LIHUE — On her first visit to Kauai, Charlene “Charlie” Fern had one place she most wanted to see.
It wasn’t the Waimea Canyon. It wasn’t the Hanalei Pier. It wasn’t even the Napali Coast.
It was the office of The Garden Island newspaper.
“This was the most important thing,” she said.
Fern glanced around, looked at the newspapers and books and monitors around the newsroom, and smiled.
“Just to be in the newspaper building truly give me goosebumps,” she said Tuesday. “I’ve seen pictures of him sitting back in his editor’s chair talking to people. He’s the reason I became a journalist.”
“Some of his most important work and ideas came from where we are, right here,” Fern said.
“He” is Charlie Fern, former editor and publisher of The Garden Island and one of the island’s most notable people. He guided the paper from the 1920s, when he took charge, to the 1966, when he retired as its owner.
He also is the great-uncle to Charlene Fern, who goes by Charlie.
“From the time I was born, I got postcards from Uncle Charlie,” Fern said. “He was my first pen pal before I could write. I learned to write from him. I wrote him in crayon and wrote him in pen and I typed him and decided to become a journalist because of him.”
Charlie Fern was known for many things, among them, being a pilot, making aviation history, and barnstorming on Kauai for a few months after his arrival. In the coming decades as a journalist, he covered baseball games, called for health care for workers, gave the Legislature “hell,” dogged the government, and started a barefoot football league. He was a central figure on the island he came to love. He made friends and enemies, too.
“He influenced this country in ways that are truly remarkable across the military, across industry, journalism reporter, human rights,” Charlie Fern said. “He’s had an impact I’m only just beginning to understand.”
Fern recalled that before her high school graduation, a large package arrived with a fresh flower lei for her to wear. It was from her namesake, who was delighted she had declared she want to become a journalist. She went on to earn a degree in journalism from North Texas State University.
“My proudest day after I graduated form college was when I was hired as a general assignment reporter at the San Diego Union-Tribune,” she said.
She called her great-Uncle Charlie, living in a retirement home in Honolulu, to tell him about the job. He was older then, about 100, but she believes he understood her over the phone.
“It was a very bitter sweet moment for me to say, ‘I followed in your footsteps,’” she said.
She worked in journalism a few more years, went into speech writing, and later worked in the White House writing for President George W. Bush.
Today, she owns and operates Charlie Fern Ink, a communications company in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her 10-year-old son.
Charlie Fern said her great-uncle had a way of making someone feel like they were the most important person in the world.
“Because of that, you wanted to be that person, that somebody. You wanted to achieve and make him proud,” she said.
While he had his rivals and critics in business, when it came to family, “he was everybody’s favorite uncle. Everybody adored him.”
She recalled Charlie Fern would send her newspaper clipping with notes. Some of them were stories about himself.
“Never from the perspective of bragging,” she said. “It was from a perspective of sharing news.”
Charlie Fern still has those letters from her great-uncle. As she moved, he continued to write to her, his handwriting changing as he aged.
“From my earliest formative years, he was a part of my life in letters,” she said. “Everywhere I went, he followed me.”
Charlie Fern, who left for home Thursday, had only a few days to see Kauai. She marveled at its beauty, met some of the people and understood why her great-uncle fell in love with the island and didn’t want to leave.
“I’m really thrilled to be where he was and see the things he saw,” she said.
It could be that the elder Charlie Fern never really knew the influence he had on his great-niece’s life. But she hopes to honor his memory, his legacy, in everything she does.
“I am who I am as a human being and someone who hopes to be a better human being, because of him,” she said. “And I’m a writer because of him. He taught me a love of life and writing and of people.”