Renaissance Man

Celebrating the 125th birthday of Duke Kahanamoku, take a look back at the life, the legacy and the legend of Duke.

The year was 2002, and an iconic image of a great man would come to be seen by people around the world as he stood as a symbol of grace, humility and sportsmanship. Marking what would have been the 112th birthday of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, a commemorative stamp featuring a young Kahanamoku, flanked by Waikiki surfers and with Diamond Head in the background, was issued in his honor. The illustration was created based on a photograph of Duke at 21 years of age.

Kahanamoku is considered to be the father of international modern surfing, but, along with this title, he was a waterman exemplar. Duke Kahanamoku, called Paoa by his closest acquaintances, was born in 1890 and would learn to swim in the clear waters of Kalia at the far end of Waikiki. He would grow to become an Olympic gold-medal swimmer, along with a world-renowned surfer, diver, paddler, water polo player and beach volleyball player. In these roles, Duke traveled the globe, bringing with him extraordinary athletic skills and an overall presence that inspired and amazed while inviting others to experience the aloha of Hawaiʻi.

Duke had spent a good deal of time in southern California spreading the aloha spirit while demonstrating his swimming and surfing prowess. But his dream of living there came in 1922 when he was offered a contract with Paramount Pictures. Duke lived in Los Angeles from 1922 to 1929 and appeared in approximately 30 movies, both silent and talkies. He played many chiefs, and although Kahanamoku was himself a descendant of aliʻi, he would never play the role of a chiefly Native Hawaiian.

The Paris Olympics would come Duke’s way in 1924, 12 years after his first Olympic experience. Now the athlete was 34 years old, still with the physique of a man 10 years younger. In his race, the 100-meter freestyle, he was edged out of the gold by Johnny Weissmuller of “Tarzan” fame, Duke’s brother Sam taking the bronze. Years later and by that time close friends with Duke, Weissmuller would express, “I learned it all from him.” Kahanamoku would compete in the Olympics until he was 42, that time as an alternate for the U.S. water polo team in the Los Angeles games.

Once again in California, surfing off Corona del Mar with lifeguards who had become his friends, Duke would save lives. On June 15, 1925, Duke witnessed a yacht called the Thelma leave Newport Harbor when it was struck by the monster waves, and 17 passengers were swept into the sea. With the speed of a master, Kahanamoku paddled to them, placed drowning men on his board, and headed to shore. He would repeat this feat two more times with the exact number of men rescued slightly disputed. The following ran in an article in the Los Angeles Times.

Battling with his surfboard through the heavy seas in which no small boat could live, Kahanamoku, was the first to reach the drowning men. He made three successive trips to the beach and carried four victims the first trip, three the second and one the third. Sheffield, Plummer and Derega were credited with saving four; while other members of the rescue party waded into the surf and carried the drowning men to safety.

On August 24, 1927, Kahanamoku was the Waikiki Natatorium’s inaugural swimmer. He dove from a platforms to the delight of hundreds of onlookers—some who had traveled just blocks and some who had come from around the world to participate in the opening day festivities.

Duke returned to the islands for good in 1929, and, in 1934, made the decision to run for the office of City and County Sheriff. He won with ease and would end up holding this office for 26 years. As sheriff, Duke was responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of the jail and prison. He cared, though, as much for those doing right as he did those having done wrong, and he worked hard to ensure proper conditions for all. Preserved in the archives of the Bishop Museum, which houses Duke’s famous “Duke” surfboard, one can find official documents delivering the following words. In both English and Hawaiian, Duke thanks the people of Honolulu for their support and expresses his own subtle sense of confidence in himself and in the good nature of all humankind.


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Duke in knickers and cap on a fishing trip in California (Nadine A. Kahanamoku & Sandra Kimberley Hall photo courtesy of Duke: A Great Hawaiian by Sandra Kimberley Hall, Bess Press, BessPress. com)

Aloha to all Oahu. Thank you for the great honor you have bestowed on me. I shall try to be worthy of your confidence. If at any time you are distracted by things that have happened at the jail or office, please see me. I’m sure things can be straightened out to your satisfaction.

Thank you and mahalo,

Duke Kahanamoku, Sheriff.

The year 1938 would bring a new face to the islands, professional dancer Nadine Alexander of Boston. Hired by Walter Dillingham to be a dance teacher, she arrived on the cruise ship Lurline just after Christmas. Beyond dance instruction, however, Alexander had another interest in coming to the Hawaiian Islands. In a 1990 interview, she recalled first time she saw the movie star Duke Kahanamoku.

