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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Eran Ganot

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Eran Ganot

 

Eran Ganot’s voice carries a tone of gratitude when he speaks of growing up in a blue-collar New Jersey community with his twin brother, two sisters, immigrant parents and the influence of grandparents who survived the Holocaust. Ganot would draw upon some of those childhood values when he accepted what he refers to as his “dream job” as a head coach – at a time in the spring of 2015 when the University of Hawai‘i Men’s Basketball program was mired in controversy and uncertainty.

 

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This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Jan. 13, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

More from Eran Ganot:

 

Gregg Popovich, Maya Angelou and Life Beyond Basketball

 

Leadership

 

What’s a Guy from Jersey Doing Coaching in Hawai‘i?

 

Eran Ganot Audio

 

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Transcript

 

When the University of Hawaii named Eran Ganot as the new head coach for the men’s basketball team, many onlookers were surprised. The selection committee picked a thirty-four-year-old first-time head coach to lead the program through troubled times.  Eran Ganot, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.  When you sit down and talk with Eran Ganot, you don’t think investment banker.  But Ganot studied economics at one of the most highly-regarded liberal arts colleges in the country, and had offers he seriously considered.  But while he likes business and economics, when he talks about basketball and coaching, he uses words like passion, work ethic, perspective, and balance—values he stresses with his players, whom he refers to as his extended family, values he learned from his own strong family unit growing up in a blue collar northern New Jersey community.

 

Where did you grow up?  Where did your earliest formative experiences take place?

 

Well, I mean, when you’re really young.  I was born in Philly, grew up in Jersey.  So, Philly, really too young to remember a lot of the experience there. But moved to Bergenfield, I remember, and then to Tenafly, I think when I was six.  And basically, so those were my formative years growing up.

 

And what’s Tenafly like as a town to live in?

 

It’s a suburb about fifteen, twenty minutes from New York City.  Really kind of a low-key community, really good people. You know, one of those communities where everybody kinda knows each other and have been there for a long time. So, it was a great place to grow up. You know, an older sister, a younger sister, a twin brother, great family.  Friends I got to grow up with from elementary school, to junior high, to high school.  I kinda like that, and I think you can see that even in my coaching career, not really bouncing around too much.  So, it was a place with a really loving atmosphere, a blue collar town, with people who really cared about each other.

 

Both of your parents were immigrants; one from Romania, one from Israel.

 

So, my dad actually was born in Romania, and grew up in Brooklyn.  And my mom was born and raised in Israel.

 

And I believe I’ve heard that three of your grandparents were holocaust survivors.

 

Yeah. We were born in 1981, and one of my grandfathers on my mom’s side, her father, passed that year.  So, I never had much interaction with him, obviously. And then, our other three grandparents were alive—not now, but for most of our upbringing, and when we were in Tenafly. And just to hear some of those stories when you’re growing up, you remember those.

 

Any idea about why these three people in your family survived?

 

The grit and toughness you had to have to go through that, one, to survive, and two, you know, the constant fear of what was going on, seeing things happen to your friends and family.  I can’t imagine; it’s unfathomable, and the atrocities that were going on at that time. But you know, whether you’re hearing it from three family members, or reading about it, or studying it, it’s pretty powerful.

 

You’re growing up in this suburb.  But it’s not a placid place for you and your brother, because you are tough competitors, and you’re always doing sports.

 

Well, you hear stories all the time about siblings battling each other.  And think about what it’s like for twins. So, same year, same teams.  You know, we played every sport, and it added to the competitive spirit and handling, you know, you’re gonna win or lose every other day in every other sport.  And I think our parents did a great job.  And you know, when you’re going through just growing up and you’re competing in everything.  I talk about that with our team; achievers, you know, on the court, off the court, in the classroom.  You know.

 

You would lose to your brother, you would win over your brother.  But the relationship; was that paramount, or was it the competition?

 

Oh, no; when you’re younger it’s about the competition.

 

Winning or losing. 

 

Yeah. As you get older, the relationship becomes more important.  I mean, I think we pushed each other, obviously.  But we competed in everything; not just sports.  And our parents were really good about … you know, we were, I’d like to say coachable, but we wanted to play sports, and we couldn’t do that unless our grades were good.  So, guess what?  If you hear that and you want to go play sports, your grades are gonna be pretty good, and you’re gonna get your homework done.

 

You mean, you didn’t whine and try to get out of it?

 

Oh, early.

 

And have excuses?

 

But we weren’t gonna win that battle.

 

Your parents were not buying any of that.

 

No; and they were good on that.  And it created the habits of managing your time, having good priorities.  To be honest, I mean, smart wins.  Our parents were really good about understanding the big picture.

 

What sports did you and your twin brother play?

 

Everything; and then everything changed when we got to high school.  And we actually went to from—shoot, I’m thinking for five years, maybe between ages ten and fifteen, or nine and fourteen, we went every summer to a sports academy sleepaway camp.  So, we were sent packing, basically, and you play every sport there.  So, we played everything.  And then, you know, the good thing about growing up on the East Coast, you have the seasons.

 

It snows in New Jersey.  What did you do then?

 

Well, we played tackle basketball and tackle football in the snow.  And we shoveled a lot of snow, driveways to make some extra money.  Let’s see, now.  In the winter it was basketball, in the spring it was baseball, in the fall it was soccer.  But then when we got to high school, we started to, you know, target.  And I encourage that, by the way.  I think every kid should play every sport.  It tackles different parts of your body, it’s a different kinda team chemistry.  And then you gotta find what you gravitate towards.  And eventually it became clear when we got to high school, it was basketball.

 

What about your sisters?  Did they play, too?

 

They did.  And it’s funny; we have a pretty big gap.  I mean, my sister was born in 1974, we were born in ’81, and my younger sister was 1990.  So, there was some separation.  When we left the house for college at seventeen, my younger sister was just kinda jumping into sports.  So, they weren’t as sports-motivated.  They were just as competitive in different ways.

