One of the great joys of my life was growing up in the shadow of Duke Kahanamoku and the guys at Waikiki. When I was a little boy, 6 or 7 years old, Duke was still surfing and spending time at the beach. He’d take his old board out, always with this regal demeanor.
When I was about 18 years old, in the last few years of Duke’s life, a guy named Kimo McVay started “Duke’s Restaurant.” To promote it, he also created Duke’s surf team, which included Butch Van Artsdalen, Joey Cabell, Paul Strauch, Jeff Hakman, and me. I became the team’s “Administrative Assistant,” which consisted of going around with Duke wherever he wanted to go. So I became Duke’s boy—literally, I mean Duke would call me “boy,” not Freddy. He’d say, “Hey boy, let’s go eat some lunch.”
We’d be at these high-falootin meetings with McVay and all of these Hollywood types, and while everybody was talking, Duke would put his sunglasses on and say to me, “Hey boy, tap me if they say anything important. I’m going to sleep.” He didn’t give a shit.
Sure, Duke was the Ambassador of Hawaii, and certainly of surfing, but I don’t think he thought of himself that way. He was gracious to each and every person he met just because that’s the way he was. I saw this even in the presence of obnoxious people. I remember sitting with Duke at an event when some belligerent guy comes up and says, “Duke Ka-wana-wana-waku,” totally mispronouncing Duke’s name, which is an insult in itself, but the guy continued to say, “I met you in 1933. I was 3 years old. Do you remember me or what?” Here it was 30-odd-years after this supposed meeting. Anybody else would’ve said, “How the hell would I remember you at 3 years old?” But Duke smiled and said, “It’s nice to see you again.” It made the guy feel 10 feet tall, his face lit up. Duke’s deeds made him the Ambassador.
I saw pictures of him doing things that to this day would marvel you. He had tremendous athletic talent. Remember that in 1912, Duke went to the Olympic games in Stockholm and broke the world record in the 100-meter freestyle—he went to subsequent Olympics and won more medals into his 30s.
I took Duke out probably for the last time he ever rode a wave. He had this big 13-foot board he’d gotten for his 75th birthday. He was frail, getting pretty old then. But we were sitting there, looking out at Waikiki, and he said, “Boy, go get my board. I want to go surfing.” He couldn’t carry the board if he had to. So, I went and got it, wondering how he was going to paddle this thing and catch a wave. Duke came out of the locker room with one of those square boat cushions and a paddle. He set the cushion down on the board and sat on it, and then used the paddle to make his way out to the flag, where he caught a few waves. Surfing, in any form, rekindled the profound pleasures of his life.
A hundred years from now, if you say the name Duke Kahanamoku, will it be recognized? Sure. But why? Duke never rode 20-foot Waimea, he wasn’t a political leader, he wasn’t an entrepreneur, he wasn’t a great business man or a scholar. He was simply a great Hawaiian and great surfer. But as a result, he is the most revered Hawaiian icon of the 20th century. —Fred Hemmings