When I was in high school, I saw his picture in a magazine with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, They had found this wonderful Hawaiian athlete. I thought, “That’s the man!” What a gorgeous hunk of humanity.

The two would be married in a private ceremony in Kailua-Kona on August 2, 1940, and famed heiress and Shangri La owner, Doris Duke, would help the couple buy their home on Diamond Head. They would spend 27 years together in love and laughter.

The Kahanamokus were at the Outrigger Canoe Club on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Duke shot out as sheriff to prepare Honolulu for what was a time of alarm and awe followed by martial law. Times were changing in the world, and suddenly the small chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific was more important than ever.

However, Duke would continue his role of mentoring watermen in the sports so dear to him. He would paddle for and then coach the Outrigger paddling team and instill in his “boys” the qualities of hard work yet humility, caring for the community, and good sportsmanship mirrored by good behavior. These qualities are the undercurrent of the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, whose primary mission is providing young scholars and athletes support to pursue their dreams and, thus, perpetuate Duke’s spirit and legacy.

In 1955, Duke would suffer a heart attack. He would recover, however, and, in September of that year attend the Melbourne Olympics as an official Territorial representative to the games.

According to official Duke Kahanamoku biographer Sandra Kimberley Hall, he would also return to Freshwater on this trip to Australia and ride his old board. The next time Duke returned to Freshie would be in 1963 when the famous photograph was taken of Duke posing with the board he had crafted back in 1915.

HawaiÊ»i would become the 50th state in 1959. This move to statehood meant, for the time being, the position of Sheriff of Honolulu for Duke would be no more. Appointed HawaiÊ»i’s Ambassador of Aloha, though, would formally place him in a position he had held for decades.

Fred Hemmings recalls sitting with Duke at an event during the time that Duke was the ambassador. “He was gracious to every person he met.” Hemmings tells the story as such.

Some belligerent guy approached Duke with a “Duke Ka-wana-waka-moku-moku” mockery of his last name and asked, “Hey, Duke, do you remember me? I met you in 1933 when I was three.”

A brief time passed, and Duke responded, “How nice to see you again.”

That’s the way the man was. The guy walked away feeling cool, and Duke was just his same gracious self.

Kahanamoku would go on to start his own line of aloha shirts and open his own Duke Kahanamoku’s Restaurant and Bar at the old International Market Place, where Don Ho would solidify his fame. Everywhere he went, whether in Honolulu or around the globe, he was received with the highest regard for his unrivaled character.

Duke would bridge from swimming and surfing toward boating in his older years, even having a motor yacht designed to his own specifications. He christened it Nadu K, in honor of the marriage between Nadine and him. A few years ago, the Waikiki Yacht Club located the yacht, in poor condition, purchased it from a private owner, and restored it to its grandeur adding a “2” to the name. It now lies near the main dining hall of the yacht club—one for which Duke had helped obtain building materials for years ago. The Waikiki Yacht Club is built close to Kalia, Duke’s childhood home.

In 1962, Kahanamoku would undergo brain surgery for a clot that had formed, but again recover, and he would enjoy what was the heyday of Honolulu in the 60s. In 1965, he would be the first individual inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and SURFER magazine’s International Surfing Hall of Fame. This year, he would also create Duke’s Surf Team, comprised of Fred Hemmings, Butch Van Artsdale, Paul Strauch Jr. and Joey Cabell.

In his later years and even posthumously, Kahanamoku would receive numerous awards and have statues constructed in his honor by surfing communities around the world—commissioned by those who knew him, those who loved him, and those who admired him. In 1999, SURFER magazine named Duke Kahanamoku “Surfer of the Century.”

Upon Duke’s death in 1968, his wife and the world would have only memories of his greatness. When biographer Hall was asked whether, after delving through all her documents and data regarding the great Duke Kahanamoku, she had come up with something especially worth sharing, she detailed the following.

I have dug through archives and resources that no one has even thought of looking at before regarding Duke. What I discovered was that, indeed, he deserved all the praise he received. Duke was as fine a person as legend has it, whom the news praised, and whom songwriters composed for. He was a remarkable human being.

