How Are Innovators Bringing New Opportunities to Hawai‘i’s Students?


The film ‘ike: Knowledge is Everywhere shows innovators in Hawai‘i creating new opportunities for learning. These people inspire and support students who might otherwise slip through the cracks. What new approaches do these trailblazers bring? How are innovators bringing new opportunities to Hawai‘iʻs students?


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Meet the young migrants in a Swiss integration class, who arrived in Switzerland via planes, trains and automobiles, separated from families and many traumatized by the happenings in their home countries. With the help of their teacher, Mr. Zingg, these young émigrés from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Serbia and Venezuela struggle to learn a new language, prepare for employment and reveal their innermost hopes and dreams for a new life.


Outstanding stories from Spring Quarter 2014/2015


This special edition of HIKI NŌ highlights is hosted by HIKI NŌ grad Victoria Cuba and features some of the outstanding stories from the Spring Quarter of the 2014/2015 school year:


From Waipahu High School on Oahu: a follow-up story on Victoria Cuba. We first met Victoria last season as a senior at Waipahu High School, when she opened up about being homeless. Now, she attends the University of Hawaii at Manoa on a full scholarship and interns at PBS Hawaii. No longer homeless, she resides in a UH dorm, but admits that the transition has had its challenges.


From Kapaa High School on Kauai: the story of a new program created by the Kauai Humane Society to encourage the adoption of dogs. Volunteers take dogs from the Kauai Humane Society on field trips to various places on the island to help them meet potential owners.


From Ewa Makai Middle School on Oahu: an introduction to P.E. for the 21st century. When students take physical education at this high-tech middle school on the Ewa plain, they don’t just play dodge ball or run laps around the track. We learn how their innovative P.E. program is using computer technology to help students get fit both physically and technologically.


From Mid Pacific Institute on Oahu: a profile of Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning musician Mark Yamanaka. Yamanaka shares one of the biggest challenges of his life – not being of Hawaiian ancestry and wanting to play Hawaiian music.


From Moanalua High School on Oahu: the story of Moanalua history teacher Cris Pasquil, who uses non-traditional activities like group projects, skits and even music to instill a love of learning in his students. He draws inspiration from his own experience learning hula under kumu hula Robert Cazimero and his halau’s victory at the esteemed Merrie Monarch Festival earlier this year.


From Konawaena High School on Hawaii Island: the story of how their school is trying to develop one of only two high school lacrosse teams on the island. Konawaena teacher Daniel Curran is on a mission to make lacrosse a mainstream sport in Hawaii. Starting a team has many unique challenges, but students say the benefits are worth it.


From Maui Waena Intermediate School on Maui: the story of their experience at the 2015 Student Television Network conference and video competition in San Diego, California. Although the primary purpose of their trip was to participate in the video competition, they also spent a great deal of time volunteering for worthy San Diego-based causes. The Maui Waena students went on to win several awards at the competition, but they consider their hours of community service as the most rewarding part of the trip.


The first all-Middle School edition


This episode is the first all-Middle School edition of HIKI NŌ.


Top Story
Students from Maui Waena Intermediate School on Maui tell the story of their experience at the 2015 Student Television Network conference and video competition in San Diego, California, where they learned that it is far better to give than to receive. Although the primary purpose of their trip was to participate in the video competition, they also spent a great deal of time volunteering for worthy San Diego-based causes. Maui Waena students cleared half an acre of weeds and invasive plants from Balboa Park, the largest urban park in San Diego. They also served meals to 300 homeless people at the city’s largest homeless shelter, Father Joe’s Village. The Maui Waena students went on to win several awards at the competition, but they consider their hours of community service as the most rewarding part of the trip.


Also Featured:
Students from Aliamanu Middle School on Oahu report on the sometimes frightening transition from Middle School to High School.


Students from Waipahu Intermediate School on Oahu tell the story of a diabetic teacher at their school who is educating others about the disease.


Students at Seabury Hall Middle School on Maui profile their marching band director Richie Franco and his unconventional journey from the tough streets of Chicago to teaching music in Makawao, Maui.


Students at Waianae Intermediate School on Oahu tell the story of a student with a limp brought on by a medical condition that made her a target for bullies. With the support of friends and her own upbeat outlook, she is now moving forward to a positive future.


Students at Kapaa Middle School on Kauai invite us to their school’s Electives Night – a unique evening of student art and performances that excites not only students and their parents, but the entire community as well.


Students at Lahaina Intermediate School on Maui tell the story of a special garden on campus that is encouraging teachers and students alike to take their lessons outdoors.


This program encores Saturday, May 30 at 12:30 pm and Sunday, May 31 at 3:00 pm. You can also view HIKI NŌ episodes on our website, www.pbshawaii.org/hikino.


Seeds of Aloha


Learn the life story of George Kahumoku Jr., award-winning slack key guitarist, songwriter, performer, teacher, artist, sculptor, author, farmer and entrepreneur. Through his everyday activities, we discover the roots of his extraordinary life, the meanings of aloha and ohana, and how these values have made him the man he is today.


Carlos Andrade


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 25, 2008


Professor of Hawaiian Studies & Lifelong Learner


Kaua’i native Carlos Andrade is a lifelong learner. First, he learned lessons from his kupuna, his elders, living on the land. Then, he learned from professors at the University of Hawai’i. Today, he’s a teacher himself, sharing lessons with students and stories with Leslie Wilcox.


Long Story Short – Carlos AndradeGrowing up on Kaua’i, Carlos Andrade surfed, worked odd jobs and, with his wife Maile and their three children, lived “off the grid” in a house built using recycled materials. A master of the Hawaiian slack key guitar, Carlos also wrote beautiful songs, including, “Moonlight Lady,” and sailed aboard the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule’a.


Then, at the age of 43, Carlos and his wife went through a major transition, leaving what he calls a “hippie” lifestyle and entering the halls of academia – both earning master’s degrees and Carlos a PhD. Today, Dr. Carlos Andrade is a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


What would lead a music-playing surfer to go back to school – in his 40s? To continue learning. And to teach what he’s learned – from his kupuna and his professors. Along the way, Kaua’i native Carlos Andrade believes he’s earned the credentials and the right to speak out. And that’s what he does on this week’s Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.


Carlos Andrade Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no kakou; and mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. On Kaua‘i, he surfed; he played music; he did odd jobs; he started a family and lived “off the grid” in a house hand-built with recycled materials. Then, in his 40s, he and his wife left their rural lifestyle and began anew. Dr. Carlos Andrade, next.


Dr. Carlos Andrade is an associate professor in Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He’s that, and more. For many years, Carlos the bachelor and then Carlos the family man lived in north Kauai, in a rustic house with no running water or electricity. He sailed aboard the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a. He played in a band, “Na Pali,” and he wrote beautiful songs, including “Moonlight Lady,” recorded by Bla Pahinui. At the age of 43, Carlos and Maile Andrade traded in their hand-to-mouth life in the country for the halls of academia. Both earned master’s degrees, and Carlos obtained his PhD. Every step of the way, Carlos Andrade has learned lessons that he now teaches his students in Honolulu.


You know, I graduated from high school, I had gone to junior college, and I thought I was, you know, fairly well educated. And then I went out to live with the people on the land, and I didn’t know how to do anything, except turn pages in a book and push pencil on a paper. And I met men could build houses, they could plant food, they could fish, they could farm, they could hunt, they could fix cars. Even though they didn’t have the car parts, they’d fix them with cannibalizing other cars. They could build boats; they could do all these things that we never got taught in school. And I realized how much I didn’t know. And so I began to—you know, even—that’s still a little bit late, but I began to try to learn to do those kinda things, to live and work on the land and with the land. Rather than in an office, or in some kind of a job that said you gotta be there eight hours a day, five days a week, that bought all your time. And so I would work for taro farmers, and work for ranchers, and work for fishermen. Because they always need help. But I told all of them that if I’m there, I’ll work, and if I don’t show up, there’s no strings tied. So whenever I needed a little bit of money, I’d go to work, and the rest of the time I went surfing, and played music, and did a lot of other things. Learned a lot about Hanalei and Ha’ena, and some of the—I spent a lot of time with—talking to the old folks. Because they were the ones that weren’t at the daily grind every day, when I was around. And I did that until I was thirty.


So you’re thirty years old, you’re living off the land by working for others.


M-hm. Then I get married and have children. [chuckle] And that’s a reality check, right? You have to start supporting your family. And so I began to work at different things, still kind of living that style. My wife and I actually raised our children, all three of our children and lived in homes that we built out of recycled materials, that didn’t have—were off the grid; no electricity, no running water. And we did that for about fifteen years, actually. But we also saw a lot of people coming to the island from other places, and they had much more resources behind them, money and family. And they were buying up the land, and prices were going up, and taking the good jobs. And I realized that, you know, having certification of some sort improves your ability to earn a living. When I first wanted to go back to school, all my friends said, You’re too old. Forty-three; you’re too old to go back to school. Why waste your time, you know. But that hasn’t been the case. The world that we live in, you know, it’s round, there’s no east and there’s no west. It’s just the world that we live in. But we cannot ignore the fact that we live in a system that we don’t necessarily have to agree with. But it exists. And within that system, you know, the market system and the system of government that we live in, when you have a PhD behind your name, it makes a difference in certain sectors. I mean, some sectors, like the guys that I surf with, you know, it’s like, piled higher and deeper, you know. Post hole digger is what they call it, a PhD. [chuckle] So you know, they keep you humble, as you should be. But when I go and testify in the Senate, in the Legislature, that the community of Ha‘ena wants to initiate a plan that is community managed fishery, it makes a difference that my name has a PhD behind it. And so I can advocate for things Hawaiian. It makes a difference in advocacy for, not only Hawaiian causes, because many of the things that are embedded in the life we live in, that come from our Hawaiian ancestors, like the right of all of us to go to the beach, beach access, are embedded in Hawaiian thinking. Not just in Hawaiian thinking, but in Hawaiian law. Because our ancestors and our leaders, King Kamehameha III, put on all of these big landowners who own land on the beach, their deeds say they own that land, subject to the rights of the people. Now, how far ahead was that guy thinking when he did that? And we all benefit, whether we’re Hawaiian, Haole, non-Hawaiian, that that’s in their deeds, and they can’t stop us from going to the beach. And if they’re gonna develop the land, they need to put a place for us to go to the beach in. Being a professor at the Center for Hawaiian Studies puts me into contact with the whole younger generation of young Hawaiian students and people that are interested in things Hawaiian, that are coming to the University. And that’s a privilege, to be able to work with them. It also puts me into contact with people who are, if not experts, the people that are doing the most research in the different areas of what we call Hawaiian Studies. But that’s only one facet of my life. Because I go home, and I work on the land, and I come into contact with the PhDs of the world of work and experience on the land and all that. So I have sort of the best of both worlds, in a way.


Carlos Andrade credits the kupuna on Kaua‘i for teaching him life lessons. He still learning, but he’s also teaching. He recently wrote this book, “Ha’ena: Through the Eyes of the Ancestors,” that reflects on the land and people in the ahupua‘a of Ha’ena on the northwestern side of Kaua‘i. A love of the land, the ocean and “things Hawaiian” also connected Carlos to the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a, as a crew member.


Any aha moments come out of that?


Oh, all kinds of ‘em. You know, whenev er we go to New Zealand or Aotearoa, as they call it, and Rarotonga, and the Cook Islands, and Aitutaki, and Mangaia, and Tahiti, and Moorea, and those places, we see ourselves. Because they look like us. But the thing that really astonished me especially on the first voyage, was the Maori people and how assertive they were about who they were. The thing that struck me I think the hardest was, they never refer to their ancestors as the Maoris. You know, they never said, Oh, yeah, the Maoris did this, and the Maoris did that. They always said, My ancestors did this. And I’ve reflected back on here in Hawaii; many Hawaiian people speak about our ancestors as if they were some distant people who they weren’t connected to in any way, like something in a museum. And you know, that it’s almost like, I think it reflects a kind of psychic disconnect in the different situations of it. But the newer generations, I think, of Hawaiian people that are our young—the students, and even older people, are becoming more and more assertive about their connection to the ancestors. And I kind of am optimistic about this strength that I perceive in the Maori people, and in other places in the Pacific with the other Polynesian people about their connection to the land and who they were as the first people of that land.


Do you feel a connection to your ancestors?


More so now than I did before I went on the voyages of the Hokule‘a.


Do you know who they are? You have an oral history?


Yeah. It’s more than an oral history. I actually have about three or four pages of a genealogy that was put together by Edith McKinzie, who is a famous genealogist, that connects our family all the way, you know, back to where I never even thought we were connected to. [chuckle] You know, it’s like, I don’t know, hundreds of generations back.


Wow. And the place you feel connected is?


Most personally connected, I feel connected to Kauai. Because that’s where I was born. And when I look at my ancestral, you know, the genealogy and the stories in my family, most of it happens on Kauai. But my great- grandfather moved to Molokai. And so we have connections on all the islands, but Kauai is the place that I feel most connected to.


And what connects you? I know in your book, Ha’ena, you talk about—there is a connection you have with landmarks and places that were used by people.


Well, you know, my father grew up in generation where his father was Portuguese, his mother was Hawaiian. But his mother died when he was eight years old. He was sent to live with his grandfather on Molokai, who brought him up in his early years. So he was kind of a man of conflict in a way. My father’s father used to talk about Hawaiians as, Oh, those kanakas; like it was something bad to be. But my father had this real sort of love for Hawaiian songs, and he worked as a cowboy, and the cowboys were Hawaiians, and he was a fisherman, and he learned a lot of the skills that were the skills of men in traditional times in Hawaii. He was a hunter, he was cowboy. And so I kinda picked that up from him. And when I went to live in Hanalei and Ha’ena, and in Waimea on the other side, I told you I kinda gravitated to the old people. They would tell me things that you couldn’t find in books. And those are things that I kinda treasure in a way. Like the old songs, and names of places. And after I went to school and learned to speak Hawaiian, whenever I had an opportunity to be with a person who spoke Hawaiian, I’d try to speak Hawaiian with them. And that opened up even more doors. Because they would talk about things like place names, and the thoughts behind the names, and the stories that connect to places. And those were the things that I liked, because I was a composer, and in composing, you’re always trying to tell stories. And so stories are important. And my father was a storyteller; he used to tell us stories about his friend Lum Lum Wissey, who he grew up with, you know. [chuckle] And all these—so I think that storytelling is—in the Hawaiian culture, it’s mo‘olelo and it’s haku mele. You tell stories through the tales that you tell and the songs that you compose and sing. And so all of those mean a lot to me. And you know, it’s still something that I do today, is I still think that place is very important, and the names, and the stories behind places. Because places is what human beings make out of spaces.


What are some of the compelling things that the kupuna told you in Ha’ena and Hanalei?


Well, you know, it’s life wisdom, yeah? Kupuna are the doctors of everyday life. You know, the PhDs of everyday life. And so you know, just simple things that you would think that are, you know, everybody would know—the so- called common sense of the world today that’s not very common. Like, you know, work when it’s cool in the morning. [chuckle] Go in the shade when it’s hot, and then go work again in the evening. Or, you know, you have to enjoy life. It’s not all work; you gotta enjoy every minute. You don’t know when, you know, it’s gonna end. Just little things like that. And then practical things, like just take enough to eat. Leave the rest there. If you take from some place, put something back. If you go in the mountains and you take taro, plant taro back there. You have this whole culture of accumulation, and extracting from the world as much as possible. And then, you know, sort of in between all of this is wisdom that sits with elders about, Oh, just take enough. Enough is plenty. Just take enough to eat. Those kinda things.


You also spoke with people who not only knew every inch of the land where they lived, but they knew every little eel hole in the reef and underwater.