 

It sounds like it would be hard to be as motivated as you two were in sports.  But they were competitive in what ways?

 

Well, I just think people sometimes think if you play sports, you’re competitive. But I think if you’re aggressive in the classroom.  You know, those guys, they did a great job.  One went to Boston University and one went to American University, and now you know, one’s still on the East Coast, New York; Danielle.  My younger sister Betty is, you know, doing a great job raising her family of three kids in Calabasas.  So, I just think competitiveness is just the way they attack life.  It’s not just about basketball and baseball.

 

But you can overdo competitiveness, too; right? Or do you think you can?

 

No; I think you can.  That’s why I was talking about the balance.  I mean, you have to … you know, I said this about can you find the balance between—I do this a lot with our team—between working your tail off and and enjoying the journey.  Does that make sense?  And every year, you know, the great things we talk with our staff and people I’m close with, it’s you’re always working on your philosophy, and you can’t have one without the other.  Life’s too short.  You can’t be good at anything if you’re not happy, and you’re not gonna be happy if you’re not doing with you love, where you love, with people you love.

 

And finding what one loves is often a very difficult thing.  Lot of people don’t find it for many, many years.

 

Yeah; and you could see there’s stress involved with that.  You know, we have guys who come to us at, you know, eighteen to twenty-two, and then they leave for, you know, whatever it is next.  You know, our job is to prepare them for the next step.  But I think people rush into things.  Look, I was fortunate, I feel like, I knew what I wanted to do.  And you hear stories about people trying to find that similar passion.  But it’s gotta be natural, it’s gotta be genuine.  Like, my brother is in a different line of work than me.  He’s in fashion design; he’s got his own clothing company.  And he didn’t really find that ‘til maybe five or eight years, whatever, after I found I wanted to coach.

 

So, he went from being a jock to a fashion designer.

 

Yes. We’re on different spectrums. We’re a little different personalities. Equally competitive, and obviously, similar values.

 

And he says he’s better than you at sports; right?

 

Yeah. Well, he always says, too, you gotta respect the older brother.  He’s nine minutes older than me.

 

Right? That’s a little out of hand.

 

Even that’s competitive.

 

No question.  But I just think, you know, people shouldn’t rush into finding that passion.  Like, explore.  Like, if you have it, great; chase it, go through with it.  If you don’t, find it, and take your time.  But I think when people rush into doing something, that creates that unhappiness.  And you’re just not gonna be good anything if you don’t find a passion.  So, if I tell people anything, find your passion and attack it.

 

Eran Ganot played high school basketball for four years, and was recruited by Swarthmore, a college outside of Philadelphia. A nagging back injury suffered during his high school career continued to bother him in college.  Today, he speaks from experience when he warns players about playing through the pain.

 

I remember walking into the training room, and my college coach and our trainer were sitting there and going: We think something’s going on.  And that was the first time I failed a physical ‘cause of the back.  And he had told me that when we met after. and that was a hard time for me.  It was actually the only time I missed a practice, I think, coaching or playing, because it I couldn’t practice and it was too hard for me to go and practice.  I couldn’t practice.

 

Emotionally or physically?

 

Emotionally, I just didn’t know.  You know, I was kinda lost for a stretch there, because it was something you’re so passionate taken.

 

And you worked so hard, too.  And you loved it so much.

 

I loved it.  Not just the game; being around the team.  I mean, I can talk a lot about why I play the game and why I coach the game. But when it happened, it was a difficult time for me, but something that helped me grow as a person.  I remember sitting in his office, and he was talking to me as a junior.  As much as I love what I do now, but my coach was great, telling me: Hey, maybe we should think about a coaching career.  I’m like: Wait a minute, I got one more year.  So, I spent the whole off season just getting myself healthy enough to play in my senior year.  And to be honest, I’m sure our guys will tell you, I have not played basketball since the last game of my senior year.  I had to wear a back brace.  I’d wear it under, so no one could see that I had to wear a back brace.  Think about running around with a back brace.  And in my senior year, the last game, I threw that in the trash, and that’s been it for me.

 

And yet, when you went to college, you chose to major in economics.

 

Yep.

 

At Swarthmore.  That doesn’t sound like you’re planning on playing or coaching.

 

Yeah. No; I had a background in economics. I really like business, and I think you can see some of that as I approached running our program.  When Swarthmore had recruited me, and I had known a little bit about it, it wasn’t far from home, and it was a really good academic school, I thought in the one percent chance I chose not to chase a path in coaching, I thought I’d be set up in that field.  And there were some opportunities, you know, after I graduated and I always gravitated towards kind of an investment banking background.

 

And you got a job offer in investment banking.

 

Yeah; I had some opportunities after that.  But it didn’t register or resonate with me as much as what ended up being a volunteer position at St. Mary’s.  So, people thought I was crazy.

 

Yeah; I would imagine, because it wasn’t just quick stint of volunteering.  You volunteered for three years.

 

Three years.

 

You didn’t get paid, but did you get other perks, like meals or housing, a car?

 

Oh, I joke with people.  I was able to work camps every summer.  And I had saved money in the event I was gonna get an opportunity, it might be something where I’d have to really toughen up for a couple years to make it work. But really worked hard during that stretch, I made some money in camps.  Eventually, one year, I was able to teach a basketball class on the side. And the cafeteria folks who maybe they felt bad for me when we’d come in for some meals, just make it through.  Remember, back then, I didn’t have a family.  I was just, you know, very pleased and appreciative of the opportunity, I was gonna do everything I can to hang in, hang in, hang in.  And it became tougher each year, especially my third year, but some of the coaches there helped me kinda hang in there, and then eventually got a couple breaks.

Were you hoping every year they’d offer you a paying job?

 

You know, some places, you might have an opportunity there, some places you need some movement.  You know, there was a very fixed amount of opportunities or jobs.

 

And was that the case with St. Mary’s?

