Fred Hemmings


Fred Hemmings has lived life as a waterman, an entrepreneur and a lawmaker – but he says he’s most proud of being a “local boy.” He shares his experience growing up in Honolulu in the ’50s and ’60s surfing alongside Duke Kahanamoku in Waikīkī, and how his time as an amateur surfer led him to a career that championed professional surfing.


This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Aug. 12, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.


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Have you ever had a spill, where you thought you were gonna die?


Yes; yeah.


Held underwater?


Yes; it’s the worst way to die.


Do you know which way is up when you’re down there?


No, because for a minute, you’re in sheer terror, thinking you’re gonna die. And one of the things you tell yourself on a big wave wipeout is, you don’t take your death breath. There’s a point where your body says you gotta take a breath, and it takes a breath, and you swallow water and you die. So, it is an absolutely terrifying feeling. Yeah. But you only feel it if you live.


Fred Hemmings has had many death-defying experiences that he lived to tell about. Waterman, entrepreneur, lawmaker; he’s done it all. And not for love of money; mostly for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. Fred Hemmings, next, on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ask anyone who Fred Hemmings is, and you’ll get a wide range of answers: legendary surfer, channel winning canoe paddler and steersman, professional surfing contest producer, marathon runner, national television sports commentator, State Representative and State Senator, and back in the day, a Punahou School football player on a renowned championship team. Retired now, Fred Hemmings has been all of these things during his lifetime. Yet, for all of his endeavors and accomplishments, there’s one description that he is most proud of: local boy. It speaks not only to his family roots, but to his pride in his island home. The third of six children, he grew up in Honolulu in the 1950s and 60s in a landscape that is unrecognizable today.


I count as one of my greatest fortunes, besides my family, being born and raised in Hawai‘i. My roots are very deep in Hawai‘i. My mother’s side of the family, which is Portuguese, got here in 1881 from Funchal, Madeira, Portugal of a Portuguese island. And my dad got here in 1925 from New York City, as a young boy. We were a home of modest means. We weren’t by any means wealthy. And you know, we lived rather frugally. It was an interesting time. Lived in Kaimukī; born and raised in Kaimukī. Kaimukī boy.


You also lived in Kāhala, though.


I lived in Kāhala uh, when it was pig farms, and farms.


And it was all muddy, it had dirt roads.


Oh, there were basically three paved roads: Aukai, Kāhala Avenue, and Kealaolu that goes along the edge of the golf course. I lived on the next road up from Aukai; it was called Farmers Road, and it was a dirt road.


And there was a reason it was called Farmers Road.




People don’t realize that now, perhaps.


Yes; yes. Between Farmers Road and Kaimukī, there was no houses, because there was no subdivision. And it was three-acre farm lots.   Bishop Estate, which owned it all, had three-acre farm lots. And my grandfather, Arthur Freitas, a gentleman of Portuguese ancestry, and a great bon vivant, what a character he was. He raised horses. So, we had three horses, and we lived on a three and a half acre farm lot along with mostly Japanese farmers who were growing lettuce, cabbage, and other things in Kāhala. But Farmers Road was a farmers’ road. I went to Star of the Sea, a Catholic school, you know, my early years, a kindergartner. I went to Star of the Sea when it was still across from the old Keokara Store. There was no Kāhala. Keokara was on the corner of what now would be Kilauea and Wai‘alae Avenue. And across the street was the old Hung Wai Gee that then turned into Star of the Sea School. And so, it was the old Hung Wai Gee. Classic; you know, the wood buildings and all of that. So, that’s where I started school.


Your mother was Portuguese.




Your dad, English-Irish.




What was your family culture like?