Yeah; well, you know, the Hawaiian term for people who lived on the land was hoa‘aina. And hoa‘aina is a companion to the land. And I think that the relationship of the Hawaiian people to the land is one of companion to the land. And today, we have this discourse of stewardship of the land; everybody wants to be stewards of the land. And the Maoris have this unusual way of saying, No, no, no, we’re not stewards of the land; stewards take care of other people’s stuff. We’re ‘ohana, or we’re family to the land. So we’re taking care of our family when we take care of the land. And it’s a little bit different; you know, it’s a little bit different. And like here in Hawaii, people are beginning to use the term called ahupua‘a, which I talk about a little bit in my book. And they—you know, they have this sort of mainstream understanding of ahupua‘a is mountains to sea, and has all the ingredients for sustainability, which is another big word that’s going around these days. And everything within the ahupua‘a from the mountains to the sea, enough to sustain the population there. But when you really study the ahupua‘a, you find that many ahupua‘a did not go all the way to the sea. Some were landlocked. And many ahupua‘a didn’t have the resources necessary to sustain the people. It’s a myth, actually, of this independent little piece of land that could have everything and not survive with anybody else, not need anybody else to have sustainability. The reality of it is that there was that sort of—I call it the vertical dimension in the concept of the ahupua‘a from mountains to sea, and out into the sea in front of it. But there was also an equally important horizontal dimension. And it’s echoed in the sort of philosophy, unspoken philosophy that Hawaiian people have about aloha. It’s a reciprocal thing. Haunani-Kay Trask says it very, very explicitly when she says, Aloha is a two-way street. And when I began to study the language, the traditional greeting between Hawaiian people when they met each other was, aloha kaua, which means, the two of us. Not aloha oe; it’s aloha kaua. W hen we come together, because we have a reciprocal good relationship, an aloha is created because of our coming together.

So I think to apply that to the ahupua‘a and the concept that people like to study and would hope could exist in Hawaii today is this idea of reciprocity, where we need each other to survive. All ahupua‘a need their connections to other ahupua‘a.


You heard Dr. Carlos Andrade call kupuna the doctors of everyday life. He respects their wisdom, without any paperwork, any palapala, attesting to their knowledge. For himself, he went out and got a PhD, palapala, that’s a stamp of knowledge in a very different Hawaii. It gives him credentials as he advocates for Hawaiian thinking.


Theres an anger in your book about globalization, homogenization, mainland people coming in and deciding they’re gonna duplicate what they had where they’re from.


It’s not—I don’t see it as an anger, as much as a critique. You know, all of these things—I think that’s one of the sort of benefits or blessings, or whatever you want to call it, about being in a university. It’s because the university, of all this institutions in our country, is the place where ideas are meant to be voiced. As long as you can back it up with you know, research, you can voice your ideas and critique anything. And I think for Hawaii itself, the critique against people who come here and want to change this place into something that mirrors where they come from is a valid critique. Because you know, like say, for instance, language. This is the only place in the world where we have native speakers of the Hawaiian language. Like if you were Chinese and you wanted to learn, and you grew up in Hawaii, and you’re of Chinese ancestry, you could go to China and learn Chinese. But if you grew up as a Hawaiian here, where do you learn Hawaiian? There’s only one place in the world; here. And yet, every year, there’s less and less, and less native speakers. We’re not—they’re not protected. I mean, we protect the turtles [chuckle], but we don’t protect the Hawaiian people. We protect the trees, but we don’t protect the Hawaiian people. And you know, I think there’s a certain amount of calculatedness about that, is that there are—I know there are people in this world who would like to see the Hawaiian people disappear because it would mean that property would be different, it would mean that you know, now we’re all Hawaiian. Everybody wants to be Hawaiian. Not everybody. That’s you know, black and white, everybody. But so many people say, Oh, I’m Hawaiian at heart. Or, I’m Hawaiian. And it is a conflict, because the native people of the land have been treated unfairly. And you know, the President of the United States signed a bill that said, We did this, this and this, and it was wrong. And it’s kind of like somebody stealing your car, and says, I stole your car, and they drive by every day in your car and wave at you. [chuckle] You know. And I think that, you know, that point is gonna bother people for a long time; some people, more than others. But of course, the critique that I give in my book is kind of pointing to the fact that this is going on, it’s like the eight hundred pound gorilla that sits in the corner, but nobody wants to really deal with it in a fair way. They just want to see it keep going the way it’s going. I think it should be, you know, treated differently.


How do you want to see it treated? With, reparations, with what?


Well, impossible dreams, right? I mean, forty-three—


Separate nation?


–years old. Forty-three years old, you’re going back to school to get a PhD? Never happen; you’re too old. Impossible dream. Hawaii as an independent, neutral nation deciding its own fate, politically, economically and every other which way; impossible dream. But the great iron curtain, the wall in Germany was an impossible dream. The Nation of Israel was an impossible dream. There are many impossible dreams that can happen. But in our case, I think the only way it can happen is that people need to realize that aloha is a two-way street. They have to recognize what is going on, and try to work and agree to fix it. If people don’t agree to fix it, then it won’t get fixed. It’ll just get masked.


What does that separate nation look like to you?


Well, I can’t say what it would look like, but we could start where it was ended. And then from there, it goes. Because every nation evolves over time. The United States today looks very different than it did in 1776, when it was born. And it continues to change. So who’s to say what it’ll look like in another hundred years. Non- Hawaiians have been here for how many years; since 1778, Captain Cook came. 1898 is when the United States basically took away our independence as a nation.




So that’s little over a hundred years. If we gave people a hundred years to take care of their affairs, either to decide to be citizens of the Hawaiian Nation, an independent Hawaiian Nation, or to liquidate their assets and go to the nation wherever they wanted to be, or to live here as foreigners do, because foreign people live in the United States—it could happen. I mean, theoretically, it could happen.


And do you think that non-native Hawaiians could have a role in the Hawaiian Nation?


Well, the Nation of Hawaii was never a hundred percent ethnic Hawaiians. They were citizens—just like the citizens of the United States of every ethnic background say, I pledge allegiance to the United States of America. Basically they would have to say, I pledge allegiance to the Nation of Hawaii—whatever their ethnic background was.


So you’re saying, I’ll give you guys a hundred years head start, and then we’re having a Hawaiian nation again.


No, no, no. I’m saying that it’s possible to do something like that, given the time, so people don’t get rushed, and people don’t get things taken from them that shouldn’t be taken from them. That, if people would agree to it, they can choose to go where they wanted to be, and be citizens of the nation that they wanted to be. But you know, it’s up to people to do it. I don’t think anybody should force it. Given enough time, people can do it peacefully, but it needs a commitment. That you know, we’ve seen commitments before historically, as long as the grass will grow and the rivers shall flow, and many of the treaties between the independent nations of America and the government that we know as the United States of America. And if that commitment is made, we’ll find a way.


What will that take, though?


Aloha; genuine aloha. You know, two-way street. That’s what it’ll take.


Thats Dr. Carlos Andrade’s view. He’s making his voice heard in a long-running, important conversation that continues in Hawaii. Mahalo piha to Dr. Carlos Andrade, and you, for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


Gavan Daws


Original air date: Tues., June 10, 2008


Best-Selling Hawaii Author


Gavan Daws, the best-selling author of Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, Land and Power in Hawaii, Holy Man: Father Damien of Moloka‘i and many other books, plays, songs and documentary films, has just collaborated on an 1,120-page anthology, Honolulu Stories: Two Centuries of Writing.


Join Leslie Wilcox as she sits down to share stories that reveal this Australian transplant’s deep interest in, knowledge of and love for Hawai‘i, Asia and the Pacific.


Gavan Daws Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Today, on Long Story Short, we get to share stories with a professional storyteller – best known as an author, Gavan Daws.


Australian transplant Gavan Daws was the first person to earn a PhD in Pacific history at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. The academic and teacher became the bestselling author of Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, Land and Power in Hawaii, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai and many other books. Now he’s collaborated on an 1,100-page anthology, Honolulu Stories: Two Centuries of Writing – full of voices of Hawai‘i.


You’re a storyteller in so many forms. Your latest form is this very hefty book with Bennett Hymer. What other ways have you told stories in your life?


Well, if it comes down to twenty-four words or less, I suppose that all of my life has really been about words and audiences.


Words is all I have; I have no other skills of any kind, either creative or financial. So it’s words; words are my currency. And I kinda grew up on the edge of the Outback in Australia, where when I was a kid, there was no radio, and where for a long time, there was no TV. And storytelling was what everybody did. And when you got old enough, which is around sixteen, you’d go into the pub two or three years below drinking age; and that was storytelling territory as well. And on top of that, I’m about five- eighths Irish, and there’s genetic storytelling in the Irish. I’ve done it in books and in stage plays and in song lyrics. And I’ve done the libretto for an opera, and I’ve done documentary films, which are not my talking, but other people’s talking. And I’m ahuge admirer of standup comedy; I just love standup comedy. So words are the way that things come to me; and on a good day, they’re the way that things come out of me.


In this anthology, Two Centuries of Writing, Honolulu Stories, among the things you include is a comedy sketch by Rap



Yeah. When we were setting up the anthology, Bennett and I made a decision that we wouldn’t limit storytelling to what most people think of as, you know, short stories or bits out of novels. We’d have scenes from plays and musicals, and operas, and we’d have Hawaiian chant, we’d have poems, we’d have song lyrics, we’d have cartoons, and we’d have standup comedy, and we’d have slam. And the all-time great standup comic of my life, and I’ve seen a lot in a lot of different places, is Rap. A genius; absolutely genius. And as I say in the introduction, he’s the youngest standup comedian who ever made me, A, fall off my chair laughing, and B, snort beer through my nose.




Nobody else has ever done that, and he could. And of all his, I think Room Service is the best; Mr. Frogtree trying to get his cheeseburger. So in Honolulu Stories, in the section about modern Waikiki, that was, of course, you know, had to have that. And so, Jon DeMello of Mountain Apple very kindly gave us permission, and it’s just a joy to have that in there. One of my big things about living here, and having hopes, my own private hopes for the place, is that more quality stuff from here can become exportable. You know, think of Iz, Brudda Iz; think of that. There’s the most local musician imaginable; who could be more local than Iz?


Going global.


And he sings a Hollywood classic from the 1930s, Over the Rainbow, and he’s got the first platinum CD from Hawai‘i, with half the sales outside Hawai‘i. And he’s in six movie soundtracks, he’s in commercials all over the world, and he’s a ring tone. The ultimate exportable, right. And that’s good quality, okay. Let’s have more of that; let’s have more of that.


Well, thank you for putting regular people in this book. I love several of them.


This particular short little essay has been the subject of a newspaper story in which you and the reporter said, Where is this writer, we’d love to know more; Mark, who was a student at Makaha Elementary School in 1981. And if I may, he wrote, My mother lives in Las Vegas, my father lives in Hawaii. I am my father’s son, and my sister is icky. Our family has small noses and soft faces. If you ask me one day, I will soar like an eagle to visit my mother.


M-m. I came across that in a collection by Eric Chock, of Bamboo Ridge, who’s been running Poetry in the Schools for a long, long time. And the poetry that he gets from little kids, you know, from Makaha or wherever; wonderful. And so, again, one of the decisions Bennett and I made was to have stuff by kids. You know, most anthologies, even the big ones, don’t do that; they don’t think kids can tell stories, you know. Kids can tell stories. So we have a couple of dozen kid poets in there from the second grade on up. And wonderful stuff from Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s learning school, Na‘au; she’s got a half a dozen poems from little kids in the book.


I like the haiku. I mean, here’s a seventeen-syllable one.




Bus from Manoa, always the same hair and dress; Japanese tutus.


Yeah. That’s part of one of the chapters that goes all around Oahu in poetry. Every district we picked up on that would take you like on a round the island tour; and that’s one of the Manoa poems.


Holoholo through writing.


Yeah; yeah.


As a UH Manoa history professor, Gavan Daws was known for holding the attention of large lecture halls of students. And this consummate storyteller weaves an entertaining, seafaring tale of how he came to land on our sunny shores.


The Reader’s Digest version of the story, which is a combination of Romeo and Juliet, and Ivan the Terrible and—

Ooh. [chuckle] Do tell.


–all sorts of things. I was escaping from Australia, rather than going to Hawai‘i. And I came on a freighter, which crossed the Pacific at five miles an hour. It was by no means a Hokule‘a voyage, you know. And I kinda fell off the ship here. And my entire preparation for Hawai‘i was to have read on the freighter, the book, From Here to Eternity. That’s what I knew about Hawai‘i.




And everything from then on, has the appearance of being intended, but in fact, was just sleepwalking and bumping into things. And that’s been my whole life. So the ship was going to Hawai‘i. If it had been going to Bulgaria, you know—




—I would have been in Bulgaria.


Bulgarian Stories.


Yeah. Right; right.


So you accidentally came here, in a sense. And then you accidentally got a PhD in Pacific History?


It was like breaking the balls on a pool table. You know, things just went everywhere. And one of ‘em went into a pocket, and that was the academic life. It could have been anything else. And it just kinda grew from there; I got offered a job, I kept the job, I got tenure, I wrote a book, and so on and so on. But I’ve also done other things outside Hawai‘i and other things other than academic work, you know, so


You—within just what, a decade or so of coming here, you’re writing a history of the Hawaiian Islands, Shoal of Time, which is it still a local bestseller after all these years?


Yeah, it is; it’s forty years in print. And still—which is amazing. Eighty percent of books disappear after a year. They’re like restaurants, you know; they fold. And I had no idea, doing that, what kind of life it would have, or even it would get published. Which you never know. And just a little bit of the history of that. Honolulu Book Shops, which was the only book shop in town in those days; they ordered twenty-four copies. And when they sold them, they didn’t reorder; they thought that was about the demand. But here it is, forty years later, and—


Its required reading in many courses.


Which I don’t want; I don’t want to be required reading. I want to be read by, my phrase, consenting adults; I want them to choose to read it.


Have you heard that in the intervening decades after the book came out, there has been some perception on the part of native Hawaiians that there’s a colonial tone here—


Oh, sure.


–in the book?


Yeah. I think every writer writes as someone of his or her own time. I certainly had no great ability beyond anybody else’s to look backward or forward, or sideways. I breathed the air that was here to breathe at that time, and wrote that. Now, in the forty years since then, and almost fifty years since the research, there’s two generations. That’s half the people living here now, A, weren’t born then, and B, weren’t born here. So the change in everything here is huge, since I started doing that. Okay. Any general history written now would be written by somebody now, looking back at then, through the eyes of now. Totally different. There wouldn’t be a sentence in this book that would be the same, if I were doing it now.


Is that right?


Oh, yeah. Or if anybody were doing it now. Now, in that forty to fifty years, we’ve now got more than thirty years of the Hawaiian renaissance. You know, think what a difference that’s made in the air that everybody breathes. Okay. The next book that’ll be done, and I wish done soon, will breathe that air. Fine; there’s always—Thomas Jefferson says, History needs to be rewritten every generation. And there’s been two generations since this; long overdue.


Author Gavan Daws has a deep connection with his adopted home. But it’s certainly not all warm and fuzzy; he knew some of his writing would be profoundly uncomfortable to some.


What do you love about Hawai‘i?


Just that it exists. I love getting up in the morning here, and going to bed here. We, my wife and I, traveled a lot, and we live in the zip code where we want to live. We’ve seen a lot of zip codes. We live exactly where we want to live; and that’s a blessing. Not a whole lot of people are fortunate enough to be able to say that. I like the food, I like the climate, I like the life. We’ve been in Paris, the City of Light, we’ve been in Tahiti, Polynesia. The light here is just magical, and so is the air. So why would you not want to live in 96822?


When you were researching Shoal of Time, how did you put yourself in mind of what, say, native Hawaiians were doing at that time, and how’d you learn to characterize certain things?


With difficulty. What I try to do with writing, and it’s not just for Shoal of Time, but anything at all. I try to keep people interested in turning the page. If you’re not readable, then what? If I put you to sleep by page ten, even if I’ve got something interesting to say on page fifty, and you don’t get there, what have I done? So first thing; be readable. And then you’ve gotta dance with nonfiction. With fiction, you can say anything to be readable; you can have, you know, sex every three pages or a mighty explosion every five, or whatever. But with nonfiction, you can’t really take those liberties. So what you’ve gotta be able to do is do that dance between readability and reliability. And that’s a dance. And it’s a solo dance; only one person’s name is on book. And everybody’s dance with readability and reliability will be different. And that’s why they’re my books; that is to say, that’s my name on the title page. But they’re only my books; there’s always room for another book, and for a better book, always. Land and Power in Hawaii. The story of power brokers and the struggle for land, from the ‘50s through the ‘80s. That was a lightning rod for discussion.


I always wondered; what kind of heat did you take from doing that book with George Cooper?


