Don Ho

by Bill D. on 3/25/2015 9:49:29 AM

Uncle Don

I was talking with one of my friends, and I said something like 'every family has people they look up to'. He said, very definitely, 'no, not everybody does.'

Well, maybe I live in a dream world, but we did in our family. And as you grow up and get older, you remember the things about them that made you want to respect them.

Uncle Don was always the guy you looked up to. Because he was always the guy who could never do anything wrong. I mean, he was all-star football, all-star basketball, and all-star baseball. He excelled in everything he did. He was an Air Force pilot.

What boy in Hawaii would not idolize him? Even before he became 'Don Ho'. 

I remember when our family lived in this small, little house in Kaneohe, and he came over with his uniform on. There was a big party going on in the house, but he'd spend time with us kids. He would lay on the ground and tell all us little guys stories.

He'd have me put his hands on his and push me up... you know, how you can do that with a little kid. I guess that might seem like a little thing, but it was a big deal to us kids. 

And then years later, after he became 'Don Ho' the singer and celebrity, no matter how busy he was, he'd take time for us. We'd go 'visit uncle', and he would be talking with some big shots. You knew they were big shots. You recognized their names.

But he would say to them, 'hang on, guys, I'll be right with you', and he'd take us into another room and ask, 'how's it going? How’s the game going to be this weekend? In fact, he even used to come to some of the basketball games I played in high school. By himself. No entourage, no big deal, just him.

He was who he was. And he was humble. Truly humble. I wish there was a way to say that so I could get the depth of the meaning of that across properly. Someone asked me how he stayed that way through all the years of celebrity he experienced.

The way he himself answered that, sometimes at his show, in public, but he said the same thing in real life, behind the curtains, he said that he felt like he was just lucky that he was on the scene at the right time. That was all.

That scene and time started with some real problems. When World War II ended, things changed at Honey's, the bar our family had, as it did throughout the Islands. Business got real slow, and either my grandmother or my grandfather was sick, I can't really remember at this point which one it was.

In any event, he came back to Hawaii from the mainland to help out with the business. That meant sweeping, cleaning up, forklifting, whatever. And the place was slow. I mean dead slow. It was having a hard time being successful. My grandparents were trying different things to get business built back up, but it was really difficult.

And then... I remember the story like my mom told it...  my grandpa said, 'well, Don, why don't you call a few of your friends from Kamehameha School?' 

Uncle Don boarded at Kamehameha, the school for underprivileged Hawaiian kids, where they could get an education and learn the Hawaiian culture, and language and music. Even though his friends from there had gone their separate ways after school, some of them serving in different branches of the military during the War, he had stayed in contact with them.

By now, they had come back to Hawaii too. Sometimes they would play music together, just hanging out, or at family parties with guitars and ukuleles and sometimes Uncle Don would sing. And so grandpa asked him, more than once, 'hey, Don, why don't you just call some of your friends, do some music on the weekends?'

Uncle Don told me later, 'I thought he was crazy. But I wouldn't say that to him. He was my father. But nothing was really happening, so finally I said what the heck? I called some friends up, and started to do music behind the bar. They'd put the organ right behind the bar. I'd be making drinks behind the bar, and my friends would hang out at one of the tables with their ukuleles, and I'd go over, and they'd start playing. And that's how it happened.'

After that, things just kept getting better and better.

Sometimes it seemed like everything Uncle Don touched turned into gold. But throughout all the years, he would make time to see us, and talk with us. No matter what kind of phase we were going though in our lives, we could always go talk with him. Even later in life, like when my dad passed away, and then my mom. When you lose people you love, it hurts. You miss talking to them.

But even after my parents were gone, we always had Uncle. He was going to live forever!  Because he was, like, magnified! He was one of the pillars. And he was the last pillar. When he passed, it really rocked my life. You see your own mortality. And now the next generation is in charge. You're it! And you think about that for a while.

I wonder about something. They say in all the business books you're supposed to find ways to make a business work, and then just keep doing that. But I wonder.

As I wonder, I hear a little voice in my head from Uncle Don. Not a real voice, so don't worry. But just a remembrance. People would ask him, 'Don, you became a TREMENDOUS success! You became 'Mr. Hawaii'! How do you feel about that?' And he'd say... 'nothing'. And they'd say, 'what do you mean, nothing?'  And he'd say, very calmly and sincerely, 'I didn't do anything. I was at the right place at the right time, and I got lucky.'