 

St. Mary’s.  So, it’s funny now, looking back.  ‘Cause after I left, eventually there was some movement.  But in the meantime, I looked at it as a great apprenticeship for me, learning from a great coach.  We worked with some great coaches.  I mean, couple of the coaches I worked with then are now Division 1 head coaches.  And those guys started off as volunteers, as well.  So, I don’t know if they did it for three years, but it’s just the way it played out.

 

And you were self-financing, too.  I mean, that’s gotta be hard.  Working extra so that you could work for free.

 

Yes. And as weird as it sound, looking back, I loved every bit of it.  You know, the amount I was learning, and what was going on with our program.  You know, I just think at the end of the day, it satisfies the passion.  One of my other passions is learning and growing, and I was doing that.  So, the Bay Area was great, and just looking forward to the next break, and then I got my next one with Hawai‘i.

 

How did it change?

 

Well, I got an opportunity with Riley Wallace.  And so, that was my first part-time paying job.  At the time, that position, which is now fulltime, was a casual hire.  I think it was maybe fifteen or twenty thousand.

 

So now, you’re living in expensive Hawaii.

 

Yeah.

 

And you’re getting paid, but not much.

 

No; but compared to what it was, I thought I was a millionaire.  So, I mean, I go from New Jersey, and Randy Bennett hires me over the phone.

 

St. Mary’s.

 

At St. Mary’s; so I just fly over to the Bay, he picks me up.  And what’s funny is, then three years later, I fly over to have a conversation with Coach Wallace, and he picks me up from the airport. So, that was 2006.  I didn’t know it would lead to what it would, but I was excited about the opportunity to work for Coach Wallace, who I had a lot of respect for from afar.  I knew there was potential for it to be his last year, and the guy was a huge mentor for me in my life.  It’s all about timing, but if it was a year later, it might not have happened with Hawai‘i, and certainly not with Coach Wallace.  So, I’m very appreciative.  I think people should make their decisions, you know, like I told you earlier about passion, which it was satisfying my passion, but also about people.  So, I got spoiled.  You could get a higher paying job in a better situation maybe, with the wrong people.  That’s why I said, you gotta do what you love, where you love, with people you love. I got all three.  Maybe it didn’t satisfy things from a financial standpoint, and I was just trying to hang in there with some rough days, but I couldn’t have asked for a better start, and the people I got to meet and know, and learn from.  It was awesome.

 

Eran Ganot spent four years on Hawaii’s staff under head coaches Riley Wallace and Bob Nash.  Then, he got the call from his mentor at St. Mary’s, Randy Bennett. Ganot would return to the Bay Area and spend the next four years as an assistant coach, before moving up to associate head coach for the St. Mary’s Gaels.  Twelve years of hard work, absorbing all he could learn about coaching Division 1 college basketball.  But was Eran Ganot ready to take on a challenge even the most experienced would avoid?  Was he willing to head up a troubled college basketball program that didn’t even know yet how much trouble it was in?

 

But even when you got a great opportunity, which was you were offered the head coaching job of the UH basketball team, I mean, it came with a lot of darkness around it.

 

Yeah.

 

The NCAA violations, you were the third head coach in two years.

 

Right.

 

And there were looming sanctions.  And I may be wrong about this, but I thought many of the players really liked the interim coach, because he’d been with them through a lot.

 

I called it like the perfect storm.  First, you want to get a crack at getting into coaching, and then seeing, can I do this.  And then, it became clear, and as I got better and better that, yeah.  And then it became clear that, you know, you’re in this to run your own program.  And people always ask me, and I said this at the press conference, your dream job. And I just said I’m not throwing out—and it goes back to the investment in the sense of family and relationships. I’m not gonna throw out random schools. Like, I think your dream job, to me, was a place I coached or played before.  And it became more clear that Hawai‘i resonated the most with me in my heart.  So, when it was going through a lot of stuff, that’s why I called it the perfect storm.  There was on-court, off-court, NCA, everything you could say, and there was a looming cloud of uncertainty.  And yeah, I’m in, because there was more of a pull for me because of what I was going through.  So, a place I have so much respect for and so much love for, let’s get us one, stabilize our program and get us through this and set us up for sustained success, Hawaii deserves better.  And so, I was really excited to get that opportunity.

 

And you built relationships with the team members.

 

I mean, the first thing I did, which goes back to relationships, was there’s so much work to do when you get a job, but we made sure we met with the players, traveled to meet with their families, their relationships, didn’t skip steps, and went from there.

 

Fans were thrilled that Ganot, his staff, and that 2015-16 team took the State of Hawaii on an unprecedented ride.  A Big West Conference championship earned the ‘Bows an appearance in the post-season tournament of the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA.  And this fiercely determined group beat a talented Cal Berkeley squad, giving Hawaii men’s basketball the first March Madness victory in the history of the program, and the country’s president at the time a risky bracket win in the first round.  Eran Ganot was the third-youngest head coach among the sixty-eight head coaches at the tournament.  At the end of the season, he was acknowledged with three awards: Big West Conference Coach of the Year, the Red Auerbach College Coach of the Year, and the CollegeInsider.com Joe B. Hall Award for top first-year coach.

 

And then, year two comes around, and that’s a hard year because then, the sanctions take effect.  And didn’t you lose eight players because one of the sanctions was, no post-season?

 

Yeah. You that could be a movie.  I mean, I think going through it and looking back at it, I’m so appreciative of where we’re at now.  We could easily not be where we’re at now if we skipped some steps earlier, which we didn’t do.  And I’m proud of the players, the staff, the administration; everybody who was involved in this.  But you know, usually, I’m a guy who likes to read and study, and meet with people. And maybe there’s experience I have, or they have.  So, what we went through is very unique.  Usually, when someone gets a ban or NCA situation, it’s for that year.  Because of the timing of the decision, it was mid-December, it was for the following year.  So, who am I gonna talk to on that?  No one; no one’s been through it.  So, it became uh, a great challenge, an opportunity to see how our team sticks together.  But that second year, we returned one point per game, so you see a cloud of uncertainty which is tough to deal with. But the next couple years, we dealt with the reality of the situation.  So, I think a lot of people talk about that first year’s group.  I can’t say enough or sing enough praises for the people who’ve spent the last two years getting us to where we’re at today.