Well, George and I have now known each other for more than half George’s life, and half my life. And we collaborated on this book, and we’re still friends. And collaboration is a sometime thing; you know, a bad collaboration is worse than a bad marriage, you know. So we dreamed up Land and Power in Kuhio Grill on King Street in Mo‘ili‘ili over a beer. And we used to sit there and drink; it was one of the cheap grad student drinking places. And two things about George. One, he is one of the few people to whom I would trust my moral life; he’s an absolute straight shooter, just absolutely genuine. Secondly is, he’s the best researcher I’ve ever met in thirty-five years in academic work. No academic I’ve ever met has touched George for factual research. George is a truth-seeking missile. You aim George, and he hits the truth all the time, brings it back not blown up, but absolutely intact. So perfect collaborator. And what we wanted to do was simply describe land politics in Hawai‘i in those thirty years, and offer no judgments, just facts. And there are no factual errors in Land and Power; and there better not be, because you can get sued. Okay. If you’re gonna get sued, you get sued in the first six months. The book’s been out twenty-three years, and we haven’t been sued. So those are facts.


What do you think was the most remarkable fact that emerged from the book?


In the totality, the nonpartisan approach to land development, where you get Democratic senators and Republican businessmen, and a couple of Supreme Court justices, and two guys from organized crime, and their wives and civil servants in the same hui; that’s the big fact, the big overriding fact. And there are thousands of cases there. When we did the index, we had three thousand names in the index, two thousand nine hundred and ninety-five of whom were probably not pleased to be in the book.


Were you suggesting that there’s a big conspiracy going on?


No. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s how business and politics were done. That’s not conspiratorial.


You said were; so not done that way anymore?


If this were done again, if Land and Power were done again—and I wish it would be—there would be different players. The names would be different, but the game is very much the same. Because land is power.


And anyone who didn’t know the word “hui” knew it when your book was published.


Yes; I imagine so.

Land huis and people—




–pulling together to use advantage of some kind to acquire land.


Well, that’s not the only meaning of hui. Hui just is “together.” There are honest huis; of course, there are. You know, eighty percent of the huis in that period would have been just business.




But the edge that power gave to business is what the book is really about.


Yeah; there are a lot of people who do feel that they were made out to be money-grubbing, advantage-taking, you know, arrogant, misusing folks.




Well, this is a free country, with a free press. They are free to write their books.


You never got a serious challenge to Land and Power?


Not factual.


What kind of challenge did you get?


Well, the usual. A big drop-off in invitations. [chuckle]


People didn’t want to be seen with you?


Like that; like that, yeah. I know when I’ve read accounts of what the book presents, there’s always a reference to, This is what happened in the Democratic years.


But you’re suggesting it wasn’t a function of the party. Or the—


Oh, by no means.


or the belief.


By no means.


Its just they were the ones who were in power at the time.


Yeah. As we way in the introduction, land has always been power in Hawai‘i. Go back to the ancient times, the chiefs. The first things they did when they won a war, redistribute the land. And then you know, the Great Mahele, and all that followed that, and the missionaries coming to do good and doing well, and then the Big Five. Land has always been power, and it always will be. As Mark Twain said, you know, Invest in land, they’re not making anymore of it. Land is prestige, land is power; and therefore, land is politics.


Gavan Daws, in the introduction to his latest work, writes, “It takes a great deal of history to make a little literature,” which he quotes from Henry James. And, he says, he starts with history first.


One of the books you wrote was about Father Damien.




And I think I’ve heard you say in the past that he was an ordinary man who made some moral decisions right every time, again and again. Does that mean you don’t think he was a saint?


Yeah. Again, doing Holy Man was interesting, because I’m not a Christian. I’m not a practicing Christian, and I’m by definition not a Catholic. And I’m no more than morally average. So what would I be doing, writing a biography of a man who I came to believe is a saint? And my answer to that is simply write the best book I could. You know. But time and time again he was a really ordinary guy. He wasn’t real smart; he certainly wasn’t sophisticated. He couldn’t write very well, he wasn’t cultured. He wasn’t sensible. He didn’t—


Why do you say he wasn’t sensible?


Well, look what he did with his life. He could have risen in the church.




He could have been the Bishop in Honolulu. But look what he did. Time and time again, he does things that nobody else is prepared to do, at the risk of his physical life, in the interest of what he always called the imitation of Christ. That’s what he did. And if he isn’t a saint—I’m not an authority on the Vatican’s procedures, but if that isn’t a saint, and to die of the disease that he was looking after by me, that qualifies him, and it’s a delight to me to see that the canonization of Damien is further along than it’s ever been. And there’s quite a possibility that he will be canonized. So as I said, I just tried to write the best book I could about him. And I read in preparation every biography of Damien that there had been before, and I was amazed to find there were hundreds. He’s a world figure; he really is.


Why did you decide to write another one?


Well, again, one of my stories. All my books start in absolute ignorance; I’ve got no idea what’s gonna happen. And that one happened because of the Damien statue that stands outside the Legislature. They had a competition for that statue, and there were six finalists, and they had models of all those six in the public library. And I went and looked at them. And they didn’t look like Damien particularly, they didn’t feel like him; they could be anybody. Just as the biographies were standard, plaster biographies of a saint; they weren’t books about a person. But the last statue was the one that was chosen, astonishingly, which is Marisol’s, which is quite frightening in a kind of a way. I mean, here’s this diseased face and this black, boxy body. And I thought, my goodness. So I began to read about him. And that’s when I started reading the biographies; and none of them seemed to me to be about a human being. So at that point, for the first time in Hawai‘i’s history, the governor was Catholic, John Burns; the Speaker of the House was Catholic, Elmer Cravalho; the Chairman of the Senate was Catholic, John Hulten; and that’s when Damien was chosen to be the second great man of Hawai‘i. And I thought the second great man of Hawai‘i was worth a book. And that was the start of that. So again, it’s thirty-five years in print, now in six languages. Including Korean.


Does that give me an idea of how you’ve chosen to write the fourteen books you’ve written?


Yeah. It’s ignorance and curiosity. Another book I did—half my books have been about things other than Hawai‘i. Another book

is called Prisoners of the Japanese, and it’s about allied POWs taken by the Japanese in World War II. And that was a horrifying book to do; just dreadful. But that started—I was in a bar in Waikiki, where I sometimes am, and down the bar was a guy talking about being a prisoner of the Japanese. And what he was saying was unbelievable to me; I just couldn’t believe it. So I went down and talked to him. And he talked, and I talked with him for a long time. And he introduced me to others, and others, and others, and others, and you know, ten years later and couple of hundred interviews later on four continents and about two thousand cubic feet of archival material, you know, there’s a book. So they all start like that.


Seems like two you’ve mentioned started over alcohol.


[chuckle] I said I was mostly Irish.


[chuckle] You’ve been on bestseller lists, and you’re an academic whose books have been reviewed by the New York Times, which doesn’t happen to most academics, because they like to point that out. Would you talk about that a bit? You’ve drawn the attention of major reviewers and major audiences and readerships.



I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968. And you used the word academic about me; I am a recovering academic. Put it that way. I never wanted to write like an academic.


And you didn’t.


No; and for cause. Because bless them; for all their virtues, most academics do not write to be read. They write to demonstrate that they know something. That’s a very different thing. And they write for other academics.


Does that mean other academics might consider your work lighter than others, because it is, quote, commercial?


They’re welcome to. Perfectly welcome to. But I don’t see any necessary contradiction between writing responsibly and readably.


You received the first ever Regents Medal for excellence in teaching at the University of Hawai‘i. I know, because I was around at the time that students lined up for your classes; your classes got filled really quickly. What do you think it was about your teaching that drew them?


Well, back off a little bit. I taught in Varsity Theater in Mo‘ili‘ili, which has just been torn down, you know. And what I taught was a compulsory course; it was freshman history. And so that course was given the lowest person on the totem pole, ‘cause nobody wanted to do it.


But there were several sections of it.


True. But I got the heaviest load, because I was the lowest. And I was immigrant labor, and so I could be given the lowest paid, worst job. And teaching freshpersons in Varsity Theater, compulsory course, was the worst job. So I taught four sections of eight hundred and fifty-two freshpersons at a time. That’s thirty-four hundred a semester; that’s sixty-eight hundred a year, with summer school and night school.


And I taught that for ten years; so that’s more than seventy thousand students. And that’s how I got the first medal; it was for quantity, doing volume.


You don’t think it was for doing an ordinary job extraordinarily well?


Well, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know of a teacher that says that. But yeah; again, it goes back to the same thing as writing. When you’re talking to a certain kind of audience, know who you’re talking to and talk to them. Don’t talk to them the way you would talk to a different kind of audience. And above all, don’t talk to yourself. When you’re in front of eight hundred and fifty people with a microphone, talk to who’s out there. I think that had something to do with it.


Gavan Daws does everything he can to know his subject and his audience. I’d like to thank you and author and historian Gavan Daws for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Thank you also for your logging on to www.pbshawaii.org and sending us your comments and suggestions. We enjoy hearing from you. Please join me again next week for another Long Story Short. A hui hou kakou!


I’m really interested in history, and I’ve read all the quotes that I know you’re familiar with, as far as history. George Bernard Shaw; We learn from history that we learn nothing from history. Kurt Vonnegut; History is merely a lot of surprises, it can only prepare us to be surprised, yet again. And you’ve dedicated much of your life to history.


George Santayana, the philosopher; Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it. I kinda believe that. But I also believe that there’s no such thing as definitive history. No matter how complete something is, it’s not definitive; it changes with perception, with time. And that’s why it needs to be rewritten all the time.


Al Harrington


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 20, 2012


A Cup Half Full


From humble beginnings in American Samoa to a hardscrabble life in Hawaii, Al Harrington has always been able to find the positives in life: a loving, supportive family; teachers who taught the value of a good education; and friends who helped him survive when the going got tough.


Download: Al Harrington, A Cup Half Full Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Nov. 27, 2012


A Life of Gratitude


From humble beginnings in American Samoa to a hardscrabble life in Hawaii, Al Harrington has always been able to find the positives in life: a loving, supportive family; teachers who taught the value of a good education; and friends who helped him survive when the going got tough.


Download: Al Harrington, A Life of Gratitude Transcript




Part 1: A Cup Half Full


I think you see things as blessings, when other people would say, you know, My life just got torn up.


Yeah, for me, I like the cup being half full, rather than being half empty. And I’m not sure where that came from, but it’s always been a kind of a natural thing for me.


And you’ve needed that cup as you’ve gone along, haven’t you?


Right. [CHUCKLE]


A cup half full; we’ve all heard the expression, but how many of us really live on that side of life, the positive side, making the best of everything that’s thrown at us? That is the life of Al Harrington.


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


Aloha; I’m Leslie Wilcox. Have you ever taken stock of the people who have influenced your life? Your teachers, friends, loved ones, all those who have helped make you who you are, and in some instances, maybe even saved your life. Al Harrington, star athlete, teacher, actor, entertainer, started his life as Al Taa. He counts his blessings every day, and he never forgets the people who have filled his cup of life.


Where were you born?


I was actually born in American Samoa, in a little town called Malaeimi, which was next to the Mormon town called Mapusaga, which is about fifteen from Pago Pago, the major harbor.


And your family, at some point, established the Mormon Church in American Samoa.


Yes. My great-grandfather was amongst the first big chiefs, a chief called Suapaia. That was the title name. And he was amongst the first to be converted into the Mormon Church. But the conversion was interesting, because what happened is, one of his sons, Uncle Salu, had fallen off a horse and had wounded his leg rather seriously. And so, like us Polynesians do, we had the spiritual people come and bless him, and do the herbs, and all of these things. But he still never healed. So, on a Sunday afternoon, the family gathered together at my grandfather’s house. And just a week before, they had brought the Catholic priest in, ‘cause we were all Catholics at that particular time. And he was supposed to have blessed my uncle, but the wound did not heal. He still walked with a limp. And on that particular Sunday that I just mentioned, two Mormon missionaries—[CHUCKLE] and this is interesting. Because in the old days, the Mormon missionaries were called kaupoi. Cowboys.




Because they all came with jeans and boots, and a lot of them wore these cowboy clothes. So, one of my uncles said to my grandfather, he says, Let’s call the local kaupoi, let’s call the kaupois come in. [CHUCKLE]   And I’m saying it just like the Samoan accent, kaupoi. It’s not cowboy. [CHUCKLE] So, they bring the two missionaries in, and they asked them, Okay, we want you to bless our uncle … my son, my grandfather. [CHUCKLE] And so, they do that. And a week later, he’s walking normally. So, being the kind of spiritual, simple faith people we are, we says, Well, maybe this more right than the other one. [CHUCKLE] So, we convert.


So, the transformation.


So much of Hawaii’s culture comes from people who emigrated here from other lands. Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Samoans; even Hawaiians came from elsewhere. Many moved to Hawaii to find work, to follow family, to reap the rewards of a mid-Pacific paradise. And some, like the family of young Al Taa, later Al Harrington, were compelled to move because of their faith and a hunger for higher education.


So, we become converted in Western Samoa. And then the Mormon leadership was preaching to us as we get converted. We should leave Samoa and go get educated. Get education either in America, or Hawaii, and come back and build Samoa. So that’s how we get oriented towards coming to Hawaii. So that’s why in about 1950, in the 50s, late 40s and late 50s, there’s a grand migration of Samoans coming from Samoa to Hawaii. Part of it is the Mormon conversion.


And your mother was part of that.


And my mother was part of that. What happened was, my—[CHUCKLE] this is a great social drama that takes place. ‘Cause my father at that time was supposed to have been one of the great athletes of American Samoa.

Well, knowing you, I believe that.


Right. Well, there’s a line, there’s a line there. And, amongst the first to graduate from the Marist Brothers School, which is a Catholic high school. It was supposed to be one of the finest high schools in the Pacific. So he graduates, and he courts my mother, marries her, and then has me and my sister, and another brother that dies. So it’s me and my sister. So, after the marriage and settlement and so on, he’s supposed to come to Hawaii, and then work here, and then send for us. So, that’s what happens. That’s how we get to Hawaii. He comes here, and he works. But the human drama is such that when he gets here, he falls in love with this wonderful Hawaiian woman.


Oh …


The Kalama clan. See, part of the Kalama’s, Leimomi, and she was gorgeous, beautiful Hawaiian lady. And then, he ends up marrying her, and then my mom [CHUCKLE] comes here and finds out that, you know, this has happened. This is the human drama. And my mom, being the warrior woman that she is, goes to work as a nurse’s aide. Because in Samoa, she worked as a nurse’s aide on the Island of Tutuila. And she earns enough money to send for me and my aunt, Auntie Tino. But she and I come on the Mariposa to Hawaii.


And your sister is with your grandmother?


And my sister is with Grandma. Mele is with Grandma. So we come here, and then we begin our life here. And Mom is working as a nurse, and Auntie Tino goes to high school, evolves as a person, and then I go to Liholiho School in Kaimuki. ‘Cause we lived on 10th Avenue.


And you actually lived in lots of different places as you grew up.




Why is that? All over the island, it seems.


[CHUCKLE] I don’t know, but I’m not sure for all of the sociological reasons, but I only knew that, okay, Mom would say, You go stay with Dad for a while, and then I would go and stay with my dad and my stepmother, Leimomi. I was very blessed. I was very blessed with people like my stepmother Leimomi, ‘cause she was very educated. Kam School graduate, had scholarships, potential scholarships to go to University of Michigan and other places. But she met my dad, and she settled down. But she was very education-conscious, conscious of speaking proper English, and et cetera, et cetera.


Your life sure changed a lot quickly.




I mean, lots of movement. I think you see things as blessings, when other people would say, My life just got torn up.


Yeah, for me, I like the cup being half full, rather than being half empty. And I’m not sure where that came from, but it’s always been kind of a natural thing for me.


And you’ve needed that cup as you’ve gone along, haven’t you?


Right. [CHUCKLE]


To go through those transitions.


Right. So, this is what happens. I’m going between the two families, and I’m acquiring great knowledge in the Hawaiian community with Leimomi and my dad. And then, my mom now marries Harrington, who was here as a soldier. And Mom meets him on the beach, which I remember clearly, ‘cause we were all on the beach having family picnic.


And what happened?


