Friday, December 29, 2017


John Butch Kekahu - Founder Of The Koani Foundation

By Joan Conrow - 2003 

Not long ago, I heard a man talking on the radio about his frequent visits to Kaua`i. It seems he comes often, seeking relaxation and rejuvenation, and each visit fully infuses him with the aloha spirit. But within three weeks of returning to California, the loving feelings vanish, requiring him to return to the islands for a fresh dose of aloha.

His comments got me thinking about aloha, a word that evokes immediate association with the Hawaiian Islands, while conjuring up idyllic images about love as it might be experienced in a tropical paradise.

Throughout my years of living in Hawai`i, I’ve heard the word used a lot, often in a shallow context. But it was John “Butch” Ka`apuiki Kekahu III, who helped me understand that aloha isn’t merely a word or a concept, but a way of life.

Butch and I met more than a decade ago in Anahola, a rural community with mountain peaks striking enough to warrant a scenic lookout and a large population of native Hawaiians. Most of them, like Butch, ended up there because it was one of the new places on Kaua`i where they could lease a home through the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, a state agency charged with getting Hawaiians back on their land.

From his small, simple home, Butch reached out to people all around the planet, spreading a message of tolerance, compassion, justice and devotion to the sacred. Even now, two years after his death, the memory of his love-infused life still serves as a reminder that Hawai`i and Hawaiians do not hold the monopoly on aloha. As Butch liked to say, aloha is not place-dependent, unless the place you’re referring to is the heart.

A full-blooded Hawaiian, Butch was born in Waimea, on Kaua`i’s west side, and later moved with his family to O`ahu. But Butch was a country boy at heart, and he returned home in 1973 with his wife and baby. “I think we were the first homeless people on the island,” he told me. “We came with no job, no money, no car. But you know, I think that’s the really exciting thing about life. If you had everything on a golden platter, it wouldn’t be much fun. You need those starving days, those days when you reach down into your pocket and don’t have a dime. Those are the learning experiences, because you see you can pull through.”

Butch soon found work entertaining tourists on Wailua River boats, and eventually reached the top of Hawaiian Homes’ long waiting list. But the thrill of finally leasing a home faded when he realized that his new home was flawed by shoddy construction. Butch and several of his neighbors pressed the agency to set things right, withholding lease payments to make their point. The ensuing six-year struggle ended tragically; Butch was jailed and a close friend died in a related incident.

The incident intensified Butch’s commitment to an independent Hawaiian nation, but it did not make him bitter. Despite his poor health, Butch joined protest marches, organized demonstrations, sponsored educational forums and arranged two marches that took Hawaiians, their music and their message to Washington, DC.

His warm personality helped build an amazing network of international contacts, including some 300 journalists, and he spent hours on the phone each day, dispensing information and talking story.

“What really matters in this life is how we touch others,” he told me shortly before his death in 2001. “People say, ‘Let’s make this world peaceful.’ No. You make yourself peaceful first. If all these people who come to Hawai`i come away with one thing – the feeling of aloha – then we did our job. Because it’s such a powerful feeling it can change people.”

I recalled Butch’s comment as I sat outside the Polynesian Hide-Away in Anahola, waiting for a smoked meat plate and listening to the visitor talk about aloha on the radio. When he had finished, a song by Black Eyes Peas came on, with a chorus that asks plaintively: “Where is the love?”

I looked at the mountains, the smiling face of the lady at the counter, my dogs playing under the plumeria tree. And I knew. When you open your heart, love is everywhere.