 

Well, that second year, you did lose people. How did you manage?

 

Either you hang your head and pout, or you look at it as an opportunity to talk about what you have or what you don’t, what you can do or what you can’t.  And that’s kind of been a great lesson for all of us.  Going through that experience reinforced some things, we learned some new things, but we chipped away.  We talked about stabilize; that became the big deal for our program.  When you get hired, I know I say this a lot, is you want to build, build, build.  When you get the information of what’s going on with our program, it became we gotta stabilize and build.  We can’t build if our program isn’t stable, and our program wasn’t, so it became chip away. Every year, make sure we’re improving, make sure by 2018, 19, no off-court issues, no NCA issues, academics in great shape, no NCA issues.  So, I’m really proud of the way those guys hung in there together to put us where we’re at now.  And so, how did we do it?  It’s all about people.

 

And on your side, you say that it was actually, you know, a pull, a plus.

 

Yeah.

 

There were problems here, and you wanted to get to them.  It didn’t faze you, and in fact, it actually drew you near.

 

Yeah. No; it was something that I wanted to see us through, and beyond.  And I hate to use the word I, because this was a team effort, starting with the administrators.  It’s always about the leadership in place, from the president to the athletic director, the staff we brought in, the people we brought in, you know, our support staff.  It was very much a team effort to get us where we’re at today.  But there was definitely a pull.  Like at the end of the day, let’s say basketball specifically, and team, and competing, but challenges.  You gotta love a challenge.  And I think a lot of people would look at that, and probably did and say, I don’t want to be part of this.  And we were the other way.

 

Well, does a team ever really get stable?  I mean, you know, you never know who you’re gonna have, for sure.  I mean, maybe there is no time when a college basketball team is really stable.

 

That’s what you’re trying to compete with, or trying to establish; a culture. I would say the culture can get established every year, and I think ours is firmly established.  Our program is in a rock-solid position now.  But there are certain things that happen; you’re dealing with human beings, the obstacles in our business.

 

You’re always managing around it, and navigating around it.

 

Well, we’re working off a rock-solid foundation now.

 

You know, I know you met your future wife at the UH.  And I heard her quoted as saying: You know what, he never even dated; he was just too busy, he was always busy.  How did that tradition break?

 

I mean, I think first of all, when we talked, I should have said this earlier. I have a great family.  Obviously with my immediate family where I grew up, my parents and my siblings.  But my wife and daughter are awesome.  And the support system there, and hopefully vice versa; I got it pretty good there. Barbea likes to tell the story about she just put it on the calendar.  Like, I usually follow a calendar, and she just said: Date with Barbea.

 

But we connected, and she’s got a huge heart, and we share the similar affinity for Hawaii.  We got a special young daughter in Zeza.  You know, what’s cool is that she gets to grow up in a place that we love, and people are watching her grow up right in front of their eyes.  And I just think everything’s about family, and I got a great one.

 

Zeza is an especially interesting story, because she didn’t grow up as either your wife’s daughter, or your daughter.

 

Yeah. It was a unique, obviously sad situation in September 2012.  You know, you remember things vividly.  I remember about to walk into a meeting with the team at St. Mary’s before workouts, and then I got a call from Barbea’s father, who shared the news with me about her daughter Chelsea, who was off-the-charts-awesome, who was killed in a car accident.  She was pushed into the other side of the road by someone with road rage.  And so, he shared that with me, and obviously, that’s devastating news.  But he also shared it with me so I can go home and see Barbea, and be there when she heard the news.  And Chelsea’s daughter, who was eighteen months at the time, was Zeza.

 

Eighteen months.

 

Yeah. And so, the only fortunate thing in such a tough situation, a really sad situation, is that Zeza wasn’t in the car. And so, we’ve raised her since.

 

Did you have to stop and think about that?

 

No. I mean, you know, Chelsea would visit here and there, and Zeza was in, you know, the baby carriage, and she obviously was not as active when you’re that young.  But you don’t expect certain things like that to happen.  First it was, let’s make sure Barbea and the family are okay, and what can we do.  And I remember Barbea bringing that up in that conversation, and it was: Hey, let’s go. And Zeza is very much our daughter. And you know, one of the unique things, looking back, is how whether at St. Mary’s or here, that people in the community stepped up.  She gained obviously, Barbea and myself, but you know, usually you got fifteen or sixteen players, she gained fifteen brothers, older brothers.  And if you come to watch our program now, or at a game or at a function, or whatever, and this is from my daughter, this is for our coaches’ kids, from our assistants, they’re immersed with the program.  So, we have intelligent young men on our team that are highly caring and very much understand the family aspect.  ‘Cause the Hawai‘i experience is very unique.  And this is the credit to how special Hawaii is.  If you can feel like you’re at home five thousand miles from where you grew up, it’s pretty special.  And when I come in here—you know, I think I the first time I came here in ’06, I was a twenty-four-year-old, lost and confused, and just trying to find his way.  What the great people in Hawaii usually do?  They lend a hand.  And so, it started from there, and that’s why I’m so happy to be here now.  That’s why I’m so happy to have our players here, and to have my daughter grow up here.  It’s special.

 

When we sat down for this conversation, it was the fall of 2018, and Eran Ganot was looking forward to his fourth season as head coach of UH men’s basketball.  After three seasons, his team posted fifty-nine wins and thirty-five losses, with two out of three winning seasons.  UH extended his contract through the 2023 season.  And that troubled program mired in controversy stabilized under the leadership if the young first-time head coach who told us one of the reasons he took the job was because the program was in trouble.  We thank Eran Ganot for his time.  You’ll find more of this conversation in our Long Story Short archives at PBSHawaii.org.  Mahalo nui for joining us.  I’m Leslie Wilcox for Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii. Aloha nui.