And then, this Haole guy was out Ala Moana Beach by the reef, and he couldn’t get on his surfboard. So, I was about three years old and I’m watching this guy, we’re all watching this guy. So my mom swims out there, and helps the guy get on the board, and then invites him to come have dinner with us. So he never leaves. [CHUCKLES] So, they end up getting married, and then he becomes my stepfather. Milburn R. Harrington, who came from Iron Mountain, Michigan, up there in the upper peninsula. And through him, I acquired even greater insight in the use of the English language.


Yeah; at what point did you learn to speak English?


This is happening. This is happening as I’m going—


You’re a toddler.




You’re young.


Yeah, I’m moving back and forth. And part of it was just the fact that my dad was there, and he spoke very properly. I don’t really remember exactly when this took place, but he said to me at one time, he says, If you go Downtown, you see all the guys who work in the office, they all speak English. All the guys that work on the street, they speak Pidgin. So if you like work on the street or you like work in the office, you better learn how to speak English. So that kinda stuck. You know, that kinda stuck. So I tried, you know, I tried.


Did you speak Standard English in the home?


Yeah. Except with my mother, when she got mad at me, she swore at me in Samoan.


So, Al Harrington’s life in Hawaii as Al Taa had a tumultuous beginning—a broken family, constantly being shuffled from one home to another. And yet, he always saw the positive side of what other people would have seen as an upheaval. But Al Taa’s real journey had not yet begun. That journey started with Mrs. Abreu.


In first grade, I had Mrs. Abreu, this great Portuguese-Hawaiian woman. Big buggah. [CHUCKLE] She sit down on the chair, hang over, some stuff. But all of us small kids, we were afraid of her, ‘cause she was huge. And if you don’t get things right, man, she slap you, Mrs. Abreu. So, I figured out that if I could read well, she going like me. So, Dick and Jane books, yeah? So, I would take the Dick and Jane books, and I learned how to read before the reading lesson took place. You know, either night before, I would look at the books.


And did your parents tell you, you gotta study, you gotta work hard?






No, no. They didn’t. That doesn’t come in. It comes in more in the relationship with the teachers. Because I wanted the teachers to like me, you know.


So that you would have a pleasant time in class.




Or, so that they would respect you?


Well, part of it was respect, part of it was just needing some affection, needing some care, somebody to like you. Mrs. Abreu probably was the first affection that I’m getting outside of the family. You know, biological parents and non-biological parents. I mean, mother and father. So, she’s this big Hawaiian lady, great big smile. When she looked at you and smiled, you know, her whole face smiled. Made you feel, you know, like, Hoo, I’m good. [CHUCKLE]


So, you wanted to please Mrs. Abreu.


So, I wanted to please Mrs. Abreu. And so, that’s the beginning of my move towards academic excellence. It wasn’t just because I was interested, but I wanted to please her.


All Al Taa, later Al Harrington, was trying to do was to make Mrs. Abreu happy. But, Mrs. Abreu’s class was the beginning of Al’s journey into educational excellence. And he did so well, other teachers and school principals took notice.


So, I go to Laie, I’m living with my father and Leimomi. My mother. I feel such great affection for that lady. [CHUCKLE] So, we moved to Laie. And then, I go to Laie School, and the teacher there, Mrs. Enos, is another one. I remember teachers, ‘cause they were all good to me. So, Mrs. Enos says to the principal, I think his name was Kanahele. He was a Kanahele. And she says to him, Maybe we better move him up to the next, because we might hold him back at this grade. So, I go to the fifth grade. And that’s how I skipped the fifth grade, because again how important teachers are to kids. Because when I think about the teachers that were good to me, that’s what gave me a leg up. Gave me a leg up in dealing with the social challenges and economic challenges to come later. And then later on, we move from Manoa Housing to Halawa Housing, and then I go to Aiea School. At Aiea School, there’s the principal, Griswold, Charles Griswold. These names stick in my head. And, Charles Griswold sees four of us that are going to Aiea School, Aiea Intermediate, and he says, Four of you should go and take the test to go to Kamehameha. Because, he sees some potential in us. Again, a teacher’s vision, right? A teacher looking at a student and saying, Okay, there’s potential here, let’s see what we can do with it. So, the four of us go to take the test at Kamehameha, we all pass the test, and we’re all getting ready to go to Kamehameha School. Except, Kent was the president, Colonel Kent of Kamehameha, and they write me a letter saying that, you know, Sorry, the other three can come, but you cannot come because you’re not Hawaiian. Now, living in Halawa Housing, you’re running around with all these bla-la’s, all these bruddahs. We’re doing all kind crazy kind stuff together, and you don’t know if you’re Samoan, Portagee, Filipino, or whatever. We’re just running together.


So, all of a sudden, you became aware of this distinction between you.


Yeah; exactly.


How did that feel?


Sore. [CHUCKLE] Sore; yeah.


So, they started going to Kamehameha.




And there you were.


Of the three guys, Danny Fuller was one of the great football players who eventually goes to Purdue, University of Purdue. But Griswold says to my dad, since I didn’t get into Kam School, You should go take the test to go to Punahou. And I said to him, I no like go to that Haole school. And my dad says, Well, maybe you gotta go over there and learn how the Haoles do stuff.


Now, which dad is this? Your stepdad?


This is my adopted father; my stepdad.


So your Haole stepdad is saying, You should check out the Haole school?


Yeah. Because he’s a policeman at Wahiawa precinct, but we live in Halawa Housing.


Because he had so many kids?


[CHUCKLE] Yeah. Because now, there’s nine kids, you see? Now, there’s nine kids and I’m the oldest of the ten. So he says to me, Maybe you ought to go. And I told him, I no like go that school. It happened then, that the captain of his precinct in Wahiawa was Curtis Iaukea’s father.


Oh, Curtis Iaukea was a Punahou grad.


Yeah, Punahou grad.


The wrestler.


Yeah. My dad goes to Curtis Iaukea and tells him about what happened.


Did your dad take offense that you said you didn’t want to go to a Haole school?






My dad didn’t, because he had a sense of what Hawaii’s … that’s one thing about my dad, my stepfather, or adopted father was, he had big picture vision of things. And so, he understood what the situation was. So, he goes to Curtis Iaukea, his captain, and he tells the captain about that I want him to go to Punahou. So the captain comes to my house in Halawa Housing. And Curtis Iaukea’s father was big. I mean, when he walked in the door, he closed the light. No more light come through the door, ‘cause he’s big. As a matter of fact, the Iaukeas were consultants to Kamehameha. I mean, that family goes back to Kamehameha the Great. So, Mr. Iaukea walks in the door, and I look. I’m sitting at the table. [CHUCKLE] I said, I hope this buggah no give me lickin’. [CHUCKLE] So he walks in the door, he says, Eh, your father said you no like take the test to go Punahou. I says, No, I no like go the Haole school. And he looked at me; he says, I went Punahou. And then he looked at me and he says, So you better go take the test. So then, I said, Okay. [CHUCKLE]


So, Al was fulfilling his family’s calling to go to Hawaii to get educated. Who could ever have dreamed that this young man, the future overachiever, Al Harrington, would have the opportunity to enter one of the most prestigious learning institutes in the Pacific. As it turns out, there were many who believed in the young Al Taa.


So, there; I go to take the test at Punahou, I pass the test, and then I become influenced by some other people that eventually makes us see a bigger picture again. Amongst them, one was Dr. Fox. Dr. Fox, who was president of Punahou School. There were us Hawaiian boys that went, people from Hawaii that went to Punahou, and he kinda took us under his wing.


You’d already distinguished yourself athletically as well?


Yeah, I began to. [CHUCKLE]   ‘Cause in Halawa Housing, we’re not far from Japanese Camp, plantation camp and Borrinke Camp, Filipino Camp. And so, we all used to play baseball up in Aiea Community Center. But the best organization of baseball, and any sports, was the Japanese community. So, we were then playing in Barefoot League, playing baseball. And they were all very well organized. So, I began to play baseball.


No football?


Then, I started also playing Barefoot League. And I was only thirteen.


But people noticed.


Yeah. ‘Cause I had big feet. [CHUCKLE] But some kids that came out of there were already playing in high school. And it happened that Mr. Iaukea had heard that I had been playing in the athletic sports in these various leagues, local leagues. And so, that’s why when I went to take the test at Punahou, he kind of pushed the fact that I was also a good athlete. And at this particular time, you know, so many things happened. ‘Cause Dr. Fox was president of Punahou School, but he had not won a ILH championship in football. In baseball, he had, but in football he didn’t. But he loved football, so that’s why at this particular time, he was trying to recruit whatever Polynesians or whatever athletes he could get to play football. So, that opened the door for me also, besides the fact that I passed the test.


I read accounts of your playing football at Punahou at that time, because you were admitted.


M-hm; yeah.


As Al Taa, that was your name then.




And I know the longtime sports columnist, Bill Kwon called you up.




A man among boys, because they would pile on you, and if they managed to stop you, they’d untwist themselves from on top of you, and then you’d just get up and say, Eh, good going, good tackle. But you were hard to stop.


Well, I wasn’t the only one. Had others, like Danny Fuller, and the Abreus. There were some Abreus that were playing, and Yonamine, Wally Yonamine was before us.


What was your position?


I was a running back. I was a running back. But yes, it was nice of him to say that, but had other guys that were great too. So, that took us to Punahou.


And what about your concerns about no like going to the Haole school?


Again, you know what it is? Teachers. Having good teachers at Punahou. I remember these guys. Brogan taught me English. And this guy taught me Shakespeare. And he starts to speak in, this poetic sense of the English language. And I took to that. I said, Wow. You know. Rich; it was Mr. Rich who taught me Western Civ, and the fall of the Roman Empire, and all this kind stuff about the Mongols coming down, but made it colorful, made it real. And then, I had others who taught me economics and stuff like that. That’s what became intriguing, is the teachers that were there. There was Brogan. Kiefer was another one. And then Iams, James Iams was the athletic director.


How about social life? Because you’re a kid from Halawa Housing.




Son of a police officer.




Adopted son.




Or, he was soon to adopt you, but you were step kid to a police officer.


Never knew what Haole people were. ‘Cause us guys, we were out in the districts out in Halawa Housing. Everybody is one color, or we’re all mixed. And to be there, and then all of a sudden to see, wow. The management people were mostly Haoles at that time. Some Japanese, but mostly Haoles. So, what my father had told me, you know, began to ring true, you know, that all these guys that speak good English are the ones that are in management. Everybody else is doing the manual work. So then, I moved more in that direction, because of teachers, because of my dad.


What about friends? How about making friends there?


Oh, yeah. I made some great friends.


And when you were in sports, it is a family that welcomes you, right?




So you did a lot of stuff with fellow football players.


Yeah; yeah. The Espindas, AK Espinda and their family, they just kinda took me in. Charlie Henderson, whose father was president of Castle & Cooke, and you know, I would sleep at his house. And they had maids. And I’m looking, and then I remember this is really interesting. I went to this party at Lou Ann Dunkley’s house. And I walked in the house from the kitchen, and right as you get out of the kitchen you see this big freezer. The same kind freezer I saw at the Pake store down in Aiea. I look at the freezer, I said, Holy cow, these guys get one store in the house. So all of that kinda stuff then impacts me as to, Okay, how come they got that, and we no more that?


And what were your friends at Halawa Housing saying about, how come you never hang with us anymore?


Right. So my mother, the warrior woman that she is, I started to get famous as a football player, so the headlines were, Taa did this, and Taa did that. My mother looks at that, and she says, How come Taa, it’s Taa? He no support you. She said, Your daddy support you, Harrington support. [CHUCKLE] So, she goes to the courts and has my name changed. Changes my name to Harrington. So, I come home the summer of my my freshman year, I’m going into sophomore, and she says to me, Okay, that’s your dad now, your name is Harrington. I said, Oh, okay.


We all have difficult times in our lives, and when those difficulties do occur, we can choose to hide from the problems, or we can embrace them and learn from them. Al Taa, now Al Harrington, chose the latter. He chose the cup half full. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


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


People who know you well, they use a couple of adjectives to describe you most. And I think it goes without saying, you know, they feel like you’ve got a good brain and great athletic ability, but they say what really sets you apart is your hard work and your tenacity.




Where does that come from?


That comes from my mom. It’s the warrior spirit of my mother. My mother, when she make up her mind that this is going to get done, it gets done. And you know, I believe that if I don’t do as well as you do, I can either out-work you, or I’m gonna out-hustle you.


Part 2: A Life of Gratitude


I’m basically born in a grass shack.




Literally. In this little village of Malaeimi. And then I get a shot to come here … go to school, and then I go back to Samoa on a mission, and I see these kids carrying bundles of bananas and stuff to cook, and watching them. And I look at that, and I said, By the grace of God, that could be me. That could be me. But we were given a shot at it. We were given a shot at it.


And sometimes, all you need is that one shot. Al Harrington took that one shot…that opportunity, along with the many more that followed…and turned them into a life filled with teachers, mentors, academic, athletic and entertainment success, family, and gratitude.


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


Aloha mai kakou. If you mention the name Al Harrington to ten people, you might get ten responses as to how they know of him. Some may remember him as a star football player at Punahou in the 1950s…some may recall that he played the role of Ben Kokua in the original Hawaii Five-O. And others may fondly remember his cabaret show during the heydays of Waikiki. For every one of those roles that Al has played in his life, he can recall the person or persons responsible for his success…and the moments when these people changed his life. A life filled with gratitude.


So, your mom had said, You’re now Harrington. And you said?


Right. Oh, okay.


Just like that?


Just like that. Okay. Because … of his goodness. My dad, the Irishman that adopted me was such a big picture guy, and he knew—I mean, here I am, I’m raising his kids, all these hapa kids in the family. And I’m helping him as much as I can as a boy. But he was good to me.


Tell me how that went over with the Halawa Housing kids.




Because you went to the Haole school—




—and now you have a Haole name.


Right. So, I go to school the next—the fall of my sophomore year. And they’re saying, Al Harrington is now the running back at Punahou. And everybody in the town is saying, Who—wow, they got one new Haole kid at Punahou. And then one time when the name … the kids in Halawa Housing began to realize, ho, my name Harrington now, one of those kids came up to me when I got off the bus and he hit me like this. He said, So what, you like be Haole? Come over here, I teach you how to be Haole.


[CHUCKLE] What did you do? What did you say?


So, I had to fight my way. And then of course, we had a few bumps and grinds here, and then after that, then they accepted it. [CHUCKLE]


And how did you feel about it?


Well, I felt good about it. The real truth is I felt good about it. Because I really loved him. He never underestimated my intelligence. He always thought that whatever I wanted to do, you could do.


So the Samoan boy formerly known as Al Ta‘a was now Al Harrington. The boy who was born in a grass shack was enrolled in Punahou. With the help of so many, Al’s life was changing…his potential for success was rising. And then along came…Stanford University.


Charlie Henderson was—they lived in Diamond Head. I mean, ho, that house. It’s right next door to the Dillingham, what you call, estate. So, I used to go there and spend the weekend there. Charlie Henderson’s father, Mr. Henderson, was really good to us guys that came and spent the night. I remember sitting down having breakfast, and Charlie is showering, and the old man would come and sit down and have breakfast with me. And he would talk to me, you know. Talk to me, in his pajamas. The buggah would come and sit down, talk to me and tell me [SNIFF] ask me about what—how or day is, and how we’re doing in school, and all that kinda stuff. So that makes an impression.


Yeah, you mattered.


Yeah. Exactly. And I don’t have to, ‘cause he could buy me. The guy had enough money, he could buy my—the Halawa Housing, he could buy that building. But here he is, he sits down and talks to me and he says, Well, you guys gotta get ready for college, Charlie’s gonna go to Dartmouth. And then when it comes time for me to go to college … it’s—becomes a part of it, because the group of guys that I’m running with, running around with, they’re all oriented towards that already.




In Halawa Housing, I would have gone to Waipahu School, and I would have said to myself, Oh, I going be one mechanic, I going to do something else. But the orientation is different at Punahou.


So, you believed you were going to college, but you didn’t know how you were—




—get there.


It’s funny, ‘cause I came home one day and I said to my mom, I said, Ma, dakine, Mr. Iams and the athletic director, they said that I should go college. And my mom …




What is that? ‘Cause … she’s just from Samoa. She said … I said, That’s a school after high school. So we get ready for it. And then, my dad, he got the big picture, and he says, That’s good, let’s get ourselves ready for that.