You know, there’s really something funny. As rough and tough as my father was, hard-drinking, you know, a real rugged guy, the facts are that Portuguese women, they’re even tougher. But she was real quiet, you know, but ultimately, my mother would rule the day. And she instilled in us a lot of the values that I think have been an asset in my life. Most especially, I think values that come from what I call the holy trinity of humankind. You know, we’re physical beings, and we nourish that through exercise and good health and eating habits. We’re intellectual beings; we nourish it through education. But most importantly, I think is, we’re spiritual beings, and who we are, the goodness of who we are is our spiritual being. And my mother, in her own way, being a Catholic and being the way she was, she nourished honest, hardworking, spiritual values that I think endure throughout the betterment of humankind. So, she was something special.


What were you like as a kid? You said your dad was rough and ready; were you?


We all had nicknames; my dad named us. My sister was Big C; my brother Mark was Butchie. My nickname was Bully Beef.




I was a bully beef kinda kid. You know, I was a rough, tough, rolling around, rough ‘em up kid.


Does that mean you were a bully?


No; it just meant rough.




Yeah, yeah.


I know what you mean.


Bully, bully, bully boy, you know.




Bully boy kind guy.


So, you’re always ready to wrestle, or whatever it was.


Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And being a hard-headed young boy of Portuguese ancestry, if anybody would give me any grief, you know, I wouldn’t back away. I got in my fair share of fights when I was kid.


When you say your fair share, what does that mean? In connection with Portuguese ancestry?


Well, you know how kids are. No, kids argue about all kinds of different thing. And you know, like if I got off the bus in Kaimukī from Punahou, I was all of a sudden a Haole getting off the bus from Punahou. You know. When I was at Punahou, I was Fred Hemmings the Portagee. But when I got off the Punahou bus in Kaimukī, because I was getting off a Punahou bus, I was a Haole. So, guys would make remarks. Eh, Haole; eh, Haole. You’re too young to remember this, but they’d say: Eh, you like beef?


Oh, I remember that.


You remember that? You like beef? Eh, punk, you like beef? And I’d say, yeah.


And it was because of your ethnicity?


Because they perceived me as a Punahou Haole. It was stereotyping of the worst sorts. You know.


And on the Punahou side, they said what?


I was a Portagee; Fred Hemmings the Portagee.


And what did that connote in those days?


I wasn’t one of them. You know, I’m a kid, and I’d say: Well, I’m really not one of these guys, I’m not a wealthy Caucasian; I’m a Portagee at Punahou. You know. And I was on financial aid, and I worked in the cafeteria. One of my claims to fame is, my Aunt Min Marciel introduced the malasadas to the Punahou carnival.


There you go. So, did that do the trick? Did you feel like one of the bunch?


Nah … I’ve always taken pride in my Portuguese heritage.


And you distinguished yourself at Punahou as an athlete.




In those days, football was everything.


Oh, gosh.


And you surfed as a recreational fun thing.


I grew up in a surfing family. My dad and Lex Brodie surfed together in Waikīkī as young boys. They both went to Roosevelt together. And so, my playground when I was kid wasn’t on a baseball field or anything; it was the surf at Waikīkī, where I learned to surf. And one of the greatest blessings in my life is growing up in the shadow of Duke Kahanamoku and the other beach boys. But my father wanted me to be a football player. ‘Cause he played football at Roosevelt, I was gonna play football. So, I got involved in Pop Warner Football, and I did pretty well at it.


What position did you play?


Funny story; let me tell you. I found out in my senior year at Punahou when I played with Charlie Wedemeyer, the ILH championship was a real big deal back then.




‘Cause that was the only game in town. I found out I was pretty fast and could run well. ‘Cause I was linebacker and, you know, all these little, scrawny little running backs would come out of the backfield, and I’d nail ‘em like a heat-seeking missile. I should have been a running back, but I had polio. Four of the children that were alive in the early 50s, we all had polio. And so, my father decided in his mind that I was a plug, that I couldn’t fun fast ‘cause the polio was lumbar polio, and my legs were quite weak for a while. I had to do a lot of things at Shriners Hospital to rehab my legs. Didn’t cripple me, but it made me not be able to run fast. So, my father said: You’ve gotta play on the line. So, I ended up playing on offensive center in middle line, which is kinda fun. Not as fun as running with the ball and making a touchdown, you know, ‘cause linemen, they don’t get any credit. We just block and get our butts kicked. But it was great.


