Telephone connected lives with Kauai

The telephone irrevocably altered the course of communications history on March 10, 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell made his famous first phone call.

Since then, it has also changed countless lives.

Most surveys list the telephone as one of the world’s most important inventions. Some even rank it as number one.

But this is not a column about the science behind the invention, or the success story it became, or even the competition that inevitably followed.

The internet is full of info on all of those subjects.

No, this column is about how the telephone became a part of Hawaii’s (and Kauai’s) history; how it brought our family to Kauai, expanded our “ohana” and changed our lives forever.

In 1880, just four years after that historic phone call, Hawaiian Bell Telephone Company became the first firm to be chartered in Hawaii.

It was followed three years later by Mutual Telephone Co, which was chartered under the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Princess Kaiulani’s father, Archibald Scott Cleghorn, was reportedly one of the original owners.)

Eventually, Mutual took over Hawaiian Bell and acquired the phone service of Hawaiian Pineapple Company, giving it ownership of the entire phone system of the Hawaiian Islands, according to Wikipedia.

In 1954, Mutual changed its name to Hawaiian Telephone Company.

My father, Fred Kenison Sr. had worked for Mutual on the Big Island and Hawaiian Tel on Oahu. In 1957, he received a promotion that made us all proud but it meant we would have to move to Kauai. We packed up and left our Miller Street home in Honolulu shortly after.

Back then, the Hawaiian Tel’s executive hierarchy apparently was fairly simple. James Stanley Hodgins was manager on Kauai. My father became his second in command.

Tip Top Bakery was still in the Lihue building that bore its name, renting out space to businesses like Senda Studio and insurance companies. The telephone company was located just north of Tip Top. I can remember walking next door and buying a half-moon apple pie for 15 cents. It was a treat my brothers and I looked forward to every time we went to the office.

The telephone company building became our playground. The men and women who worked there became our uncles and aunties. Even Mr. Hodgins became “Uncle Stan,” although he was always serious and businesslike.

(He was also very kind, allowing our family to use his Kokee cabin whenever he wasn’t using it).

We had the run of the building or felt like we did. Somewhere I recall there was an ancient pool table we played with. There were rooms filled with equipment that clicked and whirred, all connected with miles of cable.

My father once had me make an “intercept recording.” I still remember what I had to say, “The number you have reached is in a non-working series. Please dial 0 and ask the operator for the status of the number you are calling. This is a recording.” (The last sentence was important because it let the caller know they had not reached a live person.)

That message remained the standard until the ’70s when a a more informal, user-friendly message was universally adapted and used from then on.

My brothers and I called all the telephone operators “Aunty.” Hawaiian Tel families were very close. We went on picnics together and spent days at the beach together.

Many of the employees were part Hawaiian as our family was and my father became part of the Order of Kamehameha. Preserving and maintaining Prince Kuhio Park in Kukuiula became his passion as long as he lived on Kauai. We spent all of our weekends there, we kids playing while the adults worked, planting coconut trees, mowing and weeding .

We’d always wrap the day up with a potluck meal. It was a very special time.

Many of their children became our friends. Some remain so till today. We lived in Wailua Houselots, where many Hawaiian Tel families lived: names like Burgess, Makanani, Sheldon, and Westlake can never be forgotten. Neither can Enos and Gallardo, who lived elsewhere on Kauai.

In the early ’60s, Hawaiian Tel was involved with space launches in some capacity no one ever explained. I just remember my father always being away during those times.

They were also heavily involved when movies were made. We never were allowed to be on location when they were setting up communication lines but we loved to hear the stories of the stars he met and who was nice and who wasn’t.

But there were downsides to having a very strict father with clout at Hawaiian Tel, especially when I got to high school.

I cannot begin to tell you how many of my phone calls were interrupted, broken into by the operator on duty that day. “Rita, your father is trying to reach you,” they would always say and I would hang up immediately and wait for the scolding I knew was coming.

Once in a while, the telltale click on the phone turned out to be my father himself. I dreaded those most of all, especially if it was a boy who had happened to call.

Finally, there is one thing that should be mentioned. Although Alexander Graham Bell holds the original patent for the telephone and is widely acknowledged as its inventor, several other inventors also claimed they were first. The battle over who should get the patent was heated and bitter but ultimately Bell prevailed.

However in 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing Antonio Meucci and stating that his work should be recognized.

Whoever ultimately gets credit, because of the telephone, Kauai became part of my life. If not for the telephone, I would never have met the man I would spend the rest of my life with or have the family I cherish. If not for the telephone, I would never have been here to spend 37 years of my life working at The Garden Island or met all of the people who started out as fellow workers and became dear friends.

If not for the telephone, I would have missed out on so much that life has to offer. But I didn’t and I will always be grateful for that. Aloha.

•••

Rita De Silva is a former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident who writes a column for The Garden Island.

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