Few people are frequently and fondly remembered almost fifty years after their death. Then again, few individuals so authentically embody the spirit and character of a place better than “The Father of Surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku did for Hawaii.
Duke was born this day in 1890 and though he died in 1968, his spirit can managed to continue to animate his favorite spot in the world, a place he singlehandedly popularized around the world – Waikiki Beach. It is not just the large open-armed statue of him along with one of his tried and true old-school extra long traditional Hawaiian surfboard that seems to capture his essence; its also the trusting and welcoming aloha culture which he personally embodied throughout his life and which still managers to define the Hawaiian Islands.
It was as a record-breaking swimmer that Duke competed in the 1912 Olympics and won the gold for the U.S.A. Perhaps even more historic than that victory, however, were the demonstrations he put on shortly thereafter in Australia, riding waves on the traditional Hawaiian longboard. It was the birth of surfing as the world would know it, and Duke was its greatest proponent, the “father” of the sport. Ironically, in his youth, surfing had nearly disappeared from the islands, banned earlier by white mainlanders who settled there and declared it immoral for people to appear in public without shirts. Luckily, Duke was among the handful of boys who had continued the ancient island tradition.
After a second round of medal-winning for swimming at the 1920 Olympics, Duke was lured to Hollywood, where he made about thirty movies, but his sojourns on the mainland only left longing to return home Soon enough, the world came to watch and meet the open-hearted man, tales of whose magic feats on the water became almost mythic.
Along with land and water development works that helped make Waikiki more accessible to visitors and hotel building, Duke Kahanamoku was a leading force in defining Hawaii as a dream destination for people around the world, whether they arrived by ocean liner or airplane. He could always be found on the beach at Waikiki, surfing, swimming, kindly posing for pictures and giving surfing tips. Duke became a living tourist attraction. With a personal dignity to his demeanor and a calm, centered humility when lauded with hyperbole for his astounding athleticism, strangers from all walks of life were compellingly drawn to him, as spellbound by his unaffectedness on the sand as they were by his skill on the sea. Without any suggestion on his part, newspaper and magazine articles, newsreels and radio broadcasts from the early 1930s onward cast him as the idealized Hawaiian.
Proud of and knowledgeable about his Hawaiian culture, eager to share it and patient with questions, he commanded the sort of inherent respect one often associates with being granted to royalty. Soon enough the rich and famous who visited Hawaii had to meet and be photographed with Duke, from child actor Shirley Temple to athlete Johnny Weissmuller to aviator Amelia Earhart to general George MacArthur. He formed a strong friendship with another Duke – the tobacco heiress Doris, who so fell in love with not only Hawaii but Kahanamoku that she bought property and built a home in Honolulu.
Over the years, Duke continued to swim and surf, his voice sometimes heard on broadcasts done from the beach where his more musically-inclined fellow “beach boys,” (including some men he’d grown up with surfing) played on radio broadcasts concerts “from the swaying palms of old Waikiki.”
The eldest of nine children, Duke had come of age just as the Hawaiian islands were annexed by the U.S. and its royal family deposed, but he assiduously avoided getting into any debate about whether it had been an illegal act or one unwittingly encouraged by the Hawaiian royals. Named by his father to commemorate an 1869 visit to the island by England’s Duke of Edinburgh, by his senior years, Duke was perceived as Hawaiian royalty himself. After Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, he became its official ceremonial greeter and visiting heads of state expected to be received by him when they arrived. In fact, the first person President Kennedy was eager to meet once touching down on Oahu was Duke.
In 1966, when England’s Queen Mother, Elizabeth, arrived at Honolulu International Airport to the sound of native music provided by a full band, Duke was on hand to greet her with a lei and lesson in doing the traditional hula dance. The Queen Mum was all too enthusiastic and shook it up for the cameras.
With his death two years later, Duke’s instructions for his burial were carried out accordingly. With several thousand Hawaiians crowding and weeping on the beach, his ashes were transported by longboard across the surf off Waikiki and flung into the air, blowing above and blending below, into the waters that knew him so well.
A somewhat shy man, not given to grandiose notions, he best summarized his entire philosophy of life in offering some rare advice to “Rabbit,” one of the younger “Beach Boys” on Waikiki. “Never, never turn your back on a person. Treat everyone with respect, no matter who they are or where they came from.”
Here is a well-done mini-documentary (11 minutes long) on Duke’s life with a 30 second setup….