- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - Generations of students at McKinley High School have passed through the beautiful arches, gazed up at the framed photos of those who walked the halls before them and felt like they were part of something that was very big and pretty special.

“It was such a majestic school for me,” said Betty Toda Kajikawa, who graduated in 1938. Now 95 years old, Kajikawa still remembers being a little girl watching her older brother go off to high school at McKinley and wishing for the time when it would be her turn. “I was young, maybe 6 or 7 years old, but I knew the words to ‘Black and Gold Is Waving.’ I couldn’t wait to go to McKinley.”

While other schools in Kajikawa’s time had admissions requirements, McKinley took all comers. Roosevelt was an English Standard school, and only students who passed a language test were admitted there. Students at McKinley didn’t have family wealth or prestige to fall back on. If they were going to succeed, they would have to do it themselves. McKinley was the school for self-made men and women.

In 150 years McKinley has stood through wartime and storms, triumph and tragedy, challenges and crises. Its alumni roster rivals that of top prep schools. The campus architecture is among the most beautiful of any Hawaii school. Yet when people talk about what it means to wear the black and gold, their stories are most often about the pride of hard work and the blessing of a school that took kids as they were and inspired them to be their personal best.

“You don’t always have to be perfect or get straight A’s, but you need to have integrity, have wisdom and be different - not follow the same crowd,” said sophomore Marina Tran.



Vern Miyagi, administrator of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was a member of the McKinley class of ‘66. He remembers sitting in Mrs. McQueston’s English class on that November day in 1963 when it was announced over the school loudspeaker that President John F. Kennedy had died.

“The years at McKinley prepared us well for an uncertain future,” he said.

Miyagi’s interest in the military began with Army ROTC at McKinley, which was mandatory for the first two years of high school. “We learned some core values in ROTC: duty, respect, honor, integrity and service.” Miyagi loved these ideals and built his life around those lessons, serving for 38 years in the Hawaii National Guard before retiring as a two-star general in 2009.

Several of his classmates and his ROTC instructor lost their lives in Vietnam. The enormity of their sacrifice has stayed with Miyagi all these years. McKinley taught him service over self.

Rather than straining under the weight of an illustrious past, later generations of McKinley students have found inspiration in their forebears.

McHuy McCoy, class of 2002, restarted the school’s drill team when he heard about the former glory days. “McKinley was the mother of all drill teams in Hawaii,” he said in a 2003 interview. “If you look at all the trophies in the auditorium, McKinley won every team award there was to win, statewide and national, for years and years, from the ‘70s to the early ‘90s.”

When the team’s coach got too busy, McCoy took over as coach, though he was only in the 11th grade. The McKinley team flourished under the young man’s leadership and won a first-place trophy in the state competition that year. “Since we didn’t really have a coach and it was just a student-generated thing, the win was even sweeter,” he said.

Some of McKinley’s sweetest triumphs were the personal victories that aren’t commemorated on any plaques or trophies - the stories of kids who had almost lost their way.

Wayne Paakaula was a member of the class of 1973, but he didn’t graduate with his classmates.

“In the beginning of my junior year, I stopped going to class. I would go to campus every day and hang out by the woodshop,” he said. “I went to school, I just didn’t go to class.”

By senior year the self-described naughty boy had dropped out.

He ended up working in a low-paying job, just getting by with no ambition or direction.

One day his friend invited him out. “My friend said, ‘But first, we gotta stop by McKinley and pick up my girlfriend. She stay acting in one play.’”

The friend said “play” like it was the most ridiculous thing.

They got to the theater early, and rehearsal was just beginning. It was a dress rehearsal for the musical “Camelot,” with full costumes and dazzling sets. “When the curtain went up and the music started, something happened to me,” Paakaula said. “I had never seen anything like that before. I was blown away.”

After the rehearsal Paakaula’s friend said, “I going call my girlfriend and we go.” But Paakaula didn’t want to leave. “I told him, ‘Nah, we go hang out little bit.’”

They ended up backstage talking with the cast and crew. McKinley’s legendary drama teacher Jim Nakamoto was there. “He knew who I was. He knew my reputation and he didn’t like me,” Paakaula remembered. But they ended up talking, and by the end of the evening, Nakamoto, sensing he had hooked a new convert, invited Paakaula to work on the next McKinley show. “I worked on every show in McKinley Theater for the next five years,” Paakaula said. “I learned stagecraft.”

That one moment of walking into the theater and seeing high school students pouring their hearts out in a professional-level production changed his whole life. Paakaula ended up getting his GED. His work at McKinley Theater taught him how to be responsible, reliable and professional. He fell in love with the discipline, collaboration and magic of theater, and he continued to help Nakamoto as stage manager on shows until Nakamoto’s death in 2013.

The class of 1938’s Kajikawa graduated during the Grand Slam Year. McKinley won the championships of every sport: football, basketball, baseball, swimming and track. Kajikawa’s class had 1,300 students, many of whom didn’t live in the area. There were few high schools in rural areas. Some students from farm families lived in dormitories in Honolulu during the week. Others from Ewa and Waipahu would catch the train into Honolulu, get off at the depot by Aala Park and take a streetcar to campus. Some, like Kajikawa’s friend from Molokai, worked in the homes of well-to-do families in Manoa and “lived in” in order to attend school.

“Students worked hard for their education,” Kajikawa said. “There was lots of hardship.”

Kajikawa lived in Palama and took a streetcar to school every day. Her mother gave her 10 cents for the round trip, but Kajikawa would often walk home to save 5 cents. “If I walked home three times, I could see a movie and sit in the 15-cent seats up away from the men who would smoke in the theater,” she said.

She remembers helping to clean classrooms after school - mopping, emptying the trash, wiping desks, clapping erasers. The curriculum, she said, was rigorous, and much was demanded of students.

“So many McKinley students in my brother’s class went on to be doctors and lawyers. My brother was a good student, too, but we were so poor. He had to help with the rent and to put food on the table. There was no money for him to go to college.”

Yet, being a McKinley graduate was like having a degree from the school of hard knocks. It meant a graduate had the strength of humility, a willingness to struggle and a deep connection to all the others over the decades who proudly wore the black and gold.

The school accepted everyone. It still does. Yet in spite of this - or more, because of it - McKinley has felt like a privileged experience for generations of students, a place where so many young men and women discovered their calling, set their goals and found honor in hard work.

“Being a McKinley student means to be a part of a legacy, or a thing greater than yourself,” said Tylor Kong, a senior in the class of 2016. “It means to have pride in an elite school that is unlike any other.”

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Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, https://www.staradvertiser.com

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