

After your father died when you were six, was there another father figure in your life after that?

 

The father figure I had was someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and so this guy, Dave, who was a volunteer. I remember it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life. I was sitting at home at KPT, and then the phone rang. My mom picked it up, and she said, “It’s for you.” And I never got calls, right? So, I pick up the phone, and it’s Dave. And he’s like, “Olin, listen, listen!” And he’s telling me, “Don’t say anything.” So, I’m straining to hear something. I don’t hear anything. He’s like “Come on, you can’t hear it?’ And I couldn’t hear it. And he said, “It’s hailing; it’s hailing in Kaimuki.” And he was just jumping for joy. And he thought it was the most amazing thing. And while I didn’t know it hailed in Hawaii, but when I hung up the phone, I had chicken skin, and I still do, because this guy was so excited, and he called me. And I just felt so good about that.

 

One sharing adult makes a huge difference.

 

Yeah, and I’ve had a few. And there are really two parts to that equation, because I think in everyone’s life, you’re gonna have tons of opportunities where adults are giving you this advice, but it takes your growth to be willing to accept that. And so, I’m sure that throughout my life I had all these wonderful forces coming in, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I dropped out of high school and was sort of a delinquent kid and all that. And so, but when I would join the military as a naval reservist, I had a guy in military school that was really, — really pushed me to go to college. And no one had ever told me that before, and I was ready to receive that.

 

Nobody had told you that before?

 

Never. In fact, it was so bad that when I came back to Hawaii I dropped out of school, so I didn’t take the SAT or anything like that. So, I went to Honolulu Community College, and I took the placement exams. So, it’s just where you go for math and English. And then I went to the counselor, and I said, “I want to be an engineer.” Then he looked at my scores, and he said, “No!” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘no’?” It’s like, “Well, your scores are not high enough, so let’s look at the survey program. It’s two years, and you can do this.” And I said, “No, I want to be an engineer.” And he refused to help me.

 

And so I was the keynote speaker at HCC one year, and I shared that story, because that’s wrong; you don’t do that to kids. But that’s how strong it is, I think, in terms of, you have to overcome some these issues, people telling you things that you can’t do.

 

Even before graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in business administration, Olin Lagon was already making money as an entrepreneur and software developer.

 

You were a pioneer in crowd funding and software development.

 

I’ve been lucky. Some of the designs that I’ve worked on have been adopted by companies worldwide: Olympics, Nike, Fed Ex, NTT. MIT even bought some of the software that I designed.

 

Do you hold patents?

 

I have nine, nine patents.

 

Do they pay you?

 

Well, the patents were sold in a previous company. So, there’s no financial interest. Some friends and I invented independently this concept of chipping in, or now it’s called crowd-funding. And so, we designed systems around that, and we got some patents for the work that we did.

 

You own … you founded and owned that company for a relatively short time, I think a little more than a year, but you did an amazing amount of work. Lots of money flowed through there, and then you sold it to a big, big enterprise.

 

I left that company to launch Kanu with some friends, but I was there for about two and a half years, and so we did roughly a hundred million dollars of crowd-funding through the system. We funded all kinds of projects worldwide. It was pretty amazing. And then my partners went on to sell the technology and the systems to a large national … international company.

 

You had a very, very strong career going in software development and creating new ideas and companies when you left to join Kanu, which was a fledgling non-profit Hawaii-based enterprise. Why did you decide to do that? It’s a non-profit.

 

Right, but it’s actually part of my plan. So, my adult life, 50 percent has been given up to service or volunteering. So, I want to give away half my life, and I want that to remain constant for the rest of my life. And so, Kanu was an amazing oppor — I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of the founding of the getting it off the ground and getting staff engaged. And so I see that as a privilege and an opportunity. So half my life is starting companies, tech companies, but I do that for three or four years, and then I go back and so some cause-related work and then sort of oscillate between the two.

 

And you don’t have trouble making that move?

 

It’s the same work. You do good work, you find great ideas, you think big a little bit, then you push the boundaries here and there and try to change the world the best way you can.

 

Did you become wealthy through your ideas in tech?

 

I feel wealthy, and so I’ve never done anything in my life for money, and I never will. And so, I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve been given a lot, and I’ve been very generous.

 

So, that wasn’t your motivation, but you did make money on your expertise?

 

Made some and enough.

 

That’s interesting, “enough,” and how people define “enough.”

 

 

Right.

 

In your case, how do you define it, as far as quality of life?

 

Enough is that you can spend time with your family. So, at 4:00 every day my goal is to just spend some time with my two boys. And so we try to go walking or do whatever we can for that short period of time. We have dinner every night together. And then if I have to work, I’ll work again at night. But then enough means that you can have someplace safe, you can enjoy some of the beauty of Hawaii, which most of it is free, right? — the beach, and hiking, and stuff like that if you’ve got a safe place to call home. And you’ve got good food that you can eat, hopefully a lot of it locally grown. And I think that’s more than enough.