I suspect Mr. Henderson admired you, because of what—




—you could do on the football field.


Part of it was that, because Punahou had not taken the championship in twenty-nine years, and here his son is on the team that was on the verge of making it [SNIFF], of doing it.


And it was an amazing group of guys, and—


Oh, yeah.


And you were the standout, I would say.


Well there was a lot of standouts, you know, Brooks was on that team.


Oh, that’s true; that’s true. Okay; so it was a fabulous team.


Yeah. Yeah. Curtis Iaukea was on that team, the Ane brothers was on that team.


Wow; okay.


Yeah. Then you had AK Espinda, who eventually goes to Purdue, and all of these kids what you call, Wendell goes to Cal, University of California. All of us, from there, we go on to bigger and better things, and Punahou was good to us. And then, I find myself at Stanford.


Stanford came calling.


Can you believe it?


Did you have other choices too, besides—




—Stanford? What’d you have?


Well I sound like I’m bragging. But I could have gone to Ivy League schools like Princeton, Harvard, Yale. So they sent me up there to go visit these schools. And they sent me up there when it was so cold … froze my okole off up on the East Coast. So immediately, I said, I no like go school over here. So then, Dr. Fox comes in, and he suggests that I go to Stanford. And I was—at this particular time, I had become fairly close to Dr. Fox, because he was [SNIFF] there as a counselor and all—helping all of us as members of the team. So then, that move me in that direction.


Most times, our successes define our lives. When we conquer, overcome, adapt, and succeed, we usually take a step up. But those rare occasions when we don’t succeed can also be defining moments…forcing us to consider other options, to seek a totally different direction.


Tell me about playing football at Stanford. What was that like?


Oh, my … [SIGH] … challenging. Very challenging. I found that I became much more comfortable in the classroom, and I began to get a little bit tired of football.


Why? What happened on the football field?


I wasn’t as successful as I wanted to be, number one. Number two, I didn’t know how to handle the coaches. I was the darkest guy on the football team.


Did you feel counted out by them? Did you feel minimized?


See, if I say yes, then it sounds like I’m complaining. If I say no … then it’s not the true picture, completely true picture.


So they did minimize you?


From my point of view … from my point of view, there was a little bit of that.


Why? Do you think they didn’t think you were smart?


I’m not really sure. I think a lot of it, too, was my own insecurity. There were some insecurity. As much as you say to yourself that you’re secure in the situation, but there are some subtleties of things there. So, I became very much comfortable doing what I was—I got more success in the classroom.


Really? Wow.   And yet, it seemed like sports was such a—




—natural for you, all along.


Yeah, it was. There was a naturalness. But …


Did you not get opportunities?


Yeah. I think we got the opportunities. It’s hard to put your finger on it, because the human being is full of all kinds of inconsistencies.




And so, if—when I come to that part of my life, there’s still some parts of that experience that I have not articulated.




I’m still in the process of articulating it. Yeah.


When you left Stanford—




—I understand the Baltimore Colts—




—wanted you, and you could have played with the great—




—Johnny Unitas.


Well, I wasn’t that high in the draft. So there was great possibilities that I could have gone there and not make it. So, but the possibility of going on a mission … I could make it. [CHUCKLE]




I could—yeah. [CHUCKLE]


You could work for free for the church.


[CHUCKLE] Right. So that’s basically—and it made my mother happy.




When my mom said to me, when she started to cry on the phone, and saying, Oh, we’ve been missionaries all ov—for years, and so be—make me so happy if you went on a mission.


And you had a BA in history from—




—Stanford University.


That’s right.


So, you were ready to go.


I was ready to—I was ready to go do something. I was also what you call, accepted to various law—to a number of law schools. So, I could have gone to law school also, which I did when I came back.


Oh, how long did you go?


I went for one semester, and then, my dad had a business and he went broke in the business. He had gotten into a business with this guy, another cop, and then it was cracking rocks, the rocks that they have up on St. Louis Heights. And then they crack the rocks so they can set the foundation for the houses up there. So, he got into this business, and then the guy ran off with the money. So, he was about to lose the house that we lived on St. Louis Heights. So, then he called me, and then I said, Okay. So, I left law school, and … I—


Did you like it? Did you really miss having to leave?


Yeah; I did. ‘Cause the semester exams had come out, and I was not far off from the top. Not, you know—above the middle of my class. So I left. But I always thought that I was gonna come back. But I—


And what; did you crack rocks, or what did you do?


[CHUCKLE] Well, I got out—I got out there, got off the bus going back to my apartment. I ran into Ellis Brooks Chevrolet in Mabanis [PHONETIC] Boulevard. And there was sign says, Salesman Wanted. So I get off the bus, I go into the car dealer—Gere [PHONETIC] Chevrolet, Gere Chevrolet. I walked into the Gere Chevrolet, and I filled out the application, and the guy comes out and he looks at the application. He says, Okay, we’ll call you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.


Oh, so you were thinking, I’ve gotta make money for my dad. That’s what I—




That’s what my job now is.


Yeah; that’s right. M-hm.


Wherever I am, I’m making money.


Yeah; exactly right. [SNIFF] So, I filled the application out, and the guy says, We’ll call you. And … of course, Martin Luther King still hasn’t done his thing, right? So, this still counts. So, I’m walking out of the Gere Chevrolet, and in walks this Chinese guy. His name’s Ray Lim, and he comes in the door. And he looks at me, he says, Eh, brah.




[CHUCKLE] You’re Al Harrington. I said, Yeah, yeah.




You was at Stanford, right? Yeah. Where you going? What you doing here? I says, I was just applying for the job over there. And the guy says, And what? The guys he going—they going call me. He grabbed me by the hand, takes me right back into office, and he says to this guy—the guy’s name was Grant. He said, Grant, this is Al Harrington, he played football at Stanford. You remember, up there, Palo Alto. And he says, Yeah, I know the school. He says, Well, you gotta give this guy a job. And he says [INDISTINCT] the manager looks up and he says, Okay, we can start him next week. One person.


One; oh.


One. Well, that changed. Ray Lim becomes the guy that saved my family. So, I go in there, and I start selling cars that week, and two years time, we get the man out of hock, the old man out of hock.


When you listen to Al Harrington talk about all the different lives he’s lived…student, athlete, car salesman…it’s like watching the film, Forrest Gump, and the many coincidental lives that Forrest lead. Every turn that Al’s life took was by the good graces of people willing to lend a hand, or a good word. And being in the right place at the right time.


This is when I meet Heather, my first wife. I meet her, and then we get married. And then, the movie Hawaii is being filmed. Okay. They asked me to come home—to come home to be a part of the casting crew. To help in the cast, the cast situation. So that’s what brings me home. I come home with—I get married, and I come home with Heather. And we do the movie, and we make good money. And Heather is pregnant. So, I gotta make up my mind whether the movie’s over, and whether—I gotta make up my mind whether I’m gonna go back to Hollywood and play the game in Hollywood, and read for parts, et cetera, et cetera, or go back to law school.


Yeah, because now, you have these valuable contacts—




—in the movie business.


Right. Exactly. And so, I’m down at the shopping center, and I run into Dr. Fox. And Dr. Fox says, Eh, Al, good to see you. He says, What are you doing? I says, I just got through with the movie Hawaii, and I’m thinking of going to Hollywood. He says, Oh, no, no, no, no, this is what you’re going to do now. You’re gonna go back to the university and get your teacher’s credentials, and you’re gonna come and teach at Punahou. And so the life changes again. And so, I go to Punahou—I mean, I do exactly that. I get my credentials, and then I start teaching at Punahou. And I love it. Absolutely loved the process. James Scott, who is president of Punahou School, was one of my students. Hoo, make me feel good.


Did he act up on you?






Because he was a good student. I mean, he was not only a good student, but a good athlete, and a good person.




And then Nainoa Thompson; he was one of my students. When I think about those kids, I said, Man, I just hope that one day in that classroom that I said, Maybe one thing that might have changed their mind.


Now Al Harrington is teaching and coaching future leaders of Hawaii…giving them direction and knowledge. But this striking Polynesian man was not finished with life. Where most of us would have been content to accomplish all that Al had done so far, Al was still reaching.


And while doing the teaching and the coaching, I’m doing motivational speaking for various schools. And in the audience in one of those speeches that I do, is the casting director for Hawaii Five-O. Ted Thorpe was his name. Ted Thorpe. And he comes up to me after the speech and he says to me … [SNIFF] … I have a script that you might be interested in. And he gives me the script, he says, Read the script over and call me. So I take the script, read it. And … it’s bad guy, but it takes a lot—I mean, it takes good—bad guys to make the good guys look good. So, I get that part. And then, I’m in the door of Hawaii Five-O. And meanwhile—or I’m teaching and loving it, and then pretty soon they give me a part every year, every season, for four seasons.


Different bad guys.


Yeah; different bad guys. So and that then begins to move the other way. And then, I get involved in doing luaus, because I wanted to make more money. And the lady that opens doors for me in the entertainment field is Mrs. Flanders, Josephine Flanders. Remember her?


Who taught you ballet.


That’s right.


What were you doing, learning ballet?


Because when we were playing football, I had read in a book about this guy named O’Shesky at the University of California who took ballet and as a result, strengthened his legs. And then, I meet Mrs. Flanders, Josephine Flanders, and she loves the idea, because a football player she would never get anybody like that taking lessons. And so, she begins to teach me about the whole idea of drama in school. Josephine comes back when I’m teaching at Punahou, and my kids are born, and I don’t have enough insurance to get ‘em out of the hospital. And then, doctor—Dr. Fox gives us advances in the insurance thing so I could bring the child—get the children out of the hospital. And then, I’m looking for other ways of making money. And so, Josephine is at this particular time, is the entertainment director at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. And she has a luau there twice a day—twice a week. And her head luau person is, Ray Kinney, who, this great, great, kupuna of Hawaii that was able to take on music into all corners of the world. And he’s back home now, he’s retiring, and he’s doing just the luau. And he does a fantastic job. So, she asked me to support him. So I go and I watch him. This where I learned how to handle the visitors. ‘Cause he’s working directly with the visitors, and he’s working with this mana of aloha that is able to touch them. Ray Kinney and Josephine Flanders gave me an opportunity to come into the market. So while I was teaching school, I would do one luau a week.


That’s such a good part of island life.




And some people say it makes us very provincial, because everyone’s afraid to offend each other. But also, when you … you’re gonna run into people again, and again. And in—




—your life, they’ve come back around—




—and around, and it’s been a good thing for you.


Oh, yeah.


They’ve been really helpful to you.


Well, Josephine—


And vice versa.


Josephine she just took a liking. Just like Mrs. Abreu. She just took a liking. And then, I got Mr. Griswold at Aiea School. And then at Punahou, there was Dr. Fox. And all of these people, they come into your life, they touch you, they raise you up, they give you an opportunity to see another side of the situation.


If you’ve ever been up late at night, and turned on a good western, you may have seen a familiar face…Al Harrington, born in Samoa, raised in Hawaii, found success in Hollywood playing Native Americans.


I love cowboy movies. I’ll watch—




—any Western, any time, any place.


Me too.


I’ll watch it ten times.




You show up in the Westerns—




—as an Indian, again an again. And you have the speaking part.




I wonder how that was? And you do a great job. You—


Oh, I mean, the Indians wanted to take me home.


[CHUCKLE] You know, I’m just thinking. Hawaiians wouldn’t like—




—an Indian playing—


Playing Hawaiian.


—a Hawaiian. So, how did the Indians feel about you playing an Indian?


Well, first of all, they didn’t know.


Oh, they had to know.


Well, there was certainly—and there was a part where me and the Filipinos were getting all the Indian parts. And the—




[CHUCKLE] And the Indians were getting mad. ‘Cause some of the Indians that came to try out for the parts, they couldn’t read, because they came from the reservations, and the schools sometimes weren’t as good—


Oh …


—in the reservations. So, they leaned towards us, who could read. So, we began to get the parts. But then, the Indians started to make a little bit of—make noise, so the union passed a law that you—if you’re gonna play Indians, you gotta show what reservation you came from.


That’s a problem for you.


That’s a problem for me.




So … when I did White Fang, when I—


White Fang II.






Yeah. When I did White Fang II, the director wanted me—I mean, after all the readings, yeah? [CHUCKLE] I go for the reading for White Fang II, and it’s like a Quonset hut in Disney—Disneyland—I mean, Disney Studios. [SNIFF] And I walk in there … uku paila Indians.




Every Indian you can think of is sitting there, waiting to get to read.


And they’re going, He’s not an Indian.


No, no, no.




No, no. They thought I was Indian. And so, the whole room goes through the reading. And lo and behold, I’m the last guy that is being chosen. And then in order for me to get the part, we have to go to the Haida—Haida Council, ‘cause the chief is Haida, and ask the Haida Council if I, Al Harrington, could play this role. And they had to give us approval. Probably have to give them a stipend for the movie. [SNIFF] So … we go the Haida Council, myself, the director, and the producer. And the Council comes in, and in the Council … there’s about ten of ‘em, is one guy that looks familiar to me. And I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me. And I find out that he used to come to my show in Waikiki.


Oh …


See, he used to come with his family, and I used to tell Bob them, When my friend the Indian come, just let him come in, take care of them, because he’s my friend.




Yeah. See? So, we are introduced to the chief.


And you’re paying it forward. I can just—




—feel it coming. [CHUCKLE]


We’re introduced to the Council, and the chief gets up and says, Hey … that’s my brother. That’s my brother Al Harrington, he’s from Hawaii. And he says, He can play the part. So there it is. I’m given the role of the chief of the village, because of that thing that happened. So yeah, you don’t know. So much of life is being in the right place at the right time, one person moving in one direction.


But you were willing to take the chance.


Yeah. You gotta be open.


And go on merit.


Go on—be open for the opportunity. Be conscious, be conscious. It’s like … he says, From the time of conception … to the time that you’re born in that nine months, you do nothing. Everything happens for you. Why not let things happen for you also after you’re born? Sometimes, we try to make things happen, and we don’t follow the pattern … that is destined for us to follow.


With angels on his shoulders, Al Harrington has followed his destiny. And through his eyes, we were privileged to get a glimpse of a life filled with gratitude, lessons learned, and valuable friendships. 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.


I remember my grandfather, my grandfather on the Kalama side … in Laie. People walk by the house, Tutu Kalama … Grandpa Kalama is on the porch. People walking by, they go, Hui! Hele mai, hele mai, come, come have some—have some—something to drink, have something to eat with us. And you hear that. And that’s what this is all about. In the end, Hawaii creates the situation by which that can happen. And the host culture laid the foundation. And that’s what we were doing when we were in Waikiki. Trying to convey that.



Nola Nahulu


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 22, 2011


Sharing a Passion for Music


It’s hard to think of a choir or chorus without thinking of Nola Nahulu – one of Hawaii’s premiere conductors and music teachers. Nola got hooked on music while taking piano and ballet growing up as a child in Makaha, and she parlayed that passion into a career that has spanned more than three decades.


Nola has taught and conducted some of the islands’ legendary and beloved choral groups – including the Kawaiaha’o Church Choir, the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus and the Honolulu Symphony Chorus. She has also taught music and choir at churches and schools – including Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii.


Nola Nahulu Audio


Download the Transcript




I’m at a point where it doesn’t matter if you’re five years old, thirteen, or seventy-two. There’s always a teachable moment, and if you do it with compassion and caring, then it absorbs. And then, usually, your singers feel stronger about it, and they make better music.


Who you gonna call when you need a conductor? For the past thirty years, Hawaii choral groups have been calling on Nola Nahulu. This talented teacher and musician is known for making singers sound good in church, in school, and on stage. Nola Nahulu’s story is next, on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Choral music plays a vital role in Hawaii’s artistic, spiritual, and cultural life. And many or our choral singers look to conductor, Nola Nahulu. Her talent, commitment, and ability to bring out the best in singers of all ages have attracted opportunities to direct Hawaii’s storied choral groups. Thousands of former students and singers can trace their vocal roots and music appreciation to their work with Nola over the past three decades. Conductors are usually seen from behind, and are rarely in the spotlight. In this edition of Long Story Short, we ask Nola Nahulu to face the camera, and take us along on her musical life’s journey.