Thirteen years ago, Duke Kahanamoku’s image was seen throughout the world upon a tiny rectangle in the corner of envelopes. An entirely new generation would receive letters in the mail featuring a man who, even as a drawing, emitted a glory and graciousness unparalleled. For decades, Duke himself spanned the globe as a great athlete, a great Hawaiian and a great man, carrying with him nobility, compassion, humility and courage. He brought the aloha of HawaiÊ»i to countries far and away, and he is present in spirit every time a surfer hits the waves.

Duke and the Waikiki Yacht Club

Many island residents are unaware of the hand Duke Kahanamoku played in establishing Honolulu’s Waikiki Yacht Club.

The area where the club is situated is within a mile of Kalia, where Duke was raised.

Duke was on-hand as pilings were being laid for sailing races after the U.S. Army wound down its occupation of the area. Later, after hearing that the Navy had collected lumber from the closed Pearl Harbor Yacht Club and was prepared to burn it, Duke and the Waikiki Yacht Club’s founding members set out to collect it and bring it back to build the clubhouse.

The wood they collected provided the foundation for what would become the WYC clubhouse, with Duke Kahanamoku as one of the founding members.

Kahanamoku would remain a member of the Waikiki Yacht Club until he passed away.

The club would find and purchase Duke’s custom-built motorized yacht, which he had named NADU K in honor of his beloved Nadine. The club restored it to its original grandeur—and added a “2” to acknowledge its renewed life.


A statuesque Duke holding baby Thomas Albon III on Outrigger grounds (photo courtesy of Dorothy Albon, mother of Tom Albon)

A statuesque Duke holding baby Thomas Albon III on Outrigger grounds (photo courtesy of Dorothy Albon, mother of Tom Albon)

In the Arms of a Legend

This photograph is more significant than it might first seem. It represents an era during which intricate connections existed between the men who lived, worked and played in Waikiki.

In a 2002 Star-Bulletin interview, Don Ho reminisces, “All the boys from that era, there was a connection between all of us.”

The baby in Duke’s arms is Tom Albon, and the photo was taken by his mother on the grounds of the Outrigger Canoe Club when it was near the Royal Hawaiian.

Albon, who now lives on the mainland, recalls, “The ’60s and ’70s in Honolulu were such happy years. Duke would go to the Outrigger and chat with folks like Henry Ayau and Kimo McVay.”

“Personal connections were how everyone met at the time. I was great friends with McVay, who worked with Duke to create the Duke Kahananamoku’s Restaurant and Bar where Don Ho was the superstar.”

The Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Surfing Classic, established in 1965, was the brainchild of McVay, who was also Duke’s manager. Ayau was appointed executive vice president of the annual surf competition in 1971.

Ayau and Kahanamoku were friends during the last years of Kahanamoku’s life. Ayau was the doorman at Duke’s nightclub in the 1960s and would later become executive vice president for the legendary surfer’s business complex. Both men were admired for their ease and grace and for being exemplary Hawaiians in both deed and heart.

With his own fondness, Albon remembers, “Duke had an infectious smile and a twinkle in his eye. He was the only person I have ever seen with that smile and that light. You just couldn’t help but feel a connection to that amazing man.”


Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation

For his entire life, Duke not only competed and excelled athletically, but he also emanated good sportsmanship and grace. Duke’s spirit and legacy are honored through The Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation (ODKF).

The foundation’s purpose is to encourage scholar-athletes to imagine all they can become through school and sports, while doing all they can for others.

August of this year marks Duke’s 125th birthday, so Duke’s Foundation is working to increase its endowment in order to offer more athletic and scholarship grants to our islands’ young people.

Essentially, there are many talented students throughout the islands who demonstrate excellence academically and athletically, while giving back to their communities, and thus emanate the aloha spirit that defined Duke.

Past ODKF president Bill Pratt states, “He is the icon we all revere; however, we’re not just celebrating him but his character. The symbol of the person he was is helping us better the lives of outstanding student-athletes. Sharing aloha around the world is what we want for all our keiki. It’s the gift Duke left for us.”

Last year’s recipient of the Ambassador of Aloha Scholarship, Maluhia Stark-Kinimaka, a KapaÊ»a High School alumna, is a member of the HawaiÊ»i Junior Olympic Surf Team and student of aeronautical engineering.

Perhaps one of ODKF’s award recipients will find himself or herself in the HawaiÊ»i Waterman Hall of Fame—just like initial inductee, Duke Kahanamoku, himself.


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