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A New Exhibit Honoring Duke Kahanamoku Opens Up at the Bishop Museum

Aug 19, 2015

A Man Of Aloha: Duke Kahanamoku

Standing tall, with a square jaw and eyes that beam with excitement, Michael Wilson reaches out to shake my hand.

We're at the newly opened Duke Paoa Kahanamoku exhibit inside the Bishop Museum and the room is abuzz with visitors. For the past year, Michael, one of the designers of the exhibit, has been busy collecting artifacts and memorabilia of Duke's life; heck he even helped to create two interactive games that help paint a picture of one of Hawai'i's favorite sons. And today, with the exhibit full of laughter and curious attendees, it's instantly clear that they've created something special.

"This was such a fun project to work on. It took us about a year from start to finish, but the end result is something that I think we're all really proud to have created," explains Michael.

Duke was such a special person to the people of Hawai'i. We were all really honored to have been able to create this project honoring one of the great ambassadors of aloha.

For those of you unfamiliar with the prowess of Duke Kahanamoku, from an early age, the young Hawaiian was a natural in the water. From gliding across the reefs of old Waikiki on his wooden board or slicing his way through a pool, there was no one that could match Duke's prowess in the water. So much so that in 1911, he obliterated the existing swimming record for the 100-meter freestyle, catapulting his name upon the world. From there, he earned a place on the 1912 US Olympic team. At the games, Duke didn't disappoint, taking home a gold and silver medal. In the ensuing years, Duke would continue solidifying his name as one of the most accomplished swimmers of all time where he would compete in four more Olympic games, taking home a treasure chest of gold and silver medals.

When he wasn't training or competing in the Olympics, Duke travelled the world over, introducing the Hawaiian tradition of surfing to places like Australia and the continental United States. In 2000, partly because of the way he spread the sport, SURFER Magazine voted Duke the most influential surfer ever.

More than just the lengthy list of surfing and swimming accolades he had to his name, Duke held an almost legendary reputation in pop culture. While working as a lifeguard in Southern California in 1925, a fishing boat capsized, spilling its crew into the California sea. Duke, whose invaluable experience in the water was unparalleled, rescued eight distressed fishermen on his own, leaving the Newport Police chief to call his actions on that fateful day "superhuman."

Duke was also known for possessing a glow, a love of life, and an endless amount of hospitality. Simply put, he was full of aloha. And those who knew him or those who have adequately researched his character can attest that this—much more than his ability to out surf or out swim other people—was his greatest quality.

"One of the most fascinating things we learned about Duke wasn't the fact that he is largely considered to be the most influential surfers of all time, or the fact that he was the most iconic swimmers in American history, but rather it was his sense of the aloha spirit," said Michael. "His life is full of one amazing chapter after another, but it was the way he conducted himself, his passion for life and the aloha spirit, that really made an impact."

Later in Duke's life, he was appointed as Sheriff of Honolulu. The desk that sat in his office—and would later be used by a pair of Honolulu mayors—is on display at the exhibit. Neatly organized on the desk is a stack of replica business cards. On the backs stands a simple, yet inspirational quote from Duke: "Try meeting or leaving people with aloha. You'll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and it is my creed. Aloha to you."

After spending more than an hour walking over the meticulous exhibit, which includes hundreds of telling artifacts from Duke's life, you're left with the realization that all of the accolades and awards bestowed upon him pale in comparison to his true legacy: that of spreading aloha. As we finish up our tour of the impressive exhibit, I ask Michael, the exhibit's designer, one more question:

"If a visitor were to learn just one thing about Duke from this exhibit, what would it be?"

"That's easy," he confidently says. "It's that Duke was full of aloha. Aloha was his creed."

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