What was your early childhood like? What’s your first memory, and where was it?


Well, it’s in Waianae. My sister and I went to Waianae Elementary School. And to date us, that’s because there was no Makaha Elementary School at the time. Our parents would wake us up in Makaha, we would drop off at our Obachan’s house, ‘cause she lived right across the street. And the routine was, go Obachan’s house, have breakfast, go school. Go back to Obachan’s house, have guava ice cake that she would have made. And then, go to Japanese school.


Where was Japanese school?


Japanese school was at the Waianae Hongwanji. And everybody went. Sometimes, we even got to ride our bikes there. And for those now, in this day and age, it’s right behind the McDonald’s in Waianae. But at that time, it was an open-air theater. Waianae town had two theaters; one regular theater house that was covered, and the other one that was open-air.


I mean, was it a drive-in theater?


No, it wasn’t a drive-in. There was just no roof. And there were seats, wooden seats, and a screen.




Yeah. And around fourth, fifth grade, we had the opportunity to take piano lessons. I keep on saying we, because my sister and I got afforded the same opportunities. So we took piano.


Did you take piano because it was a good thing to do, or because you had a yearning desire to take piano?


Our parents said, Do you want to take piano? And we said, Yes.


Really? Because I said, No. I had no desire to take piano when I was a kid.


We had nothing to gauge against. It was an opportunity that came up, and there was a piano teacher that moved into Waianae, and so they asked. And we were, Yeah, okay. And then, we actually got a piano. And we know that was a big sacrifice. But one day, a piano showed up in our house, and we know that our parents invested in that. So we got to take piano.


What was your parents’ background?


Dad’s from Nanakuli. Well, Nanakula via Lualualei, via Laie.




And my mom’s Waianae, plantation. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother is a picture bride. Yeah. So she came over early 1900s as a picture bride.


So your mom was Japanese. Was your dad full Hawaiian?


Yeah, he’s full Hawaiian. And my mom’s Hiroshima-ken.


How many Hawaiian-Japanese families were there around you?


Not many.


Not a common combination back then.


Not a common combination. It is an odd combination.


Was there any feeling between sides of the family?


Oh, I know at first, the Japanese were very concerned about my mother marrying a Hawaiian. Of course, you need to realize, the Hawaiian-Japanese combination is pretty cute when they’re babies. And we were the first two grandchildren. So it seemed to work. We never felt any kind of resistance being brought up. We were always cared for, and loved, and …


Did you grow up with a sense of, as many part-Hawaiians do now, I have to learn my Hawaiian culture, my Hawaiian values?


No. And let me say no, because we were learning them. It wasn’t like I needed to learn them. Both sides, Hawaiian and Japanese, we were learning the culture from our family and from community activities. And we were learning who we are. I didn’t have to say, I am Hawaiian, or I am Japanese.


You didn’t have to choose?


No. To this day, I’m both. I’m keiki o ka aina, I’m from Hawaii.


And I notice when you talk about values that are important to you, you use a Japanese expression.


I do. Okage sama de. Because I do believe that we are influenced, our lives are influenced by those around us. So whether it’s our immediate biological family, or it’s our community family, you know, so-and-so’s mother is your auntie, whether they’re biologically related to you or not. And then, of course, if they happen to be a Chinese family, you learn all their cultural values too. And I also think it goes into your workplace. Your colleagues, your staff. It’s very important.


It sounds like your parents were actively trying to do things for the girls, to help you get ahead, learn.


Now that we look back, they afforded us opportunities. Something as simple as having piano lessons. I know this sounds really weird, but also having ballet lessons. Think about it. Waianae, at the Hongwanji, and then they moved to Pililaau Park. That’s kind of odd. Most people go, What? You took ballet at Pililaau Park? And we’re like, Yeah. Because a teacher took time to drive to Waianae, and afford that for us, so that we could have experiences.


At what point along the way did you find out that music was very special to you? Was it the piano lessons? Was it before?


You don’t realize it, because you’re having it all the time. We had a very good general music teacher at Waianae Elementary School, Mrs. Keaka. So we got lot of basics. We assumed everybody got it, and everybody did. Not so now. And Fred Cachola, who loves singing, was a teacher there. So he decided that Waianae Elementary School should have their own song contest. So we did. And we went to Kamehameha in seventh grade … continued with our piano. We sang in the choral groups there.


You were in a big class at Kamehameha, one of the Baby Booming classes.




Were you the song leader—




—for the Song Contest?


No, no, no, no; I wasn’t. Senior year, I got to conduct the entire school, with Kamehameha Waltz. But our song directors for the girls was Teresa Makuakane–Drechsel now, and our coed was Ron Chun, and our boys’ was Aaron Mahi.


Who became the Royal Hawaiian Band Leader.


Yeah; yeah.


But, where were you?


I was the garrut [PHONETIC].




We were the gang that was doing all the sectionals, and preparing. Because in that era, the class, we had to provide our own leaders and teaching the music.


So you were very much involved, but just at a different …




Yeah, different facet of it.


Yeah; we were pounding notes.




Still pounding notes. Yeah.


Still pounding notes?


Yeah; yeah.


Nola Nahulu majored in psychology at Whitman College in Washington State. She continued to pursue her music studies, and eventually earned a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


Where did you learn about conducting?


It didn’t really start fine tuning until graduate work. Because then, my focus was on conducting, specifically. And I did some post-graduate work at University of Washington. And there, I met Rodney Eichenberger, who is still a mentor to this day. I’d get to a point where I would listen to a choir and go, Why do they sound that way? Whether they were good or bad. And then, I looked at the conductor, and I realized, ooh, it’s a lot of responsibility. ‘Cause I remember thinking in high school, Oh, I can do this. Who cannot do this? But when you’re a kid, you don’t realize, oh, you actually have to be able to hear what’s happening, and how do you create the sound.


I don’t know what it’s like to be on that side. How do you conduct?


It is much more than beating pattern. I’ve decided that we can actually shape sound, just by what we do with our face, our body, and our arms. And we can shape all the way through performances, instead of getting it so robotic, especially for choral music. Then the lyrics make more sense with the music. And we continue to learn. Because each group that we get is always gonna be different.


And are there groups that you just can’t make headway with?


No, ‘cause I’m an educator. That’s what I’ve decided. [CHUCKLE]


But sometimes, it’s not a musical problem. It may be a personality problem.


Personality, or a discipline problem, a self-discipline problem. So then, you teach them discipline, how to control yourself, your mind. My thought is, as a conductor, if they sound great, that’s because of you. If they sound terrible, that’s because of you.


[CHUCKLE] Oh, you do blame yourself.




I thought you were gonna say—




—it’s because of them.


No, no, no. It is, it is. And I think as an educator too, we can’t always say, Well, you know, that kid’s autistic, he’s never gonna learn, or, nobody reinforces at home. It’s still your kuleana. So if they do well, it’s you, and if they don’t … it’s you too.


And do you know what everybody’s doing, even though you’ve got a bunch of people there?


Yeah. Well, I do now. I didn’t, when I was younger. And that’s part of the learning process. Can you hear four parts, can you hear eight parts?


And all at the same time?


Yeah; yeah.


You can do that?


That’s why—yeah, I can now. Like I said, it’s something that you need to develop. Can you play the piano and sing at the same time? Can you play one part, and sing another part?


How did your musical career develop? I mean, even in college, you were planning to be a psychologist? You majored in psychology.


I did; I did. And at one point, I was actually gonna do my master’s in psychology. But as my master’s graduate advisor said, Well, you’re gonna use a lot of psychology in music, especially music education. I am a believer in fate. When I came home, and I went to UH Manoa, Dorothy Gillette was still there, teaching. And she said, This civic club needs a new choir director, ‘cause their choir director is going to law school. I said, Okay. I don’t know if I have the ability yet, but I said, Okay, I’ll go check it out. And that was back in, I think, ’77. So I’m still their choral director; Pearl Harbor Hawaiian Civic Club. I learned a lot from that.


Just as soon as Nola Nahulu picked up a baton, she was picking up her phone as well, because offers started rolling in. Nola accepted invitations to teach and conduct at the University of Hawaii, University High School, the Molokai Children’s Chorus, Hawaii Children’s Chorus, and the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus, just to name a few.


[SINGING] That’s it, that’s it. Could you crescendo? Sopranos, crescendo your long notes, your half notes and your dotted half. [SINGING]


Presently, I’m the executive and artistic director of the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. This is my twenty-fifth year, and it’s their fiftieth year. Aileen started them, Aileen Lum, in 1961. And she gave me a call, and asked if I would take over. So that step in fate also?


You’ve never applied for anything to date in your story. You don’t—you haven’t—


Not yet. [CHUCKLE] Not yet.


You just keep—




—picking up the phone. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right; that’s right. Mm, I never thought about it that way. I have applied for a few things, but seven years before that, I had just graduated, got my master’s, I was teaching at Kamehameha. My classmate, Kalena Silva, calls. He happens to be Aileen Lum’s cousin. Nephew; sorry, nephew. Hey, Nola—‘cause we were both in master’s work together. My auntie, she started a children’s chorus on Molokai, but she has to come back to Oahu. I said, Oh? And? Well, would you consider doing that? And I said, I really don’t know how to do anything with children’s choruses, but I’ll try. So I learned about children’s voices. I also learned that it doesn’t matter what language you teach them, because as far as they’re concerned the sky’s the limit. So we always sang Molokai songs, we sang in German, Italian, Latin. They were charming, they’re great, they love to sing. Every Wednesday after school, we rehearse for three hours. Can you imagine? So, seven years later, when Aileen again said, I’m ready to retire, will you take over?, I at least had experience, and I could do something with the voice and the repertoire for the kids. So that’s the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. And since then, we’ve grown tenfold, numbers wise. And staff wise, we’re very music education based. And we’re K through twelve.


You also have been at the lead in one of the most respected and revered historic churches in the islands, Kawaiahao.


Yes. It’s been twenty-one years, actually.


You don’t do anything for a short amount of time, do you?


I make a commitment, usually. Yeah; I think the shortest was seven years.


That’s such a historic church. I’m trying to think. Who are some of the other people who’ve been influential in the choir there?


Well my predecessor as choir director? Senator Akaka, who by the way, when he comes home, comes up and sings.




And David Kalama, at least for thirty-plus years. And of course, Liliuokalani.




I know. It’s kinda spooky.


And Bernice Pauahi Bishop.


Bernice Pauahi Bishop.


The first time Nola Nahulu received a call from Kawaiahao Church, she did not feel ready as a conductor to join that historic lineup of luminaries. But a few years later, she was invited to take the choir on a European tour, and that became a tryout for a permanent position.


David Kalama transcribed the major choral works of like the Messiah, or Mendelssohn’s Elijah, into Hawaiian. They never sang it in English, only in Hawaiian. In addition, he was a prolific composer, so there are tons of anthems. And it’s all hand manuscript. So I’d be conducting at rehearsal. I’m going, This is not what’s on the paper. They go, Oh, no, Uncle David changed it. Oh, but you didn’t—no, no, we never change ‘em on the paper, but this is—I said, Okay, all right.


So you were onto this. You stuck with this gig.


[CHUCKLE] Well I committed, and they only committed to the tour. But after the tour, they invited me to join them, in September. So that’s what I did.


In addition to taking the helm of existing choral groups, Nola Nahulu started a new one, Ka Waiola o Na Pukanileo, an adult a capella ensemble dedicated to perpetuating Hawaiian choral music. Her many musical endeavors have taken Nola around the world, and also allowed her to share Hawaiian culture with musicians on the US continent, and abroad.


What we all have in common is, we all know the Western European repertoire, and the musical basis that it comes from. But if they’re from—for example, we get to go to Austria in June; it’s our fiftieth anniversary. We’re learning Mozart’s Coronation Mass. We’re going to work a German conductor. When people come here, or they see us, they want to learn Pacific Rim stuff. They want to learn Hawaiian things. And so we can share the culture that way.


Nola Nahulu is also helping to perpetuate local fashion in her side job, as co-owner of a muumuu design and manufacturing company. Though they took radically different career paths in music and medicine, Nola and her sister, Linda, came together to follow their mother’s footsteps into the dressmaking business. They purchased Bette Muu in 1994 from then owner, Rene Kubo.


We went into their production room, and it was like being in our Obachan’s kitchen. Because a Japanese radio was going on, most of the seamstresses were Japanese, some Chinese. The cutters, Japanese, because they’re—not because, but they happened to be Mrs. Kubo’s nieces. We felt very comfortable. We talked story with her. She’s from Lahaina. Talked story. Literally three days later, she said, You folks can have the company.


So she was selecting a buyer.


Yes. ‘Cause she had already gone through several.


What did she want? What was she looking for?


Number one, I think she needed to feel comfortable, and that she would have confidence that they would continue the line in its purity. So keeping the tradition going. I mean, literally three days, she goes, Okay, you folks can have it. And she also told us later that Bette Manchester always wanted it to be Hawaiian owned. So it kind of fit.   We went in with it knowing that we wanted to keep the tradition alive, and to keep it going, and knew that we would have a really high learning curve. Very steep.


So how has to gone with Bette Muu?


We have learned a lot. It’s still tough. It’s pretty tough. Not many people wear muu’s anymore, and there’s still the misconception that it has to be huge and big. But it’s been a totally different door opening in our lives. So we’re hanging in there. We’re still producing.


When did Bette Muu become Bette Pantsuit? ‘Cause that’s what you’re wearing.


I know. They make these long pants for me. And so, I know, I need to tell my cutters that we need to get it out. On my artistic side, what you have on makes a big difference too, on how you do act, whether you’re in a meeting, or like … like she said, you’re not gonna go out on a baseball field in a Bette Muu. Because that’s not the appropriate place to wear it.


So do you wear them when you conduct?


I do.


Because it makes you feel more appropriate and poised, and calm?


Absolutely. And, it’s kinda cute, actually. My cutters and my staff make sure that the back of it looks the best.




Because as a conductor, that’s what people look at, is my back.


Have you seen a decline in choral groups?


There has been. There has been, and it’s kind of a Catch 22. I know through the 60s, strong all the way through. Roosevelt, strong. I also think that’s part of the era of strong general music coming up through strong music programs. Not only choral, orchestral as well as band. But there was a decline, and I’m sure it’s budgetary, where positions were cut.


You don’t think it’s lack of interest?


Oh, no, I don’t think so. Students were choosing not to major in it, because there were no jobs to be had. So therefore, then we lost competent people. And then when positions come up again, we don’t have the staffing. I will say, though, we have some young directors out there that are doing some great jobs. They’re building their programs, and there’s a commitment. And so, I see there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel.


In this period, we’ve seen the demise of the Honolulu Symphony as it existed. And we’ve seen a reduction in music and arts education.




How do you feel about music getting cut, as if it’s not a priority subject?


Yeah. Don’t get me started. [CHUCKLE]   It is a priority, and it’s not just the learning of the notes, or the learning of rhythm and those concepts. That’s part of it, that’s an important part. But I think more on the self esteem of a child, self exhortation of a child, and what effect it has growing up into adulthood. I know my parents’ generation, you got a good job, you stayed in it thirty, forty years, you retired; pau. My dad went back to farming, which is what his family does. But I think for my generation, we have so many interests, and so we get to do different things, and it’s not unusual to do something for fifteen years and, Oh, but I like doing that, so I’m gonna learn how to do that. And do that for another fifteen years. Some of us do it simultaneously; that’s a little nuts, but I think I’ve been very—and my sister too, I think we’ve been very fortunate in that we were afforded the experiences, so that we wouldn’t feel locked in. Yeah.


And you’ve used the opportunities you’ve been given.


I have, and I really feel that I’ve been fortunate.


Any regrets?


Frankly, no; I don’t think so. Not yet.


That’s a great thing to be able to say.


Yeah. I mean, at times, you’re kind of like, Oh, my gosh, what am I gonna do? But like they say, when one door closes, another one opens. And if you’re given enough support and guidance, you take that new avenue.


At this time in 2011, Nola Nahulu continues to lead and conduct, and teach. But she’s also starting to think about passing the baton. Her plan going forward is to devote more time to mentoring. Like the talented conductors and teachers who gave her so many opportunities to work and learn, Nola is on the look out for promising conductors who will keep Hawaii’s choral tradition alive for future generations. 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.