 

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 was fortunate enough to be involved with Positive Coaches Alliance.  We spoke to the parents one day, and they ask me for advice, and I say this to the parents.  I’ll tell the player, with the parents there: Hey … we coach you, we don’t coach your parents.  There’s great communication with us and our parents, but not in terms of the playing time and things like that.  For the parents, I advised the group I was speaking to: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the game; we have enough coaches.  You know, and I think there’s a balance there, because I think they’re awesome parents, they want their kids to do so well. We do, too.  But what’s happening is, it’s a little bit more pressure on the kids, and we gotta remind them that we’re playing for the love of the game. And that’s a critical age, where let them struggle through some things, let them be accountable, let them fight through moments, fight through adversity, let them have fun.  And that doesn’t change, whether you’re at that age or for us, ‘cause that’s something you gotta remind yourself of.  You’ve gotta, like I said, work your tail off and enjoy the journey; have fun.  And I think we’ve gotta have that and better balance.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Allen Hoe

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Allen Hoe

 

As one of more than two million draftees called upon to fight in the Vietnam War, 19-year-old Allen Hoe thought he would serve his time and then his life would return to normal. He couldn’t have imagined that his 10-month combat tour would make him what others describe as a soldier’s soldier. The longtime Hawai‘i attorney reflects on the wartime experiences that forever shaped his civilian life.

 

Read the November program guide cover story on Allen Hoe

 

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When U.S. Army General Robert Brown spoke of the 2018 recipient of the Mana O Ke Koa, Spirit of Warrior Award, he said: Awardees demonstrate unparalleled patronage for and civilian leadership toward our Army.  Allen Hoe embodies those qualities.  While each nominee for the award is deserving, we feel Allen’s dedication to the Army is truly outstanding.

 

Fifty years prior to General Brown’s statement, the Army sent a special invitation—a draft notice, to the same Allen Hoe, who admits he was a typical local boy of the late 60s, focused only on surfing, hotrods, and girls.  But a ten-month combat tour in a small country in Southeast Asia turned this local boy into a soldier’s soldier.  Vietnam veteran Allen Hoe, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Allen Hoe’s father was from Kalihi on O‘ahu, and his mother was raised in Moloa‘a on Kaua‘i.  He points out his ancestors were all subjects of monarchies—on his father’s side, Chinese and Japanese; his mother, Hawaiian, English, Scottish, German, and Spanish. His father was a World War II veteran, and there’s evidence of warriors serving their country throughout Hoe’s family tree from the Queen’s royal guard in India, to a war lieutenant for King Kamehameha.

 

Now, you were raised a regular local kid?

 

Typical local boy; right.  You know, in the 60s, focused on surfing, rock ‘n roll, and girls.  The 60s, I think, for me, our history in the 60s was probably the most traumatic decade that our country has experienced in the last century.

 

And were you part of that resist, oppose? You know, resist authority was the call of the day for young people.

 

Yeah. Me?  No; I was more interested in hotrods and surfing.

 

So, that kind of passed you by.

 

Yeah, yeah; that kinda passed us by.

 

Were you in ROTC as a student?

 

So, did the war in Vietnam touch your life as it started out in the 60s?

 

You know, not really.  I think in my junior, senior year, it was just really kinda like an extra subject for history lessons, history courses.  And it wasn’t until the summer after we graduated that it kinda came home very personally, because the older brother of one my dearest friends was one of the first casualties in Vietnam.  He was killed in Cu Chi.

 

Oh …

 

And then, later on that year, I had a cousin who was killed in Vietnam as well. And then, it’s like, wow, this is for real, what’s happening here.

 

What happened next?

 

And then, I was still pretty much living life like a local boy.

 

Hotrods.

 

Hotrods—

 

Girls and surfing.

 

Yeah, yeah, surfing.  And then, I got a special call.  I love to tell this story, because the young soldiers today, I said: You know what, we are so proud of the decisions you made to serve your country, but you know, my legacy is a little bit different.  I was very special; Uncle Sam came looking for me.

 

He said: Mr. Hoe, we need you.

 

Had you been dreading a draft call?

 

No; no. You know, in my generation, that was part of growing up.  At some point, you know, you would either volunteer to become part of the then, what was very fascinating all-Hawai‘i company, which on 4thof July every year, you know, a hundred or so young high school grads would become part of the all-Hawai‘i company.  So, for me, you know, service was just gonna be part of my growing up.

 

So, that service didn’t, in your mind, include combat.

 

No. But it included, you know, doing some time in the military.

 

Right.  And so, even when you got that call, you didn’t say: Oh, my god, I could get sent to Vietnam, I could get put in really difficult circumstances.

 

Yeah; reality … I was nineteen, and that was not, I think, part of my reality. You know, I was young, still making perhaps unwise decisions regarding activities in life, et cetera.  So, for me, yeah, I didn’t feel threatened by it, neither did I feel any kind of overwhelming sense of obligation, other than to serve your country.

 

I understand after being drafted, you could have stayed here, I think.  But you volunteered to go to Vietnam?

 

Yes. Having grown up and hearing the stories from my aunts and uncles, and cousins, regarding our, quote, warrior culture, after training to become a combat medic—

 

Why did you train to be a combat medic?

 

Well, Uncle Sam said that’s—

 

You were designated.

 

Designated.

 

Okay.

 

Yeah; for training.  And you know, they give you a battery of tests, et cetera, and you know, who knows, but you know, fortunately, and I feel I was very blessed to have been selected to become a combat medic.  And after I trained long and hard to do that, when we graduated, all of the new combat medic qualified soldiers would go to the bulletin board to see where their next duty station was.  And the bulk of my class went straight to Vietnam.  I was assigned to San Francisco.  And you know, I didn’t question it.  And then, when I got to San Francisco, I was assigned to Travis Air Force Base.  The unit I was assigned to had a lot of soldiers who had come back from Vietnam, and they maybe had three to six months left on their assignment before they got out of the Army.  And stories that they shared with me in terms of what it was like presented a challenge to me, and I said: You know, given my background and my family history, I don’t ever want to … look back and say, I wonder how I would have done in combat.