 

You live off the grid, so to speak as well.

 

We have a zero energy home. We produce more energy than we need. And we now have an electric car, and it’s still a zero energy home. And we’ve been very fortunate, but I think the kuleana is, if you have the opportunity to live in a zero energy home, then you have to help support other initiatives, ‘cause not everyone has that opportunity. If you are renting, you can’t switch out your appliances or put solar. And so, where you have this deep kuleana, to really be fair, to help others as well.

 

You also met your wife at an early age, too?

 

I did, yeah. When I came back from military training, I was 17, actually — no, 18. I was 18. And then one of my friends, my surfer friends, wanted to get a job, and he couldn’t go to the interview by himself. That’s how, I guess, we were. So, I went with him to this job interview at the Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s. And so while I’m interviewing with him, maybe — I don’t know what they were thinking, but we’re in this interview together, they said, “Why don’t you come and work, too?” And then I thought, oh, no, I’m not here for the job, I’m here to support my friend. So, I ended up taking the job, and I worked as a busboy. It was the first job I ever had, and I met her there. She was studying to be a doctor, and she was this really smart girl. She was at UH. And I was so intimidated. Like I’m this kind of rough kid. And I’m trying to find my way through life. And she blew me away with sustainability. We went and had dinner, and she was a vegetarian at the time. And I thought, why are you a vegetarian? Like, that is weird. Are you a hippie? I didn’t know what that meant. This was back in 1990. And then she gave me a few books to read, which I did, and then I started my sustainability journey from her. So, we have cloth napkins that we use daily from that time period. Yeah, she has these Down To Earth plastic bottles that are so old the people at Down To Earth don’t recognize them, but she’s been refilling them for 30 years. She’s never bought, like, another plastic bottle for shampoo, ‘cause she just goes back and refills them. And just like these really small things that she does quietly that have just impressed me immensely about sustainability.

 

Did she become a doctor?

 

No, she became a teacher. Her brother was in special-ed at the time, and she wasn’t happy with the services that he was getting. And she decided that she couldn’t just say that she didn’t like it, but she had to do something about it. So, she switched her major into teaching and ended up spending ten years on the Waianae Coast teaching in public education.   And then we joined the Peace Corps together.   And then she came back and taught in Kalihi for a couple of years.   And then when my first son was born, she’s been at home ever since.

 

Kanu Hawaii was launched in 2008 by a group of like-minded individuals who felt that the islands could be the model to the world in compassion and sustainability. They started a non-profit organization based on individual commitments to practice sustainability and compassion. Olin Lagon joined this movement early on and today is Kanu Hawaii’s executive director.

 

When Kanu first started, I remember talking to some of the early guys when they organized their 40 folks, and I loved the simplicity of it. So, here’s a group of 40 that want to change fundamentally Hawaii for the next 30 years.

 

And how did these 40 get together?

 

They’re just friends that were about the same age and hung around together. And but what they did was fascinating: They said, we’re not rich, we’re not famous, we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t do a lot of things, but what we can do is make our lives consistent with the vision that we see.   And so they had this “I will” movement where they said, “First, I will do this in my life, and then collectively we can work together, but not until we actually get our own lives in order.” And I thought that was really empowering, and so, I –when they wanted to get it off the ground, I said, “I would love to.” So, James Koshiba, Andrew Oki, and myself were the first co-directors of it; we got it off the ground. And it’s blossomed in many ways that we didn’t anticipate since then.

 

And you have 20,000 supporters throughout the state?

 

About that, yeah, in every zip code across the state. And we’ve done a lot of national work, too that we haven’t really broadcast, like, CNN did a cover story on our group last year, on the elections work that we did. We knocked on about 3,000 doors. We got 25,000 people election information for — that are unbiased and for some of the elections that didn’t have much information, like the local House races and City Council. We did work with 500 families last year on energy efficiency. These were families that were disadvantaged that maybe couldn’t install solar and stuff like that. And so, national groups have picked it up. And so, like ted.com, we built their community-based system for them. It’s a pretty large group. The Points of Light Institute, did the same. The 911 Commission adopted our model for their tenth anniversary of the 911 commission. So, it was really neat to see Kanu’s humble model being used nationally and even internationally, too.

 

What is the change that Kanu wants to see in Hawaii?

 

It’s really simple. In the next 30 years we want to fundamentally change sustainability and compassion. So, food, energy, waste, civic engagement, we want us to be more locally self-sufficient and rely less on external sources for energy, to not lose this compassion that we have that’s really different here.

 

Do you think the compassion reservoir or reserves are dwindling here? I’ve heard people say, you know, the “Aloha” isn’t quite the same anymore.

 

Yeah, it has changed. In some communities, no; in some communities, yes. And part of it is, there were peoples that lived in Hawaii for many years that had these tenets of aloha at its core, and the demographic profile of Hawaii has shifted, so there’s more people that are not from Hawaii that live here than are from here. So, that has changed the culture in some ways good and in some ways, not so good, and so, the compassion piece has shifted quite a bit, unfortunately, I think.