When did you get polio?




So, you were just a little kid.


Yeah. It was just weak legs for a while, and I eventually rebounded out of it. And within two or three years, you know, I was running and jumping around like any normal kid.


But your dad had a sense that you could use your legs, but not fast.


Exactly. In his mind, I was a plug. And he’d call me that, too.


Oh; what did that do? Did that make you feel bad, or did it make you want to …


Oh, I believed him. Yeah. That’s one thing parents should really learn is, be careful of what you say to your kids. ‘Cause they’re more than likely gonna believe you. And so, always plant seeds of confidence and goodness with your kids.


So now, you realize that you could run fast, and knock people down.


Yeah; by the time I was a senior at Punahou playing with Charlie Wedemeyer, I was playing on the line now. We used to play both ways; offensive line, and then defense. I was a linebacker, and I could run down the little backs, and you know, like I said, nail ‘em. And I said: Eh, I’m not that slow, I could have been a running back.


And that was a great team you were on.


Oh, it was unbelievable. I’ll never forget, Leslie, what a thrill. November, Turkey Day of 1964, we took a bus with a police escort to the old Honolulu Stadium. We warmed up on our field, not in the stadium, and they were all wondering where’s the Punahou team. And we took a bus. We ran off the bus through the portal, and right onto the field to play the game. And I was one of the captains. And we beat Kamehameha. We were tied; we’d gone through the whole season, Kamehameha had lost a game, we’d lost a game. So, Turkey Day was for the championship. And there were twenty-five thousand plus people in the old Termite Palace, which was the stadium. There were folding chairs along the edge of the field so they could maximize the crowd. And we ran onto the field, and at the end of the game, we won twenty to six. We beat Kamehameha for the championship. Which back then was a real big deal; ILH champions.


Fred Hemmings grew up surfing in Waikīkī. He competed in amateur surfing events around the globe, winning many of them. This was during the 1960s, when the surfing craze was taking over the nation, and Hemmings saw an economic opportunity.


I didn’t go to college. I went to college for one year at UH, and then I quit to start professional surfing and start the business of professional surfing. I went surfing, basically. But I’m telling all my grandkids, and as I told my children: You’ve gotta go to college if you want to be successful. But as fate would have it, not going to college was, in a curious way a blessing for me, because I didn’t have an occupation. I could go where my nose took me in life. I surfed with the greatest surfers of the 20th century and in the 60s. Joey Cabell, Paul Strauch, and then a guy who was the first Pipeline which history has forgotten, a guy named Butch Van Artsdalen, and myself were the Duke’s surf team.


You also mentioned that Duke Kahanamoku was perhaps one of the greatest citizens of Hawaii you’ve ever met.


When I was a little boy, back then, lot of local guys would call the younger boy: Eh, boy. You’d never say the name. He wouldn’t say Fred; Eh, boy. But then, I got to be a member when I got to be a fairly good surfer; I got put on the Duke’s surf team, and I traveled with Duke. I think I can honestly say the most beloved citizen of Hawai‘i, the person we loved the most because of the content of his spirit, not his accomplishments, was Duke. A handsome Hawaiian, a man who knew no malice or negative.


So, you were an amateur surfer. Surfing in competitions, you did well in competitions.


Yeah; I did pretty good. I never surfed professionally. I started professional surfing. Surfing had grown under the leadership of a guy named Eduardo Arena of Peru, and he developed a world surfing championship. They held the first one in Peru in ’65, and then they held one in San Diego, and finally went to Puerto Rico when I competed in it and did pretty good. It’s their fiftieth anniversary this year. I read a poem, probably the only thing I ever remember, poetry in school; it was by A.E. Housman. It said: Smart lad, to slip betimes away, From fields where glory does not stay, And early though the laurel grows, It withers quicker than the rose. It was about an athlete who died young, and they were carrying him through the town. And laurel would never wither, because he got buried as a champion. And what that said to me was that, leave the field when you’re a champion. You know, don’t become a has-been. And I didn’t want to become a has-been, but I also saw the economic opportunity of starting professional surfing. I got hired by the Smirnoff to put on their meet, which originally was California, and then it moved here. And the following year, in 1971, I started the Pipeline Masters, which believe it or not, is in its forty-eighth year. Gosh; I think I was eight years old when I started it.


