Construction mogul embraced Hawaiian culture
Dwayne Steele / 1934-2006
Friends of Dwayne Steele loved to watch when the tall haole from Kansas would stand quietly among a group of Hawaiians speaking in their native language and, without warning, stun them by joining the conversation in fluent Hawaiian.
"His passion was for everything Hawaiian," said Oz Stender, his friend for more than 40 years. "I was the brown guy and he was the white guy, and everywhere we went I would introduce him as my brother."
And if anyone addressed Stender in Hawaiian, he would refer them to Steele to interpret.
R. Dwayne Nakila Steele, a philanthropist, Hawaiian scholar and founder of construction company Grace Pacific Corp., died Wednesday afternoon at his Nuuanu home with Stender and family members at his bedside. Steele, 71, had been fighting bone cancer for more than a year.
Another friend, Walter Dods Jr., chairman of BancWest Corp. and First Hawaiian Bank, said, "He was the most Hawaiian man I've ever met. He came here 50 years ago and really embraced the culture."
Fluent in Hawaiian and several other Polynesian languages, Steele played slack-key guitar and ukulele and sang in Hawaiian. He also translated Hawaiian newspapers from the 1800s and funded a project to put them online for students of Hawaiian culture.
"He learned to play from Johnny Almeida," said Dods. "He would play and break out into song and not the usual tourist songs, but the beautiful old ones."
Attorney and longtime friend Jeffrey Watanabe said, "His loss leaves a hole in the heart of our community."
Watanabe issued a short biography that said, "Steele is best known in business circles as a visionary and strategic thinker, stringing together corporate acquisitions which made Grace Pacific one of Hawaii's largest construction companies."
Steele made employees stockholders as he grew Grace from a company of 50 employees with $8 million in annual sales to one of 500 employees and more than $135 million in annual sales.
Steele, according to Stender and others, used his wealth in quiet ways to help others.
For example, when the late Iz Kamakawiwo'ole wanted to break out into a solo career, he approached Jon de Mello of Mountain Apple Records and said he had two financial backers. Steele and Stender put $25,000 into the project, which became Hawaii's only platinum album, "Facing Future."
De Mello said the two refused to take any profits from the recording, instead putting their share into a trust fund for Iz's daughter. The only mention of their contribution is in the liner notes with a "mahalo" to "The Wizard of Oz and the Man of Steele."
Stender said, "Dwayne was such a sharing, giving, silent man. You would never know all the people he has helped. He never wanted to be recognized."
Born in Kansas and raised in Colorado, Steele graduated from the University of Hawaii with several degrees in civil engineering. He later earned degrees in the Hawaiian and Samoan languages and in Hawaiian history.
Steele is survived by wife Marti and six children: Chris Steele of Honolulu; Donna Jones of Topeka, Kan.; Flo Doyle of Denver; Jenny Steele of Oklahoma City; and Aito and Elizabeth Pualani Steele, also of Honolulu. He was predeceased by another daughter, Terry.
A reception celebrating his life will be held Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Oahu Country Club. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to Aha Punana Leo (Hawaiian Immersion School) at 96 Puuhonu Place, Hilo, HI 96780; and the Awaiaulu Hawaiian Literature Project at 2505 Pali Highway, Honolulu, HI 96817.