 

That’s so interesting that your organization is interested in preserving and growing compassion.

 

Compassion is the secret of life, I think. If you can’t be vulnerable and compassionate, then it’s hard to be connected with other people. And so, that cannot go away. You can’t do good work and do it without coming from a place of compassion.

 

I’ve heard one of your members talk really passionately and movingly about how you can’t judge people by where they’re from because it’s the heart that counts.

 

Absolutely.

 

And that we can’t demonize each other, or we’ve really hurt ourselves.

 

The truth is, when you — when we mix cultures, then something changes and something shifts. And so, Kanu really wants to make sure that we don’t lose that compassion piece, that we hold sustainability true to our hearts, and the work we do and the lives we live are consistent with that, and we don’t forget to take care of one another. For example, we have this day of action where we’ve set up 20 or so projects statewide that our members can chose whether they want to count turtles, or go plant plants at KPT, or help feed people who don’t have food. And we provide these opportunities for just hundreds of people to just get out and experience different parts of the community. On the compassion side, I remember this one volunteer; she went to a shelter in Manoa that we organized a clean-up effort for for women and children that were battered. It’s a really terrible thing that happened, but it’s a great shelter. And so she was so moved that she showed up the next Sunday and helped and the next Sunday and helped. She was a sophomore in high school. She ended up going every single Sunday until she went to college. And to me, I think that’s compassion, because she has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone in that shelter, and her family, and her friends and created this mass amounts of compassion.

 

And, so, part of what Kanu did was exposed her, introduced her, made it a personal matter for her.

 

Right. Or even some of the things we do may not be that effective, but we try to register homeless communities to vote. And I don’t know how many people we got registered, but it was just really difficult, but in doing that work, we found all these challenges. We went to this shelter, and they get their mail in another community, so where do they vote? And if they show up, then what do they use? We just got to learn about some of these challenges first-hand.

 

That’s right. And so, you learned that you — when you try to come up with a solution, if you don’t have all the information, it is not a solution, right?

 

No, no.

 

So, has it been harder than you thought to solve some of the — or at least begin working on some of these societal issues?

 

Not because we’re not — we got a long way to go, and so, we’re not rushing it; we’re just going as fast as we can. We’re trying to affect food, energy and waste issues. We have an “Eat Local” challenge, where we’ve got thousands of people eating more local. It’s not solving everything, but it’s a step in the right direction. So, I feel like the pace we’re going is good.

 

What do you see Hawaii in 20 years with Kanu’s work to improve things step by step?

 

I see Hawaii in 20 years as leading the world in models of sustainability. We’re gonna need it. We’re shifting away from major different resources going off of oil into renewables, and finding ways to live together compassionately. And so, we have this opportunity to excel at that and show the world that it can be done in a very isolated place. And so, I have faith that we’ll find amazing technical solutions, cultural solutions to become one of the most sustainable places on earth.

 

And what stands in the way of us reaching that goal?

 

Our culture, in some ways, being stuck in the past. We have to — we can’t talk about sustainability but drive an SUV with one passenger, and not recycle, and not try to eat local. It’s hard because my wife still buys strawberries, and it’s $10 a basket for the Kula strawberries. And I said, “We can’t afford it,” but I still cringe, but I know that’s what we need to do. But I cringe because I’m still connected with that feeling. So, we have to really go all in and support our local agriculture. We don’t support it as much as we should. We need to support local businesses. We don’t support it as much as we should. And that requires a big cultural shift.

 

So, our salvation is our culture, and our nemesis is our culture.

 

I think so, right. But there’s hope in that.

 

As you watch your boys grow up, is there any mistake you’ve seen other parents make that you’re gonna try not to make?

 

I think the over-scheduling is — I see that kids are doing too much. At least, I think it’s too much, and they’re not allowed to just sit and be. And so, that’s one thing that I want to do differently. And so, I mean, I feel bad, I go to parties, and this kid is doing soccer, and then baseball, and basketball, and trombone, and piano and stuff, and I’m thinking, am I robbing my kid of these experiences? And then I keep going back to, no. I think this is the path that works. And they will find their own ways.

 

And at 4:00 p.m., you’re there with your sons, talking with them.

 

Right.

 

Well, Olin Lagon found his way and is helping to blaze the path toward a future Hawaii that is built on self-sufficiency, sustainability, and above all, compassion. His life so far has been a remarkable journey shaped by a caring mother, mentors who were there when he was ready to listen, and his own unending quest for knowledge and justice. Mahalo to Olin Lagon for sharing his story of inspiration and hope, and Mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. 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 to the Apple iTunes store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I’m very … very fortunate that I was born in Hawaii. I’ve seen so many difrerent places, many different countries, and lived in different communities, and this is such a blessing to have come from here. Just even what I went through as a kid, I think there’s so much the world can learn, that we’re from diff cultures and different backgrounds and in some ways it’s working really well and I think theres a lot of beauty there and I’m very grateful for that.