On a summer evening 70 years ago, 66 excited seniors filed into Kapaa School courtyard and waited eagerly for a long-anticipated and momentous occasion to begin.
By the time the night was over, the names of everyone there would be indelibly inscribed on the “Kapaa” pages of Kauai’s history books.
The date was June 5, 1946, and it would be a night of “firsts.” Parents, siblings and friends sat in the audience and watched proudly as 66 members of the graduating Class of 1946 received diplomas at Kapaa High School’s first annual commencement; the first diploma’s Kapaa had ever awarded. Their class became the first to graduate. It was now official: Kapaa was Kauai’s newest high school.
The names of dignitaries in attendance that historic day are as familiar and respected today as they were back then.
Miss Bernice E. L. Hundley, supervising principal of Kauai schools, delivered the message to students.
Sen. John B. Fernandes presented the diplomas to the graduates.
Kauai School Commissioner Wayne Ellis handed out scholarships and other awards to seniors who had earned them.
The list of names in the evening’s program read like a who’s who of Eastside and North Shore families.
By the time that first commencement took place, Kapaa School had already accrued a long and colorful history. According to information provided by Kalei Arinaga, it was established in 1883 as a one-room English Language school house on a 0.61-acre parcel makai of St. Catherine’s Cemetery called Kuahiahi/Kaahiahi.
The action had been recommended to and approved by Board of Education president Charles Reed Bishop, who signed a lease agreement with Col. Z.S. Spalding of Makee Sugar.
The site overlooked the Kealia River and was close enough to the ocean that the constant roar of the surf was an ongoing distraction. Eventually, this, and the fact that there was no room for expansion on the tiny parcel, led to a recommendation that the school be relocated. The relocation finally took place in 1908, when Kapaa School was moved to its current site, a four-acre parcel of Makee land up the hill known as Mailehune, according to Arinaga’s information.
The Class of 1946 and several that followed had just three options available to them once they graduated. They could work for the plantation, continue their education or join the military. Jobs were scarce and limited in scope.
Many girls went to business college and became secretaries. Some of the graduates who joined the military took advantage of the GI Bill, established in 1944, to further their education. Many left Kauai to attend college elsewhere. Some never returned.
Kapaa School has flourished and grown since that day in 1946. Thousands of seniors have walked across commencement stages to accept diplomas and begin new lives.
On Sept. 23 and 24, the Kapaa High School Foundation will celebrate Kapaa’s 70 years as a high school with a unique alumni reunion. All alumni are invited to attend the event, which will include a tour of the campus, lunch in the cafeteria, a viewing of the special gallery of historic photos on display, and the homecoming assembly in the Bernice Hundley gymnasium.
On Saturday, the two-day event will continue with the homecoming game at Vidinha Stadium. The entry fee, lunch and a drink are included in the reunion package.
At 7 p.m. that night, Smith’s Tropical Garden will hold a luau for all attending the reunion. Cost of the luau is also included in the package, however, organizers encourage those interested to sign up as soon as possible because a minimum count of the number of guests is needed.
According to its website, the Kapaa High School Foundation was the brainchild of Kapaa merchant, Bob Kubota of Pono Market and is a testament “to what one dedicated individual can do to improve the lives of people in the community.”
“Raising money for the schools was really rough,” Kubota remembers. “We’d have carnivals to raise money and the same people always came out.”
He remembered that back when he was growing up, Kapaa alumni Taka Sokei and the Kapaa Boosters Club successfully raised a lot of money for the school.
But there were drawbacks for Kubota and those who helped.
“We didn’t have the manpower or the know-how to do that,” he said.
He and Tad Miura of Miura Store put their heads together and after many discussions, letters and research, the Kapaa High School Foundation was created.
“Attorney Lorna Nishimitsu was gracious enough to help set up articles of the foundation for the legal part of it,” Kubota said.
The Foundation’s stated mission is “to enhance and enrich learning opportunities by providing financial support to students and school programs that foster excellence in academics and extracurricular activities.”
The first project they accomplished for the school was the construction of the Student Center building across from the gym.
Since then, the Foundation has promoted scholastic, academic, sports, extracurricular, and other school-related activities for the students of Kapaa High School.
Foundation officers include President Art Fujita, Vice President Renee Sadang, Secretary Sharyl Lam Yuen, Treasurer Bob Kubota, Directors Bridget Arume, Michelle (Shellie) Domingcil, Clement Esaki, Daniel Hamada, Barbara Yamane and Malia Hookano.
Like many of my peers, I am proud that I graduated from Kapaa High School. The education I got there helped me achieve my goals in life.
But what made it special?
For one, I was fortunate enough to be there during the tenure of Kapaa’s outstanding principal, Gladys Ainoa Brandt. Every article I have ever read about her life includes the standard and somewhat trite phrase “she was known to be strict but fair.”
Those whose lives she touched can tell you this doesn’t even begin to describe the amazingly complex, brilliant person she was.
Yes, she was strict. Many still talk about her ban on couples holding hands in school corridors during recess or lunch.
But she could also be compassionate and was the most loyal fan Kapaa’s football team ever had; never missing a game, even though her team failed to win a championship during her 16 years at Kapaa.
Brandt was the first woman to become a public school principal in Hawaii; the first woman to become superintendent of schools on Kauai in 1962; the first Native Hawaiian to become principal of Kamehameha Schools in 1963.
She was definitely so much more than just “strict but fair.”
I have also always been proud of the diversity and commitment of the teachers we had. I started asking people as I wrote this column who their favorite teacher was but soon realized that every teacher was someone’s favorite at one time or another. And I decided the omission of any name could hurt teachers or their families that still live here.
I have to say though that the Kapaa faculty and administrators have always sought innovation at both the elementary and secondary levels, adapting and implementing many unique programs such as the Title I program that leveled the playing field for disadvantaged elementary children and gave them the opportunity to shine academically.
They also introduced the University of Illinois’ UICSM experimental high school mathematics program created in response to the national and international drive to strengthen student mathematics skills at the time of the highly competitive race to be in space first. At Kapaa, a specially selected group of students were enrolled in the course taught by a feisty but dedicated teacher named Teruko Yamaura.
My husband and I believed in Kapaa School so much that our sons and their children were educated there just as we had been and someday our great-grandchildren will be our family’s fourth generation to graduate from Kapaa High School as well.
As part of the reunion celebration the Kapaa High School Foundation is also soliciting donations to build picnic tables on campus. For more information about any aspect of the reunion celebration, call Leila at 832-4491, ext. 105 or Art Fujita at 651-4325.
Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a resident of Kapaa.