 

But it was a different kind of combat.  I mean, it was like no other war we’ve had.

 

Yeah, but you know, for a nineteen-year-old, there’s only one kind of combat.

 

Wasn’t there some Geneva Convention ruling that it’s a war crime to shoot a combat medic who’s clearly identified in combat. But in Vietnam …

 

There were no rules.

 

Forget it.

 

Forget it; right.  And life expectancies for combat medics were worse than first lieutenants.

 

So, you wore weapons.

 

I carried, I carried both sidearm and a rifle.  And you wore nothing that indicated that you were a medic, other than your bag was bigger than the rest.

 

And then, you went out right after people got hurt in combat.

 

My mission, I was with a long-range reconnaissance team.  And so, when someone got wounded, they were generally standing right next to you, so you knew what was going on.  Yeah.

 

So, you could have been hit too.

 

Yeah.

 

Did you fire your weapon?

 

Yes. You know, for me, part of that experience, being twenty by the time I got there, and being young and adventurous, part of my responsibility being on that team was, I had to learn all the duties or all the functions of everyone else.  And as the medic, I trained the members of my team to the best of my ability in terms of, you know, first responder life-saving methods.  So, while with the team, not only did I fire my weapons, but you know, I helped set ambushes, I learned how to call artillery, and learned how to set demolitions and blow charges.  And yeah, you gotta understand, for a twenty-year-old, this is like fun stuff.

 

You don’t feel that it’ll actually hurt you? Do you feel untouchable?

 

You feel immortal.

 

Immortal.

 

Yeah.

 

Yeah.

 

The most foolish kinds of things that one accepts in combat is that if it happens, it happens.  You know. And then, for me, it was, you know, as long as I can get through three of these life-threatening experiences, then I’ll be okay.  I very clearly distinctly remember the three times that I was supposed to have received something fatal, and survived.  And after the third time, it was like, oh, big relief.  I said: Nothing’s gonna happen.

 

I’ve got a force field around me.

 

I’ve got a force field around me.  And then, you just kinda learn how to operate just naturally and freely.  And yeah, you were still concerned, you were still frightened on occasion, but you knew that at the end of the day, nothing’s gonna happen. And you know … nothing happened.

 

But you can’t do that by skill alone; right?

 

It’s luck.

 

It is a matter of chance.

 

No, no, no.  Yeah; you survive combat purely on luck.

 

And meanwhile, you were seeing some scenes you can’t un-see.

 

Yeah.

 

Mutilated limbs and gory stuff.

 

Yeah.

 

Very sad, just grievous injuries.  How did you deal with that?

 

For me, it was just reactionary.  I trained; everyone trained.

 

You compartmentalized?

 

You compartmentalize.  When stuff happened, instinct kicks in.  And you know, I think one of the saving graces of our current force is that our young shooters, as I call them, the young infantry soldiers or the young combat soldiers that have to go to war for us, they are required to train twenty-four/seven.  And it becomes instinctive, it becomes reactionary.  So, when they’re on a patrol, they experience enemy action, they immediately shift into their combat mode.

 

Did you hear the talk that we understand was common at the time, where people were saying: What are we here for, why are here, this war doesn’t make sense.

 

Yeah. We would hear about that or read about that in letters or the newspapers that would occasionally come to us.  But you know, the reality is, at the end of the day in combat, you’re not thinking about fighting for your country, you’re not thinking about fighting to preserve, you know, family values or the constitution, et cetera.  You are simply thinking about saving the life of your buddy on your right and on your left. And you know, the reality is, at the end of the day, if you’ve done your job right and everybody survives, our country will be blessed by that.

 

Did you get really close to the guys you served with?

 

Oh; you know, to this day.  Fifty years ago, I met incredible bunch of young men, and probably spent twenty-four/seven with these men, maybe not more than four or five months with them, but to this day, when I hear their voice, I immediately know who I’m talking to. It’s that special bond that even kind of um, surpasses a familial bond.  You know, I have a relationship and memories of guys that I served with perhaps that run deeper than with my own two siblings.

 

Wow.  And you know, when you’re with somebody who’s terribly hurt, and possibly or inevitably dying, it’s a really intimate time you share.  How was that?

 

Yeah. For me, and the guys most closest to me, if one of our buddies was hit, we were—this is fascinating–we were doing our best to stabilize his condition, but it becomes not quiet and soft, but it becomes a loud, raucous kind of conversation to get their attention, to get them to focus, to get them to hang on and not to give up.  You know, so it’s yelling and screaming.  This is like—you know, I remember the first time that happened, my platoon sergeant, who obviously had been there longer than me, as I was treating one of my wounded buddies, he was shaking him to get him to respond, to wake up, and to fight on before we put him on the helicopter.  And I learned something that day, in terms of first, you know, you’re gonna … do your job to stop the bleeding, prevent the shock, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get that young soldier’s attention, to get him to focus on things he needs to do.

 

Because that helps him—

 

Him, yeah.

 

–help himself.

 

Help himself.

 

You know, you have seen some things that most people never see, never have to know what it’s like.

 

Yeah.

 

How has that affected you?

 

You know … at times, it causes me to kinda go into a slump, but I’ve always been able to deal with that in terms of, that’s war.  And I kinda kick into this mode where long time ago, I read this passage where, you know, in war there’s only two rules; the first rule is that people die, and then the second rule is that you cannot change rule one.  So, you know, we were at war, people are gonna die, you know, and thank God if you survive, that you survive.

 

That 1968, when you were there, that was a particularly …

 

Yeah.

 

–fatal—

 

Yeah.

 

–grisly year.

 

Yeah.

 

I mean, lots of fatalities.

 

Yeah. I guess the high water mark was 1968; in May, 1968.  And yeah, May 1968 was a particularly bad month for me.

 

What happened?