And you’re not involved in it anymore?


No; I sold my proprietary—same thing with my life. In 1988, I was really proud Leslie. I had surfing events on all three television networks. This was before there was cable television.


While Fred Hemmings was busy with his amateur and professional surfing careers, there was another sport that was close to his heart. He was a champion outrigger canoe steersman.


I learned to steer a canoe in an old koa boat called the Ka Moi. It’s now hanging in the bar of the Outrigger.


That’s the other thing; you were a member of the Outrigger Canoe Club, even though, as you say, you’re a family of modest means.




How did that happen?


That happened very modestly. You know, we couldn’t charge in the snack bar or anything, but we were all members ‘cause my dad wanted us to paddle and surf, and he wanted us to be members of the Outrigger. And we were. And you know, the Outrigger is like Punahou; people can sometimes stereotype the Outrigger. But I’m so proud of the Outrigger. It has really contributed significantly to watersports in Hawai‘i. Outrigger paddlers and surfers have been amongst the world’s best. It’s won more Moloka‘i to Oahu canoe races than any other club.


So, it was your hangout when you were in school?


Paddled every summer. You know, we had regattas. Back when I started paddling, there were no fiberglass canoes, there was only koa canoes.


And they were heavy.


Oh, yeah.


What about the paddles?


The paddles were wood and very heavy. Yeah. But things have changed, progress. But to the credit of canoe paddling, they’ve done an excellent job of preserving the integrity of the sport.


And you’re a steersman. So, that’s a very key position on the boat. All of them are key positions, but you call the shots on the boat. What does a steersman do? Maybe you could explain all the things.


You’re very intuitive that way. I used to steer, and I was very much the boss of the boat. The steersman thinks about the course, the steersman thinks about working the ocean, working the wind, how to avoid currents. And there’s a thousand things a good steersman should learn about. When you’re in the Molokai race, is the tide coming in? If it is, you run a little more inshore, because it runs faster near the shore. The tide’s going out, you stay away ‘cause it’s pulling Makapu‘u from Moloka‘i. So, there’s all these little subtleties to being a good steersman, that the steersman should worry about. Of course, in the regatta season when they race around flags, it’s a little different.


Your family seems to have a steersman gene. Don’t you have generations of steersmen in your family?






My grandson Trevor, who’s sixteen now, just won the state varsity paddling championship, steering at Punahou. So, he’s a fourth generation canoe paddler steersman. Which is something; fourth generation. My dad, my son. My son’s won a couple Moloka‘is. He’s real good.


I saw a photo of you surfing this huge wave in a canoe.




Where was that?


A place called Castles. Ancient times, it was called Kalehuawehe. Those swells come from New Zealand. They come actually five thousand miles; it takes them ten days to get here. And by the time they get here, if it’s a really huge swell, it can get up to fifteen feet out at Castles. It’s where Duke got his legendary ride in 1917, from out at Castles.


Have you ever had a spill, where you thought you were gonna die?


Yes; yeah.


Held underwater?


Yes; it’s the worst way to die.


Do you know which way is up when you’re down there?


No, because for a minute, you’re in sheer terror, thinking you’re gonna die. And one of the things you tell yourself on a big wave wipeout is, you don’t take your death breath. There’s a point where your body says you gotta take a breath, and it takes a breath, and you swallow water and you die. So, it is an absolutely terrifying feeling. Yeah. But you only feel it if you live. So, I can remember a couple times. Yeah.