As a third grader, I know this seems really weird, but I actually choreographed Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker.


And you didn’t think you had special musical talent?


Well it probably wasn’t that great, but I do know I did it. My mother sewed the costumes, and this is on the little stage which is still at Waianae Elementary School. [CHUCKLE] I did choreography for synchronized swimming when I was in high school, because I learned—well, it was interesting to me. My artistic side of swimming.


But your life was full of music, so it was just a way of life.









Roy Sakuma


Part 1


Original air date: Tues., July 15, 2008



Part 2


Hawaii’s Foremost Ukulele Teacher


When PBS Hawaii President and CEO Leslie Wilcox sat down with ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma recently, she thought she had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell her about his family and his school days; and we’d find out how he became a teacher.


It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. But, during this Long Story Short, he explains why.


In the first of two parts of this very moving conversation, Roy Sakuma reveals – for the first time publicly – that he was raised in a home filled with mental illness. His late mother and brother suffered from serious mental illness. And Roy, his father and his sister suffered too, keeping the family’s secret and living with the stigma and the guilt.


Roy Sakuma Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Today’s Long Story Short features Roy Sakuma – a name that belongs to an ukulele studio, an ukulele festival, summer zoo concerts, an award-winning record label, Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher, and a man who’s lived his entire life hiding a family secret.


When I sat down with Roy Sakuma, I thought I had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell us about his family and his school days. And we’d find out how he became a teacher. It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. And, as the story goes, he went to work for the City Parks Department and came up with the idea for an ukulele festival while cleaning restrooms at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand. But I had no idea why Roy Sakuma dropped out of school. Or that he’d reveal, for the first time publicly, that he was raised in a home with serious, untreated mental illness.


When you were little, was it obvious to everyone around you that you would go into music, and you’d be a teacher?


Oh; absolutely not. In fact, I think it was the opposite, because I can remember as a child, all the way through my years in intermediate school, I never listened to music. Now, you know, people may think that’s weird, but I was always outdoors. And being outdoors, you’re never listening to the radio. So for me, that was the last thing that I ever thought I would get into, would be music, and to be you know, teaching the ukulele. I was always involved in sport. That was my number one thing that I enjoyed the most.


What were your growing up years like?


Uh, it was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And growing up, it was difficult, because I couldn’t distinguish, you know, what was right and what was wrong; and so I developed a lot of misconceptions in life. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty. And so it was a struggle for me. And I think for that reason, I was always cutting out of school. I mean, you know, who cuts out of kindergarten? But I started cutting out from kindergarten and all the way through first through sixth grade; I was always cutting out of class?


What did you do instead of going to class?


I would just go down to the river and just hang out there, or I would come home and hide in the garage so that my mother wouldn’t see me.


By yourself?


By myself; by myself. Because um, I realize now that I was going through a lot of struggles. And these struggles naturally come up later in life. But at that time, you don’t understand it; so the only thing you do is, you’re more comfortable being out of that environment of school, because you don’t know how to relate to your peers. And so it really was difficult for me, but it turned out to be a blessing later on in life.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. I didn’t expect him to be home, because it was hard. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week. I was happy for him, knowing that he was enjoying his life. I was struggling, it was okay; but I was happy for him.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. If you had this type of mental illness, and people around you knew what it was, it didn’t look good. So my father had to just, what’s the word? He is just to live with it. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his—






We—my father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these uh, medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


When you said you didn’t know right from wrong, how did that translate?


I think because there was so much anger in me, there was so much frustration, I felt like I was the only weird kid in the neighborhood, and how come I have all these emotional problems, and everybody around me looked so normal. And so it would be all this anger in me, and I would do things that were totally unacceptable, like you know, just things—not to hurt people, but things that were not appropriate.




Like, once a neighbor was yelling at me because we were making too much noise, and I cut down part of his tree. [chuckle] You know, because I was so upset. And yet, I didn’t realize that I was doing these things that—you know, it was just the anger in me that had me doing these things. And it was a very difficult time for me, because I didn’t know how to control this. And I think more than anger, it was the hurt I was feeling, the pain.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life.


I’m sure it wasn’t easy for this local boy and successful businessman to speak openly about the family secret of mental illness. It took courage. Now that it’s no longer a secret, Roy Sakuma wants to use his story to help others. He wants people to know it’s good to seek professional help. That’s what he did, to help make sense of the impact that his mother and brother’s mental illness had on him. I hope Roy Sakuma’s story – which he’s revealing here for the first time publicly – will have a positive impact on other people’s lives.


Let’s back up a little bit.




You went through school cutting out.




Getting into trouble. How did your school career end?


[chuckle] I think I was in the ninth grade, and in February, I got caught for—you know, I was tardy a lot, I was cutting out of class. And so the principal, not suspended, but ejected me from school. So I was left out of school from February. So I missed the last four months of school as a ninth grader. And when I went back the following year to repeat, he actually told me, You’re going to high school; we’re gonna promote you anyway. So despite missing four months of school in my ninth grade year, I went to high school, which was Roosevelt High School. And I’ll never forget, because while I was there, the principal told me; he says, Roy, one of us has to go, and it’s not me. And that was the end of my high school career. [chuckle] That was it.


And all of this time, your mom remained untreated and—




And getting worse?


Yes. She was, you know, she was just talking to herself, and my brother, too, was—they both were talking to themselves. So it was hard for me. If you’re at home trying to do something, and you have one person walking behind you talking, and the person sitting across from you talking, it—you know, I learned to shut my mind off. I learned to shut—you know, in other words, I went into dreamland—




–so that you know, physically I was there, but mentally you know, I was somewhere else, so I didn’t have to hear all this. And yeah, I realized it years later that, you know, these were things that I had to cope with. And going to this psychologist helped me.


Did you get yourself ready for school, and kind of self managed?


[chuckle] Well, you mean, during those—


During those long years.


Uh, yes, but you know, when you say get ready for school, I was never in school, actually. You know, I would go, but I would cut out; go, and cut out. And it was just too much of a struggle for me. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.



How did it help you?


Well, I was able to share with him the misconceptions in my life. And I’ll never forget this, Leslie, because at the end, when I had spilled my beans out to him, you know what he told me? He says, You know, Roy, of all the people that have sat down across from me, you are one of the most sanest people I’ve ever had to talk to.


That must have felt good to you.


Yeah. And I say, Well, how can you say that? And he says, You were giving me the answers to your problems. And that made me feel really good. That really helped me. I realized that you know, I had all this misconception that I was totally mentally ill or crazy, or my thoughts were not normal thoughts. And so I was able to put my life together.


Well, how were you feeling when the Roosevelt High School principal said, That’s it, buddy, you know, one of us has gotta go, and it’s you?


[chuckle] Actually, inside, I was happy. [chuckle] Only because uh, I had such a diff—and see, now I realize the reason I had such problems in school is, I didn’t how to relate to people my own age; you know, ‘cause I felt so insecure about myself. So when I left school, it forced me to look for a job. And when I had to work, I felt that I could relate to adults, and I could pour my heart into whatever I’m doing. And that was a way of dealing with my pain.


Do you worry that you might get schizophrenia, that you might become mentally ill?


At that young age, yes. And I realized years later when I was talking to my sister, she felt the same thing; that sooner or later, we were both gonna fall into this mentally ill. But you know, fortunately, we didn’t; both of us were fine. But it was that fear that actually brought a lot of more pain and this so-called misconceptions, ‘cause you’re worrying about things that you shouldn’t be thinking like that, but there’s on one to tell you, Hey, it’s okay. You know, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. And so I didn’t get that reassurance that I needed.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide. He jumped off a building. And so again, you know, you think, Okay, I’m next. You know, you worry about that. It becomes such a big part of your daily life, thinking about it, so you’re not very functional. Though on the outside, people think you’re okay. But it’s what on the inside, is that what I had to deal with a lot of these issues.


Did you feel you were putting on an act; I’m okay, for—


Oh, yeah.





Oh, yeah; definitely, definitely. I was good at that; I was good at that.


But I just wonder if people who are listening to this program, who have issues with mental illness. I wonder what you have to say to them?


I would say that if in your darkest moments that you can see something positive, which I know is hard; but if you just look around, if you look at the whole world, the devastations that’s happening, and you look at where you are; there’s hope. And as long as you have hope, then you have the first step of helping yourself get better. And I think too many times when we’re—see, when we have a happy moment, we take it for granted. You know, we’re happy; we’re happy. But when we have something that goes against us, that makes us a little sad or hurtful, we tend to dwell on it. And that’s what I try to teach people not to do. And that’s why it’s so important to have hope. Once you have hope you have the building block to help yourself in your life.


And your brother ran out of hope.


Yes; he ran out of hope. You know, I was much younger than him, and he was so smart. But you know, he didn’t know how to deal with his life and the pain that he was going through, and so you know, he did what he felt, which, had I known that, had I been older, I would have been able to help him. But I was too young when all this happened.


It’s estimated that mental illness touches as many as one person out of every four, which means it could affect nearly every family in Hawai‘i. But, for cultural reasons, financial reasons and other sensitivities, some families choose to keep their mental illness a secret. And for all these years, Roy Sakuma did just that. But now, he’s chosen to share his very real emotions, and offer his message of hope.


What are your thoughts, looking back at the mental illness that governed your life, on the part of your mom and your brother? You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.



Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother on a—yeah.


Were you able to share with her what you’ve been able to do with your life?


Yes; and you know, to some degree, she understood some things. But I had to keep it simple. But I think for me, the greatest joy was to see how much love she had for us as her children, and how much she, you know, respected our new family life. Like my sister was married, I was married to Kathy, and how she could enjoy that. She could enjoy not just us as her children, but the people that we committed our lives to. And I think that was really wonderful for both my sister and I.


It sounds like your mom probably said some really hurtful things to you, right?


Yeah; she said hurtful things to me. And um, she babbled constantly of things that weren’t relevant to life. And it was things that, you know, a person that’s not sane would say, like you know, and I don’t know if I should even say some of these things. But you know, our icebox, for instance, was empty. So all we had was a hotdog and eggs; that’s all we had to eat, every day. And she would cook the same thing for me every night. I mean, it was so difficult. I mean, she would wake me up two o’clock every morning to have breakfast. And so at eight o’clock, I gotta go to school. But you know, by then, my stomach’s churning, so I’d be embarrassed, and I’d cut out. Because I didn’t know how—a simple thing like my stomach churning embarrassed me, because no one told me it was okay. So I’d be cutting out of school in the first grade. But you know, it’s those types of weird things, where your whole life is out of balance, because she went by according to what she felt, which was totally—she wasn’t capable.



And did you hear hurtful things about yourself from her?


I did. You know, I’m gonna share something with you that I’ve not told anybody. In fact, only my dearest family knows about this. And you know, when she was trying to—well, maybe I should share it later. [chuckle] Okay; that’s okay, that’s okay.


No, no; I—




understand. You gotta make choices as you go.




You know, all this time, you’ve been very positive, and you’ve spoken of how you’ve made something positive out of something that could have sunk other people. You’ve turned it around. Do you have any regrets?


No; I have no regrets. You know, I look back on my life many times, Leslie, and I look at all the pain I went through, I look at all the sorrow, I look at all the hurt. I look at all the, you know, just things that were so painful to me. And I wouldn’t trade it; because through all that pain, today it’s given me an insight to people and children that I can help. And I have this strong yearning to help people, to want to always help. And I hope that I never lose— that’s something that I see in my wife too, and we have that. And I hope that we will never lose that love of wanting to help others.


So when you tell people, Oh, yeah, I was a kolohe boy—




You really weren’t kolohe; you were just in terrible pain.


Yes; yes, yeah. You’re right. Uh, through that pain, sometimes I did things that were naughty. But the important thing is that I never hurt people. And I think I learned that from my father. I mean, as much as my father wasn’t around—



–he was a great man; because everybody in the neighborhood respected him. See, we had a big porch; so all the kid—neighborhood kids would be on our porch all the time. And when he came home for a little while, they would all say, Hi, Mr. Sakuma. And he was always nice to everybody. He would bring home abalone and cut pieces for everybody. And so I just knew my father as this really nice man to my friends. Little did I realize that when he passed away, is when I find out all these things, where people that came to pay their respects says, Oh, your father was you know, this great man; he always treated people with respect. You know, Never did I hear your father say a mean thing.


And he lived with a lot of sadness too.


Yeah. And he taught me something at a young life. Number one, he told me two things.


He says, Number one, you know, don’t listen to your mother, because she’s mentally ill; she doesn’t know what she’s saying. So that helped me to some degree, but still, it was still difficult. And number two, he told me, Whenever you’re in a situation where someone is to get hurt, as much as possible, you take the pain; but you never give out the pain to

someone else. And I’ve lived by that. And when he passed away, one of the elderly gentlemen who came up to me says, Do you know your father’s in the book, The Battle of Iwo Jima? And I didn’t know that. He says, Yeah. So I bought the book, and I went to his passage, and it was so inspiring to me. Because as much as the Iwo Jima was such a hurtful battle, many people died, and all these comments about the bitterness of war. I read his comment, and he says—he talked about—can you believe this, the beauty of Iwo Jima. He says, Look how beautiful this paradise, look how beautiful. He saw past all the war, now; he saw past all the pain. He was talking about this beautiful place on Earth. And I realized, you know, that even in the dark times, or even for himself, he could see things that, you know, normally, we wouldn’t even comprehend. And you know, I was just so in awe that he could see these things in the midst of war.


Roy Sakuma is still learning to cope with the mental illness that shaped his life. Through the Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy has taught thousands of students, young and old, to share the joy of music and camaraderie. The Ukulele Festival, which he started in 1971, has grown into one of the largest events at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, with hundreds of participants from Hawai‘i, the mainland and around the globe. As the story goes, Roy dreamed up the international festival while cleaning bathrooms at the Bandstand as a City groundskeeper. I asked him to tell us the story behind that story.


My first job, I was a stock boy for Wilder Food Center. And I was a hard worker, and I put the groceries up, I mopped and swept the floors; and you know, I was totally happy. I was so happy doing that type of work. I thought I could do that my whole life. You know, little did I realize that later on, I would find the ukulele. But I went from stock boy, I went to—I can remember once I went to Kaimuki Typewriter, and I wanted to be an apprentice. So the guy says, Well, you know, you know anything about typewriters? I say, No. He gives me a thick manual and he tells me, Well, take it home and study it, and then we’re gonna test you the next day. So I go home; there’s no way I can read that. So I look at my old Remington—I think it was Remington typewriter, and I took it apart, figuring out how to take it apart; and then I put it back. So the next day, I go, and he says, Well, did you read the book? I said, Yup.




He says, All right; pick one of these typewriters and let me see if you can take it apart. So I went to the Remington [chuckle]; I took it apart, put it back together. I got the job. So that’s how I became a Kaimuki Typewriter apprentice. But you know, I somehow thought of that. You know. I’m not gonna read, but I’m gonna practice taking apart a—


And as it turns out, typewriters couldn’t be a lasting career.


Yeah; that’s right. That’s right. [chuckle] You know. But you know, it’s just going through these stages, it helped me. Helped me to mature, because eventually it led me to working in the City and County of Honolulu. I was twenty-one years old, and I went to apply for the City and County. Not having an education, the only job that I could get was a parks keeper. And I applied, and fortunately I barely passed the test. I became a groundskeeper for the City and County of Honolulu, and I was so happy.


Did you work in Kapi‘olani Park, where you would later have all of these decades of ukulele festivals?


That’s how it started. As a groundskeeper, every day we would have lunch at Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, and you know, we’d be looking at the bandstand, having lunch. And one day, out loud I say, You know, I’d like to put on an ukulele festival. And the person next to me was a white collar worker at City Hall, and he told me, Dreams come true. And that inspired me; those words inspired me to go after work, go down to City Hall and inquire, How do you put on an ukulele festival? That led me to Mr. Moroni Medeiros. And Moroni would help me for the next fourteen years. He became my mentor in my life. He was, ‘til this day, the greatest man that I’ve ever met.


Finding inspiration and a mentor are two of life’s lessons Roy Sakuma has learned. And he’s gone on to teach many life lessons as a gifted ukulele player, instructor and business owner. I’d like to thank Roy for sharing stories with us – especially the ones he hadn’t told before, about growing up surrounded by serious mental illness.