So he stayed just himself. Of course during his lifetime there were things he did that he was not proud of. Just like me and you and everyone else. But he and my dad were the only two people I knew growing up who were not afraid to be themselves. No matter how people thought about it. This is why they liked each other so much.

Me. At 50-something years old, I'm still trying to find out how to be just myself. When I get into the business stuff, making products, designing products, selling Kona coffee, I find myself trying to be liked. And then I think I'm not really being myself, whatever that is. Maybe when I talk to people about personal things, like grieving with them or encouraging them, it's easy to be myself. But when I'm trying to be 'successful', I'm not really being myself. 

Hawaii used to be a lot of Aloha. But it changed. Uncle Don explained to me why. He said, 'do you know why Waikiki changed? Because they thought only of profit.' Meaning that places started charging outrageous prices for parking. They started charging outrageous prices for drinks.

So when he started playing Dukes at Waikiki, one of the deals was they wouldn't charge a cover charge to the locals. And they wouldn't charge them the big prices for drinks. And when the service guys come in, they wouldn't get a cover charge either.

The way Uncle Don got to Dukes is a story in itself.

A second Honey's got created in Waikiki, but it was still a very small place A rinky dink place. But Uncle Don had all the local guys coming over from Kaneohe, sometimes barefoot, and these guys made Honeys 'the stop' in Waikiki just like they had in Kaneohe. After a while, Kimo McVey, Hawaii's top promoter of talent who ran Duke's, which was big in Waikiki then, and still is, came in to see Uncle Don. He brought along a couple of his cronies, marketing and sales guys, and they sat through one of the shows at the second Honey's.

After it was all over, Uncle Don went to the table and said 'how's it going Kimo' and all that. And Kimo McVey said, 'you know, Don, you've got a pretty good thing going. But I don't know if we would want your type of local clientele in our place.' Well, Uncle Don was a little ... disappointed in that, and said, 'all right, nice to see you,' and whatever.

Two weeks later, Kimo McVey comes back with his whole entourage of people. And along with him comes Duke Kahanamoku, who was about the most famous guy from Hawaii at that time. You can see a statue of him on the beach at Waikiki today. For any boy growing up in Hawaii, Duke Kahanamoku was king. Olympics champion, gold medal swimmer, top surfer, the whole nine yards.

Kimo McVey says, 'Don, we want you to come to our place.' And Uncle Don goes, 'I don't know, man, you don't like my clientele.' And told him, no he didn't want to come.

So Duke Kahanamoku grabbed him, and kissed him right on the cheeks... guys weren't afraid to do that in those days.. and he said, 'come work for me.' And Uncle Don said, I mean, what are you going to say to Duke Kahanamoku? Are you going to say no to Duke Kahanamoku? No, you're not. Uncle Don said he would go to work for him. But, there wasn't any cover charge for the local guys and all that, not in those days.

But later it changed. Waikiki changed. And the locals didn't come any more. In the old days, if you found a local guy on the beach, he might show you how to surf. He might invite you over to a baby luau that we have when kids get one year old. But then they killed the goose that laid the golden egg. That local way of life. It wasn't something you can find in a book on marketing. It was a way of living, and you can't recreate it in a shopping mall.

The Hawaiians believed you couldn't own land. You can't own something you never made, was what they thought. There was a sense of appreciation for the things God had given you, like family, loved ones. It made life different from the way we have it now.

And they lived it out by helping one another and showing what a true Aloha spirit meant. They helped each other, and even strangers, and then those people learned what it was like to have that spirit, and they passed it on too. Now we have news of people going out and shooting other people, and somebody hears that and says, 'yeah, I'm going to go out and shoot people too.' 

So, I'm thinking, maybe we lucky ones, the ones who were, as Uncle Don would say, 'in the right place at the right time', and experienced Aloha in their upbringing, maybe we can pass it on today. And if we have a place where that's encouraged, maybe it will actually happen, day to day.

Uncle Don never thought of how much of a success he was. Maybe we shouldn't measure success commercially, either. Maybe we should just be ourselves and see if that make the world just a little bit better place to live in while we're waiting for something better to come along. 

You gotta sell the coffee. But it's so much fun when you can also make a person's life a little easier.