And how did you break out of it? How did you get free?


You finally break the surface and you take a breath. And you know, you live.


You were able to endure until you can get out, get up.


Well, once you get your air back in your lungs, you know, the next wave comes. What happens when you wipe out is, the water in the surf line is usually moving. ‘Cause once a wave breaks, it becomes moving. You get pushed in. That’s where rip currents come from. So, you get pushed in enough where you’re not in the lineup for the next wave, usually. So, the next wave hits, you know, it’s soda water. You just dive under it. You know. And when you wipe out on a big wave … this was before you could get towed in; you had to paddle in. So, you’re taking a lot of your energy; it’s like running, and then, you jump in a washing machine. And usually, when you wipe out, you get—pah! You know, you smack the water. So, you put all those combination things; you don’t get held under much longer than twenty seconds, but that’s plenty enough to drown. ‘Cause you don’t have any air. And you know, when you suck in a breath of air, that air goes to the muscles that are working. And so, you can try to release quick. But fortunately, you know, most of us made it successfully. There are some that haven’t, though.


When you’ve had a close call like that, how long does it take you to go back into the water, in big water?


As long as it takes to get your board, and go back out.


Fred Hemmings continued to take ocean risks that could have ended in disaster, and he took some hits on land, too. It wasn’t until he had a particularly harrowing tree-cutting accident that he started thinking differently.


I’ve had my share of accidents. I cut my toe off; three of my toes off with a lawnmower. The worst one was actually pretty serious, and this happened late in 2015. I was sawing down a tree along the side of the road, and it fell down and it kicked back, and it hit me in the chest and broke eight of my ribs, punctured my lung, and crushed my shoulder.


Were you alone?


By myself; yeah. I’ll never forget this. So, I flew through the air. You know how they say when you die, you relive your life. I said to myself: Oh, S, I killed myself. Then I blacked out, and then, I finally came to, and I couldn’t move the side of my body. It was a real funny feeling. And I reached into my pocket and grabbed cell phone, and I called some people, and they called the ambulance. But then, when I went to the hospital, they OD’d me on opioids, and my heart stopped, and they had to jolt me back. So, I’m very cautious now when I do yardwork.


But you still do yardwork?


Little bit.


Did your life change because of life-threatening incidents like that? Have you changed your life any?


I’ve had a lot of life-threatening incidences. But this one did change me. All the rest, like almost dying in the surf, and you know, having all these other perilous situations I’ve been in; you know, I’ve done a lot of things that are kind of on the edge. But that did change my life.


How so?


I was scared.






Mm. And so, you’re careful?


Yeah. You’re scared of losing not your life; you’re scared of losing your grandkids, and your family, and you know, things you love.




So, it’s a strange feeling.




Yes; mortality. Exactly. I used to, with reckless abandon, take the canoe out to Castles to ride big waves in a canoe. I’m a little gun shy now; I’m not gonna take a chance that’s gonna kill me. You know, when you’re younger, you know, that’s part of the DNA of humankind. There are some guys that got that alpha gene, that they’re gonna risk their life, and that’s what progressed humanity, is the guys that leave the safety of the status quo and venture. You know, it’s a star trek gene, I call it. It’s the genetics of star trek, to go where no one’s gone before. That’s what advances humanity.


Are you saying you had that before, but now, you’re reining that in?


I had it in spades. I mean, I had it triple-time. And now, well, I’m also seventy-two years old, so I don’t have to go. I’m done there. You know, I’ve done my star trek going places where no one’s gone before; big waves, politics, surfing, paddling. You know, I’ve pretty much done everything I’ve wanted to do.


What’s your goal now?


What’s my goal?




My goal is to enjoy my family and loved ones with the remaining years I have, and to rekindle friendships with friends around the world and nourish, you know, relationships. I’m not a very materialistic guy. I drive a Honda; you know, I’m not a high-end guy. I don’t need to go to fancy restaurants.


You don’t hire a yardman. Or maybe you do now.