 

I lost eighteen of my guys.  And but for the grace of God, I would not be here, because ten of ‘em are still missing in action.  The grace of God was that my unit was transitioning from Point A to Point B, and I was not with them that day.  I was back in the rear, getting ready to rejoin them.  Before I could rejoin them at the new location, they were overrun.

 

And some of them were never found, but were you treating your own men?

 

Yeah.

 

In the field.

 

Yeah.

 

May; was that Mother’s Day?

 

May, Mother’s Day.

 

Mother’s Day.

 

Mother’s Day, 1968.  Yeah. I mean … if you can imagine, I mean, you’re a mother, you know how important Mother’s Day is.  That day by itself, you know, to get the message or the knock on your door that your son was killed on Mother’s Day.  I mean …

 

And so now, when Mother’s Day comes around at your home, you think of another meaning for it.

 

Yeah. I am reflective on the mothers of my men who didn’t make it.  And you know, over the past fifty years … that bond I had with their sons, I’ve developed with them.  So, for me, it’s very special.  For me, it’s always been an obligation to assure their mothers whose sons never came home that their sons are superb young men.

 

You made an effort to go do that?

 

Absolutely.  The majority of the men who I lost on Mother’s Day 1968, their mothers and their fathers had absolutely no clue what happened to them.  And to live without any knowledge of what happened, I just couldn’t.  And that’s even worse, you know, to have your son taken from you in combat, and that’s all you know.  He’s not here.  Why? We can’t share that with you, we can’t tell you the circumstances, or what happened on that day.

 

Do you think you had PTSD after the war?

 

I had issues.  I don’t necessarily think it is or was PTSD.  Everybody who experiences combat has issues.  I remember when I first came back from Vietnam, the first month that I was home, it was just party time; right?  You know, I was riding motorcycles back then, and every night we’d go out and … go and enjoy life, tip a few Primos.  And I remember like after a month, one day, my dad came home.  We were passing, I think in the driveway; I was getting ready to go out, and he was coming home from work.  And said: Al.  He said: You have a moment?  I go: Yeah, absolutely.  He told me, he said: You know, son, I won’t even begin to understand what you experienced in Vietnam, and what you’re doing now, you know, I’m not supportive of your behavior and what your conduct is now.  So, you know, how much longer are you going to do this, ‘cause don’t you think you need to start thinking about your future?  I hope you’re not planning to do this the rest of your life.  And I said: No, Dad, I’m just having fun.  But you know, that kinda came home to roost really strong for me, my father saying: Okay, all right, it’s time to kinda like get on with your life.  And, you know, I did.

 

He did it in such a nice way, too.

 

Yeah; he was just an incredible guy.

 

Allen Hoe’s parents had always insisted he would attend college, so when he returned home, he took advantage of two new State institutions for learning.  He enrolled in the new Leeward Community College, later graduating from UH Mānoa, and he was among the first class of law students admitted to the William S. Richardson School of Law.

 

Okay; the style of the day was long hair.

 

Yeah.

 

So, did you go back from the war with your short haircut, to—

 

Long hair.

 

–long hair.

 

Yeah.

 

And did you see anti-war protests?

 

Oh, yeah; yeah.  You know …

 

How did you feel about them?

 

You know, this may sound strange, but to me, that was just part of our great democracy.  You know, I tell people: Yeah, I have no problems with the protests, the marchers, and the anti-war people, even when I was in Vietnam.  I said: Hey, that’s what we’re here for, to give them the right to exercise, you know, their freedom.  And it truly did not bother me.  One of the things, though, that did bother me was, a couple of the young Leeward students were egged on by this group to pull down the American flag. And four of us Vietnam veterans stood ‘em off, and we said: You touch that flag, and you’re gonna go down.  And … they left the flag alone.  I said: You can protest the war all you want, but you’re not gonna come and touch this flag.

 

And that was a spontaneous act by the four of you?

 

Yeah.

 

Did you ever get pegged the wrong way when you walked around campus with the long hair?  I mean, did people assume anything about you that wasn’t true?

 

The wife of a soldier who was in one of my classes, her husband was a career soldier, had not been in combat.  And she made this kind of strange comment to me.  She said: Why are you so angry?  And I said: What do you mean?  She said: There’s this hate that comes from your eyes.  And I said: Your husband’s a soldier, has he been in combat?  No.  I said: Well, you send him to combat, and this is the look that he will come home with. And she just couldn’t understand that.

 

That it’s not anger.

 

It’s not anger.  People these days, or even for many years, they call it the Thousand-Yard Stare.

 

Allen Hoe’s adjustment to civilian life was bolstered when he met his future wife, Adele.

 

We met actually, I think maybe the second month after I got out of the Army. And you know, when I first saw her, I said: Oh, my god, that is the girl of my dreams.

 

At first look?

 

That first day we spent together.  She was actually a coworker of the sister of one of my dear friends.  So, we just kinda like wound up on not a blind date, but time together.  And she was, or is just a special person.  Yeah; yeah.  Swept me off my feet, so to speak.

 

Adele and Allen Hoe married and shared in the joy of raising two sons: Nainoa and Nakoa.  Both young men chose to be warriors and serve their country.  The elder son, Army First Lieutenant Nainoa Hoe, was killed by a sniper’s bullet while he led a foot patrol in Northern Iraq in 2005.  He was just twenty-seven years old, and had been married for less than a year.

 

My wife and I, Adele, we still hear from the soldiers who served with Nainoa. And that is very comforting to us. He absolutely loved being a soldier. And the fortunate part, if there is anything fortunate about that horrible tragedy, was that his last day on this earth was documented by a writer who wrote an incredible story of how my son spent his last day with his men in combat.  Now, for me, as a father who had experienced combat, that was just an absolutely incredible story.  For me, it was very gratifying to hear how he performed in combat, and how his men just dearly loved him.

 

Yeah; I was so impressed by your son Nakoa.

