Matriarchs alohaSince her husband died eight years ago, Leolani Pratt has been the center of a family universe.
draws together the
"Auntie Leolani" Pratt and her
family find aloha in all things
By Diana Leone
"Puna," as she is called by her grandchildren, has carried on the Hawaii Kai family's tradition of finding aloha in all things.
And Pratt's aloha goes in many directions. She teaches hula five nights a week; she teaches Hawaiian studies to students at Koko Head Elementary School and the Honolulu Waldorf School; and she takes weekly trips to the Big Island to pastor a church in Hilo that her father helped build in 1952.
Still, she has time for her five children, two stepchildren and 20 grandchildren, three of whom live with her.
"For the closeness of this family, you can blame my mom," said Steven Pratt, 42, her oldest and a manager of Hawaii's Tony Roma restaurants. "She always made sure we'd do things together."
Members of the Pratt family in Hawaii and on the mainland have planned since January to gather this weekend to help their mother celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ka Hoku Au Malamalama, one of the Ke Alii O Na Alii Ame Ka Haku Ona Haku churches of Hawaii.
It's the church her father started in 1952, her mother pastored for 28 years after his death, and which Leolani Pratt has pastored for the past 15 years.
The church on Hawaiian homelands has 50 members, but a crowd of 300 was expected for a luau yesterday and special church service today.
"We're going to fill the whole thing up, standing-room only," said daughter Vernalani, 41.
Vernalani's husband, Paul Keb, said it was the Pratts' sense of ohana that attracted him.
"They're always smiling," he said. "That's what drew me to them."
Those Pratt smiles have been attracting attention for years, with mother Leolani starting a family trend by becoming Miss Hawaiian Islands in 1958. The two older girls won college scholarships as Miss Hawaii Kai -- Vernalani in 1981 and Aleesa in 1985.
Like their mother, both woman dance and teach hula, and Vernalani teaches Hawaiian studies at Aina Haina and Kamiloiki elementary schools.
"All the girls taught hula and all the boys played music," daughter Aleesa Haole, 34, explained.
Both boys also received sports scholarships. Steven was a Kaiser High School basketball standout and was on the first Hawaii Pacific University basketball team in 1978.
And, continuing another family tradition, Vernal John, 39, plans to start a church. Naturally, he cites his mother as one of his influences.
The youngest, Tiana, 26, rebelled against the beauty-pageant route. But she couldn't kick the hula. For six years, she's been performing five nights a week, twice a night at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where she lives with her husband, Kamalu Kong, and their four children.
Tiana said dancing hula doesn't seem like work to her.
"It's a way for me to have fun and release stress," she said.
Until 1994, the family was led by "Papa" Vernal Pratt, a former general manager of Sears Ala Moana's automotive department, where he worked since he was a teenager.
His children recall his loving heart, his love of diving and fishing, his fine singing voice and his imposing presence. At 6 feet 5 inches, "Papa" could send his daughters' potential suitors running with just one look.
"I called him my pillar of strength," Vernalani said.
A week before he died in 1994, Vernal Pratt said he'd been having dizzy spells and was going to give up spearfishing. But he went "one last time."
On that trip, the strapping, experienced waterman drowned.
Sometimes Leolani Pratt misses her husband deeply, but she believes he's still sending her flowers with the plumeria and gardenia trees he planted for her.
"The gardenia tree, it never blooms," she said. "But on Mother's Day, it blooms."
With her husband of 35 years gone, Leolani became the family leader.
But her leadership -- and aloha -- extends far beyond her family to her church and to the Hawaii Kai community, where she is know as "Auntie Leolani" by generations of children to whom she has taught hula and Hawaiian studies.
"She's a person who is always concerned about someone else," said Koko Head principal Cecilia Lum. "When she talks to you, whether you are a child or an adult, you get the feeling that she is listening to you and is interested in what you are saying and is paying attention only to you."
Leolani Pratt is so steeped in things Hawaiian that many people don't know her father was Norwegian. Bernard Johansen of Oslo jumped a ship to come to America when he was only 16 and ended up on the Big Island. He married to Elizabeth Waia'u Waipa, a descendant of Kamehameha and a kahuna laau lapaau, or healer. They raised four girls and two boys in Hilo.
"I belonged to the Vikings and the Warriors, so I must be a warrior, right?" Pratt joked of her background.
She needed some warrior spirit to deal with darker-skinned kids in Hilo who picked on her because of her fair complexion. Yet she has transmuted even sad memories of being ostracized as a child into a loving inclusiveness.
"People would call me haole. ... I don't want anyone to feel the way I felt," she said. She had some fights, but mainly, "I always tried to help anybody who was cast away. I didn't like when someone hurts someone else's feelings."
Perhaps that's part of why children flock to her at Koko Head Elementary School at lunchtime and why former students stop her on the street.
"We hired her to teach Hawaiian language, culture, history and geography," Lum said. But somehow Pratt expands the curriculum to include concepts of love, family and respect, Lum said.
The influence that Pratt has on her students, said Lum, "It's hard to describe."
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