No, I don’t.


You don’t?


I still do a little bit of my own yardwork. You know, the family compound, we have some guys that come in and help out. But I’m a good supavisah.


I can ‘em where to go.


So, you’ve never regretted that you didn’t go for riches, you went for experience?


Exactly. That’s a good thing. I pay my bills, but I’m not a rich man. I have a beautiful family, and I pay my bills, and I’m able to put food on the table, and that’s rich enough for me. And what’s really nice now for me is, I’m at the age where I can travel to other places and have friends. I love going to Peru, and I have a lot of friends around the world that I can occasionally visit, and they visit here. So, it’s a rich life without a lot of money.


Besides being a legendary waterman, Fred Hemmings is probably best remembered as a rare Republican State Senator in Hawai‘i. And he brought the first surf shop to Ala Moana Center. In 2017, he wrote a book, Local Boy, a memoir. Mahalo to Fred Hemmings of Lanikai, Windward Oahu, for sharing your stories with us. And thank you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.


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


I would run at night. I wouldn’t go to bed; I’d meet a buddy at nine-thirty, ten o’clock at night, and run in the mountains. And so, I wrote about it in the book; it’s under Running. It says: One of the most beautiful moments ever was when Kent and I were running the Maunawili Trail to Waimanalo on a cool, full moon night. About halfway to Waimanalo, we rounded the Ko‘olau Ridge that was high promontory. It was very still and eerie, and quiet. The luminescent moon was bright, casting a blue hue over the Windward Coast. It was ethereal. We stopped running, and pulled plastic ponchos from out butt packs and lied next to the trail, and basked in the soft light of the eerie night. Surely, God was on the high altar on the Ko‘olau Ridge. He touched us. So, that’s a message, I think, that I learned, that you know, money can’t buy that, those moments. You know, we have such great gifts, if we take the time to appreciate ‘em. You don’t have to be a rich fat cat, or you don’t have to have a fancy car. You don’t need to go to, you know, wherever to be happy. You take it in your own spirit, what you appreciate in life.



Ralph Goto


Original air date: Tues., July 10, 2012


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


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


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


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


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


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


[CHUCKLE] Thanks, Leslie.




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


[CHUCKLE] So your parents were from Hawaii?


They were originally from Hawaii; yeah.


And your father was sent as an interpreter, translator?


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


Where did you grow up?


First ten years of my life, in Japan.


So you speak fluent Japanese?


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


Go to the bathroom.


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


Ten years in Japan, then where?


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


And where did you fit in?


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


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


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


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


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


Did you experience racism?


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


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


Right. [CHUCKLE]


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


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


Did you come back with your parents after graduation?


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


And what was your major?


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


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


The second was in PE, in secondary education.


Did you know how you were going to use that?


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


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


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


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










I think that developed along the way.


Were you looking for a civil service job?


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


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


That was the head of a division.


Division; right.




And you already had experience in management in—


Through the Y.




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


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


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


The old guy or the new guy? [CHUCKLE]


Okay; is there a difference?


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


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


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


But you know, it is stressful.




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




And there’s the threat of skin cancer.


There’s threat of skin cancer.


And injury during rescues.




And aggravation from people who won’t listen.


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


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


An experienced lifeguard.


And this is 2012, as we speak.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


So you gave discretion and latitude?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


And the characters change.


Sure; every four years.


Yes, with every election.


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


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


Well … depends who you speak with. [CHUCKLE]


Okay; who would say otherwise?


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




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


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


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


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


To coach your kids?


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


Have you talked about it with them?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Yeah; right. [CHUCKLE]


What’s that mean? [CHUCKLE]


Keeps me grounded. How’s that?


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


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


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


Oh, yes.


What’s next?


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


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




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


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


And then, do you sell those bowls?


Not yet.


But that’s the plan?


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


But would you be pau working for money?


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


It’s a good exercise, isn’t it?


Yeah; it’s great.


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


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


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


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


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


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