LEROY HOLLEY / 1928-2003
Former Smiths Union
Bar owner had many friends
Leroy Holley, a bar operator and friend for decades to Hawaii union members, business executives and politicians, died June 1 in his Kailua home.
Holley, 74, was known as a politically connected lobbyist, although he always avoided that term, preferring to be known as just a local guy who could help people get things done, mostly for the good of working people.
He knew sailors, longshoremen, fighters and some gangsters as well as politicians and business tycoons because of his role as owner of Smith's Union Bar, a Hotel Street watering hole populated by a wide representation of Honolulu society.
It was also something of a sanctuary. If you knew Leroy, or his wife and bartender Gail, trouble simply would not follow you in from the street. The word apparently was out that you don't mess with his friends.
He was a storyteller, a generous host and, yet, with all his connections, a man whose name seldom appeared in the press. Friends recall that Holley was "quiet and effective" long before Gov. George Ariyoshi used that as his campaign slogan.
James Burns, a judge on the Intermediate Court of Appeals and son of the late Gov. John Burns, said Holley was "a real local boy who had many friends in all different places."
"Leroy had just lots of local connections on both sides of the street," labor and business, Burns said. "In fact, all sides of the street."
Some of the characters were considered shady, or worse. Holley was just a friend to them all and "for the working man," Burns said.
One of the rare times Holley got publicity was in the early 1990s when he hit the news as a self-described close friend of Charles "Charley" Stevens, an alleged organized-crime figure who was convicted of murder in 1979, a conviction later overturned.
Holley told the Honolulu Advertiser that he stopped meeting Stevens after the FBI questioned him about his friend.
Tony Rutledge, president of labor union-related nonprofit Unity House, said Holley was a friend of working people. "He was always ready to listen and help. He helped resolve a lot of problems behind the scenes. He was just a friendly guy.
"When you work in a bar, you get to meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends. He was genuinely an honest, straightforward guy," said Rutledge, whose father, Arthur Rutledge, once worked as a bartender at Smith's Union when Holley's father ran it.
Neil Dietz, Honolulu port agent for the Seafarers International Union, worked closely with Holley when Holley was a consultant for the now-defunct American Hawaii Cruises, whose ships were manned by SIU workers.
"His style of operation is from a generation we will never see again," Dietz said.
Dietz said he has heard many lobbyists and political proponents of businesses over the years say they were promoting a position to create jobs and do good things for local residents. But he said he felt Holley was the most genuine of them all, helping the cruise line because it provided local jobs. American Hawaii Cruises gained from Holley's influence in the state Legislature, since he persuaded politicians year after year to keep in place a special exemption for American Hawaii so it did not have to pay a state tax normally applied to transportation businesses.
Holley was born in Honolulu and educated at the Saint Louis College. He was a merchant mariner after World War II and cruised the Pacific. He went to work at Smith's Union Bar, which had been opened by his father, Joe Holley, and married bartender Gail. They sold the bar in 1994. Gail died in 2000.
Holley was a member of Gov. Burns' "kitchen Cabinet" and knew a lot of people, daughter Gailene Holley said. He once told Chip Carter that his father, Jimmy Carter, might win the race for president "since no one was paying much attention to him," she said.
Gailene also believes her dad was the "Chinatown oddsmaker" often quoted anonymously in the media for his election predictions.
Holley is also remembered as a guy who loved dining out and was always quick to invite friends to join him in Honolulu's best restaurants. Gailene said, "He loved a good meal and once boasted that the last time we ate at home was 1974."
Information about survivors was not available, and services are pending.