 

Ah …

 

Seeing him at an event where Nainoa was being spoken of and honored, and all the attention was on the fallen son.  And Nakoa is a very honorable and brave, Army leader in his own right.  Right?

 

Correct.

 

But it was not about him; he was just happy to see Nainoa being celebrated.  I thought, he’s grown up in that shadow of his—

 

Big brother.

 

–his big brother being venerated as a hero.

 

Yeah.

 

And not feeling like: What about me?

 

Yeah. You know, in retrospect, my Hawaiian culture, that’s what led me to name him Nakoa; brave, courageous, strong, army, a soldier.

 

It does take courage to kinda—

 

Yeah; to stand in the shadow.

 

To stand in the shadow; right.

 

Yeah. And he has become just an incredible young man.

 

So much grace.

 

So much grace.

 

Did you teach him that grace?

 

His mother taught him that grace.

How our family and how this community responded when our son was killed, for me, it was very eye-opening.  You know, having survived combat, having witnessed death, it was totally different when that knock came on our door.

 

2005.

 

  1. And then, it’s like our whole world just came screeching to a halt. And then, you know, over the years, I’ve become very close to the Vietnam veterans’ efforts, the memorials, et cetera.  Jan Scruggs is a very dear friend.  And you know, Memorial Day 2005, I was invited to come and be a speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony at The Wall.  It was not the first time I had been there, but that was my first experience when I got there and I looked at the fifty-eight thousand plus names in the wall, including like a whole panel of my guys.  And I just kinda like … stopped, caught my breath, and I said: Oh, my god.  Looking at all these names, you would think that the world would have come to a complete stop.  Because I know my family—

 

For some, it did.

 

Yeah.

 

Many, it did.

 

For some, it did.  And for, you know, my—my experience and my family’s experience, the world did come to a stop.  You know, but there it is, fifty-eight thousand plus names, and we’re still at war.

 

Shortly before our conversation with Allen Hoe in the summer of 2018, he and nine other local Vietnam veterans were honored at what the Army referred to as a long overdue ceremony.  While only ten veterans were selected, the Pentagon report said they represented a large number of soldiers who served in the Southeast Asia conflict, but were never given a proper military ceremony to present awards and medals.  Allen Hoe received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart at the ceremony, and told news reporters it was well worth the wait to have the brigade you went to war with recognized years and years after that war was over.

 

We thank Vietnam Combat Medic Allen Hoe for his time with us, and the work he continues doing in the civilian and military communities.  And we thank you, for joining us.  For more of Allen Hoe’s conversation, including how a flag originally purchased as a souvenir in Vietnam has earned a military record of its own, and why it’s in Hoe’s DNA to be passionate about horses and the sport of polo, please go to PBSHawaii.org and our Long Story Short archives.  I’m Leslie Wilcox for Long Story Short and PBS Hawai‘i.  Aloha nui.

 

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.

 

People say: You do so much for the Army.  And I said: You know what, when I have a quiet moment, sitting in my backyard at Maunawili, looking up at Mount Olomana, which was one of Nainoa’s favorite places, I just kinda look up there and I says: All right, son, you didn’t think Dad had enough to do?  So, my mission has been to try and make the lives, and the comfort, and the memory of soldiers who put on the uniform every day for us a little bit better.

 

 

Allen Hoe
A Soldier’s Soldier by Emilie Howlett

ALLEN HOE: A Soldier's Story by Emilie Howlett

 

Leslie Wilcox talks story with Allen HoeAs one of more than two million draftees called upon to fight in the Vietnam War, 19-year-old Allen Hoe thought he would serve his time and then his life would resume as normal. In his conversation on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, Hoe reflects on the experiences that turned this local boy into a soldier’s soldier.

 

Trained as a combat medic with the Army, he witnessed some of life’s greatest horrors, and these intense circumstances helped forge a life-long bond with the men he served alongside. The politics and ethics of the controversial war and the reasoning behind what they were fighting to preserve came second to “simply thinking about saving the life of your buddy on your right and on your left” recalls Hoe.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX, Tuesday, November 13, 7:30 pmOn Mother’s Day 1968, one of his greatest fears played out in front of him. While he hung back at headquarters waiting to rejoin the other men in his unit, they were overrun. Hoe lost 18 men from his unit, while several more were captured and held prisoner.

 

While many would seek to close the door on this tragic chapter of their lives, Hoe extended his kindness towards those who felt the loss most profoundly. “I am reflective on the mothers of my men who didn’t make it. And over the past fifty years … that bond I had with their sons, I’ve developed with [the mothers] … It’s always been an obligation to assure their mothers whose sons never came home that their sons are superb young men.”

 

“... my mission has been to try and make the lives and the comfort and the memory of soldiers who put on the uniform every day for us a little bit better.” – Allen Hoe

 

Allen Hoe and the courageous men he had served with.

 

Along with the atrocities he witnessed as a combat medic, the loss of the men he served alongside would follow him long after his tour ended. However, life went on. After returning to Hawai‘i, Hoe found success as an attorney, got married and had two sons.

 

But tragedy struck again. In 2005, his elder son, 27-year-old Army First Lieutenant Nainoa Hoe, was killed by a sniper’s bullet while leading a foot patrol in Northern Iraq. “How our family and how this community responded when our son was killed, it was very eye-opening. You know, having survived combat, having witnessed death, was totally different when that knock came on our door.”

 

While visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day of that same year, seeing the names etched on The Wall, including those of his own men, took on a new resonance. “Looking at all these names, you would think that the world would have come to a complete stop,” Hoe says.

 

Allen Hoe’s own losses inspired a lifelong commitment to healing the wounds of war by supporting those touched by its effects. In June 2018, he was presented with the Mana O Ke Koa award, which honors his unparalleled patronage and his dedication and service toward soldiers, civilians and the U.S. Army Pacific. Hoe has transformed the tragedy in his life into generosity, serving as a guiding light for so many. “So, my mission has been to try and make the lives and the comfort and the memory of soldiers who put on the uniform every day for us a little bit better.”

 

 

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