If you’d like information on mental health resources in our community, simply dial 2-11 or log on to pbs-hawaii-dot-org and download the transcript from this program. We’ll include some information there for you.


And please join me next week as we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


When I go to schools nowadays and I talk to children, and I talk to intermediate school kids, I can kinda sense if some of them are having similar issues that I have, and you know, I can kinda talk to them in a way in which I can bring up some of these things so that they can relate to it, you know, bring it out where I’m not coming out too strong, and yet it gets them thinking, Hey, you know, there’s an option to how I feel. You know. And I try to do this in schools now when I talk to children.


Part 2



Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. “A terrible student.” That’s how ukulele master Roy Sakuma described himself on Long Story Short last week as he recalled his childhood attending public schools in Honolulu. He started cutting out of school in kindergarten. He was smoking at the age of six and drinking by the sixth grade.


He spent time in Juvenile Detention and he dropped out of high school. Today, the internationally acclaimed ukulele teacher and business owner Roy Sakuma visits schools to share his love of music and his message of hope.


For the first time, on last week’s Long Story Short, ukulele impresario Roy Sakuma revealed why he didn’t bother much with school as a kid. He explained that his late mother and brother suffered from serious, untreated mental illness. Roy, his father and sister lived with the family’s secret. Before we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short, let’s revisit his childhood in Makiki.


What were your growing up years like?


It was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his problem?


No. My father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide.


You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.


Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother.


So often, people who’ve found success have had to overcome adversity and have pressed tirelessly to achieve their goals. That certainly is the case for Roy Sakuma. He worked very hard to overcome the confusion and self-doubt resulting from mental illness in his family and his disrupted and limited formal education. And when he decided to play the ukulele, he practiced and practiced until he mastered his craft.


You know, I know in the hands of a master, what an ukulele sounds like. But I have to say that I can’t play any instrument, even a kazoo.




But I can play the ukulele. It seems like it’ll adapt to whatever level you bring to it.


Yes. I agree with you; the ukulele, to me, is one of the easiest instruments to learn in the world; it’s perfect for anyone. And you know, like I’ve seen so many people that say—tell me, I cannot play, I am tone deaf.




And you know, I can prove them wrong. There is not a person in the world that I don’t think I cannot teach. And that comes from my upbringing. You know, because I struggled so much, because I had no musical sense, and I had to learn everything from phase one, all the way up. So you can come to me with ten problems, or you know. And as soon as I see you touch the ukulele, I can make the adjustments, just like; because I know already.


Because I think that was the foundation for me; being so junk on the ukulele. So when I see students that struggle, you relate to it; so you can work them through it. Had I been a gifted student, then I don’t think I would have been a really good teacher. Because I think a lot of—I wouldn’t be able to comprehend why are you having so much trouble.




So it turned out good for me that I was a lousy–[chuckle]–I think I was the worst student, ever.


[chuckle] You turned out very good.


[chuckle] Thank you. [chuckle] You know, a lot of people thought I was such an outgoing, friendly guy. But uh, they didn’t know that inside, I was really hurting. And I think this was right after when I got kicked out of school, um you know, I heard a song; I heard a song on the radio. And it was a song recorded by Ohta-san. And that song was the turning point in my life. Because what happened is that I went to see him to learn a little about the ukulele, and that took away a lot of my pain. ‘Cause now, I was focusing on something that made me happy.


Why did you go to see him based on a song? What was the song?


The song was called Sushi. I don’t know if you recall this; it was recorded in 1963. It became the number one hit in Hawaii; was for the Tom Moffat Show.


How did it go? I vaguely remember.


Oh, are you gonna ask me to sing? [chuckle] Oh, no. [chuckle] [HUMS]


That’s right.


And it was an instrumental. And I went to see him; I was sixteen years old at this time. And the wonderful thing is that—I want to share this with everyone; is you know how they say never give up your dreams? Well, at ten years old, I tried learning the ukulele, Leslie; I couldn’t. At twelve, I tried again; I couldn’t. At fourteen, my sister tried to teach me to hold G; I couldn’t hold the chord, I couldn’t strum. I had no sense of rhythm; because as I mentioned earlier to you, I never listened to the radio. So I couldn’t do it. So she told me, Give up. But when I heard that song, I was sixteen; I decided to seek out Ohta-san. I asked him to teach me; he started teaching me. And so I think I wouldn’t be teaching the ukulele today, had it not been for that song, Sushi.


Well, that took guts; a sixteen-year-old kid who’d been kicked out of school going to this ukulele virtuoso.


Uh-huh. One thing that I had, I was never afraid, though, to approach people, as much as I was insecure inside. ‘Cause that’s how I survived.




By not being afraid to talk to people, reach out and ask people questions. And yet, inside, I was just so nervous, you know. But I learned to deal with that and it’s been a blessing for me today, ‘cause I can help children.


I was gonna ask you; are you good at sensing when somebody is undergoing pain?


Yes; yes. I sense it. I sense it all the time with children, and even sometimes with adults. I don’t know why, but I feel it. And I can tell you stories where children were abused, and I would ask the children, you know, How’s your life? And they would say, It’s fine. But inside, something was telling me that they were hurting. And I would you know, kind of push the issue and talk to the school teacher or the counselor, the principal, and sooner or later, these children would come out and say, yes, you know, there were problems. And it’s just something—I think now I understand that because I went through so much pain, you can actually somehow sense pain in other people; you know, especially in children. Yeah.


When you started playing ukulele, I understand you practiced so much, you wore out the frets?


I wore out the frets. I practiced. This is like when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old; I practiced eight hours a day, sometimes ten hours a day. Now, people think, Now, how can you do that? I could do that; I would practice and practice, and practice. And my goal was to beat Ohta-san; I was gonna become the best player in the world. But the funny thing is; the better I got, the more I realized how great the master was.




And I thought, Well, you know, he really is something special. And he told me one day; he says, Roy, do you want to come to the studio and just help me? I’m gonna teach this adult class. I said, What do I have to do? He said, Oh, just tune the ukuleles. And he comes in, teaches the adults lesson number one. And then he tells me, Oh, by the way, I’m going to Japan next week; you’re teaching. And I was petrified. I said, I don’t know how to teach. He says, No, just da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. Leslie, I went home and I applied the same technique that I used to learn the ukulele, and practiced for hours and hours every day. I would talk to the walls, I would talk to the kitchen, I would talk to the carpet, I would talk to the mirror, as if I’m talking to those adults. And you know, by the time I went in front of them, I was totally comfortable; and I taught them. And the interesting thing is when Ohta-san returned, Ohta-san asked me, Would you like to continue teaching those students? And I was so happy. And the students were happy, because they were comfortable with me too; so it was a win-win situation. That’s how I got into teaching. So my second mentor in life was Ohta-san.


And was it different teaching children, when you decided to expand and teach children as well?


It was a natural for me. Because I realized that I had such a deep love for children that once I was teaching children, there was an instant—like an automatic connection; I can’t explain it. But when I’m around children, it’s so easy to bring them up. You know, I can just walk in a room, I can walk into my room of instructors with students, or I can go to a school, and automatically I can feel the energy rise. And so I’m happy for that, that I can, you know, have this relationship with kids. But you know, adults; we have a lot of adults now. I find that there’s a great connection with adults, because they need this outlet where they have fun and just sing, and play and laugh. And so you know, it’s working both ways for us now.


Roy Sakuma and his wife Kathy have partnered in a number of successful enterprises: Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy Sakuma Productions, the annual Ukulele Festival, summer zoo concerts, CD, DVD and book sales, and school visits. It all began when Roy was an ukulele student himself.


All this time, you were taking ukulele lessons—


I was taking—


–from Ohta-san?


I was taking ukulele lessons after school. And in fact, I started teaching by then. I was teaching two or three times a week; I had about eight or nine students. And the love for teaching was getting stronger, and stronger in me; and that’s why I wanted to put on this event called The Ukulele Festival. Because people don’t realize, back in the 1960s, you know, if you asked people about the ukulele, they would say, Oh, that’s a toy. I mean—


Yeah; it didn’t get much respect, did it?


No. Ninety percent of the people thought it was a toy. And that hurt me, because Ohta-san was such a master.




And so the only thing I could do, and I thought was the best thing to do, was to put on an ukulele festival where we showcased the instrument. Little did I realize that now, the ukulele festival today is a big event; it’s an annual event and it’s been going on for years, and years and years.


It started in ’71. And how many performers did you have then?


I had about fifty.


Mm. And how many today?


Last year we had over nine hundred performers.




And a lot of students, lot of people from all over the world that come and perform in the event. And you know the beautiful thing; it’s free. So it doesn’t cost a cent to come down to Kapi‘olani Park and see the festival. And that, again, was a dream that eventually, when my wife started helping me in 1974, the dream was to keep the festival free. And ‘til today, it is a free event; and that is something that we are both so very, very happy.


I want to ask you something about your wife.




Here you are, doing well in the work world, but you’re damaged inside, you’re hurting still. I mean, you can’t make that go away. So the essence of marriage is intimacy.




How did that work?


Wow, wow. You know, the word love is so important to me. Though I was growing up in so much pain, that word was so special to me. And I had like two or three girlfriends over a period of my young life; I never told anyone, I love you. ‘Cause I felt love was such a special word. When I met my wife, she was nineteen years old, she was going to University of Hawai‘i. And I knew this girl was special.


How? Where did you meet her?


I met her through a blind date [chuckle]. Somebody fixed us up where she came along with my wife, and then I met my future wife and my friend; and that was the first encounter.


What did they tell you about her before they set you up?


They just said that she was a nice girl. And that’s all they told me.


And you didn’t say, Oh, what does she look like?


No; I didn’t say that. I mean, you know, I wasn’t interested in that. And but she was really attractive, you know. [chuckle]


And did you, or she know anything about what was to happen when you met?


No. In fact, we just met. And then you know, she went back with her girlfriend to work, and two weeks later I called her up. And this is interesting, because the Harlem Globetrotters were town, and it was a Friday. And I called her up and I said, Oh, would you like to go out and see the Harlem Globetrotters? They’re playing Friday night. And she tells me, Oh, I’m sorry, I have a date. So I says, Well, how about Saturday night? And she hesitates—


That didn’t phase you?


No. She says, Oh, I have another date. Okay. So Globetrotters play Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So I said, Okay; how about Sunday night? And she thinks, and she tells me, Okay. I mean, you know, what—because my life was filled—and I thought about this at times—was filled with so much rejection and stuff like that, when she said she’s busy Friday and she’s busy Saturday, it still didn’t hurt me. ‘Cause that’s not pain to me; that’s just like, hey, what if she’s honest, she’s busy. So I asked for Sunday, and she said okay. And so that was our first date.


And did you ever find out what your friend and her friend had told her about you before the blind date?


No, I never asked; I never asked.


Hm. Gotta ask.


[chuckle] But I know that she was special. And the reason I know this is because I think we dated after that, eight dates. And I didn’t—yes, I didn’t even hold her hand. Because I had so much respect for her; I didn’t want to do anything that would damage this beautiful relationship that was coming together. And so what happened is that as we were getting closer, now I knew this was the girl I wanted to marry. This was the girl that I wanted to marry, and I felt, okay, but you mentioned this–what about all the issues inside of me.




So I decided to tell her everything about my past; all the misconceptions, all the insecurities that are in me. I wanted her to know this; I want her to know who she was really marrying, at the risk of losing her. So over the next two or three dates, I revealed everything to her. I revealed my heart and soul to her; from the top of my head to the bottom of my foot, I revealed every insecurity, everything in my life to her. Do you know what she told me?




When all was said and done, she says, I never saw it as your weaknesses, I see it as your strengths. And it wasn’t until last year, when I was talking to a friend and I mentioned this, what my wife said, did I realize that she probably saved me that day. ‘Cause had she said, you know, we’re not meant for one another, you have too many issues, you’ve got to get your issues straightened out; had she said that to me, you know, it could have gotten me spiraling the wrong way.


But you were doing very well on your own.


I was doing very well. But that was like the icing on the cake. I mean, when she accepted me for all the faults that was in me, I um, I was able to get through it. And do you know what is interesting now? Those inner weaknesses have become my greatest strengths.


She was right about that.


Yeah. It’s helping people, it’s doing things to help others. You cannot take away what you went through. But you can now switch it around; and rather than dwell on the hurt that you went through, use it for the good of children and other people. And it’s something I think everybody that goes through this, when they turn it around, it becomes a really inner strength to help people. My wife and I always talk about this. If we have—and you hear this all the time—if you have nothing nice to say about someone else, don’t say it. Because treat the other person how you want to be treated. And that’s, that’s our philosophy in life, you know. You know, ‘cause I want people to treat me with respect; so therefore, I should treat people with respect.


Basic Golden Rule, right?


That’s right.


So hard to do, but so simple and true.


It’s so simple and true.


You know, you’re somebody who didn’t have a solid formal education because of the problems in your life.




But you’ve been able to become a teacher, an expert on a musical instrument, a business owner, and you’re even a music producer.


M-hm; yes, yes. It just happened, one thing after another. I think my wife deserves a tremendous amount of credit, that she was the one in 1986 said, Hey, Roy, let’s record Ohta-san. So that was our first record; and it won the Hoku for instrumental of the year. And she told me, Hey, we should open a studio in Kane‘ohe, which we did; and we should open a studio in Mililani, which we did. And so she had a lot of influence on where the studio was headed, both in the recording, both in the building of the studio where we could meet—we could reach now, more children. And so it just helped. In fact, we wrote a book on the ukulele. And I actually started it, you know, on my own, thinking I can do it. And it took me five years, and I couldn’t finish it. And she says, Where’s the book? And I said, Well, I’m still working on it. She said, Okay, give it to me; let me help you.




Leslie, we finished the book in four months. You see?




And that’s—you know, my name is out there, because it’s Roy Sakuma Productions, right? But you know, I can tell every person out there, honestly, that the success or whatever we do, it’s the woman behind; Kathy. And she doesn’t want to be in the forefront; she likes to stay in the background. But she is the, like the heart and soul of our company.


Did she have an ukulele connection before you?


No; not at all. But when I was dating her—and this is how small Hawaii is—she didn’t tell me ‘til months and months later that Ohta-san and her were first cousins.




I didn’t know. You know, so it was meant to be; it was meant to be. And so it’s just so, you know, it’s interesting.


You’re embarking on something new, and it involves something old. Can you tell us about that?


In 1970, as I was mentioning earlier, when I was hurting a lot, I was struggling, and I picked up my ukulele. And I started—this song came out of me, and it was you know, I’m not a singer, but it was something like—wait, now. [SINGS] I am what I am; I’ll be what I’ll be; look, can’t you see that it’s me, all of me. And it just poured out of me. And so I didn’t have to sit there and write the notes, write the words; it just poured out of me. That was 1970. And that song became a song that every single child in the ‘70s sang as an elementary school child. So you know, that was I Am What I Am. Little did I realize, this year as I go to elementary schools and teach that song, that the song has been a powerful tool for me to help children. ‘Cause it’s been my whole life to help kids; to help kids through their struggles. But it’s more powerful this year than ever, because as I go to these schools and I ask these children, What does, I am what I am, I’ll be what I’ll be, mean to you? This is what I get from children. One child will say, It means it’s okay who I am. Another will say, I’m special. But a lot of children will tell me this; It means that it’s okay to be who I am, and I don’t have to be who I’m not. And that is so powerful. And I realized that this song was meant for all—to share with everybody. You know, it’s okay to be who you are, and you don’t have to try and be who you’re not. And I think that’s a wonderful passage for everyone to kind of gravitate to. You know, so I’m very happy that I’m able to share this song with all the children today. So we got a concert coming up this summer where we do the Wildest Show in Town; it’s every single summer. And the concept is laughter, love, and hope; and at the end of each concert we’re gonna have the children and everybody, the audience, sing I Am What I Am. So I’m really excited about that.


And obviously, you’ve accepted yourself for who you are.




As you recall, Roy Sakuma says he was a terrible student growing up. Now, after learning so many important lessons in life, he’s a teacher in more ways than one.


Roy had not spoken publicly about the mental illness that shaped his childhood until he sat down with us for Long Story Short. I’d like to applaud him for his openness and for encouraging people affected by mental illness to seek professional help.



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