HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETICS
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Wally Yonamine and Keith Amemiya held the $200,000 check donated by Yonamine.
Huge donation by Yonamine
The boy from Olowalu, Maui, steadied his nerves for that first airplane ride to Honolulu.
The year was 1939 and Wally Yonamine, former Lahainaluna multi-sport star, was about to become a Farrington Governor. He boarded that DC-3 and eventually gained fame for his willingness to take chances, whether it was by leaving his tiny home village for a chance to play in Honolulu Stadium, signing to play football with the San Francisco 49ers or to venture to a foreign land to play baseball.
Yonamine, whose signature and support gave the high school state baseball championships a means to survive turbulent times, took it to another level yesterday.
Now 81, Yonamine has established an endowment through his foundation that will benefit the state baseball tournament in perpetuity. He has started the endowment -- which was kept under wraps even from friends and siblings -- with a whopping $200,000 donation. The interest generated from that revenue will keep the baseball state championships flush with funds that will especially help neighbor island teams with immense travel costs.
"I love my home. This is where I grew up," said Yonamine, who has been a successful businessman in Japan with wife Jane for 43 years. "I always wanted to give to Hawaii. If not for Hawaii, I wouldn't be where I am."
The initial endowment may shock even his closest friends.
"Nobody knows I'm gonna donate this money," he said before last night's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl/HHSAA Foundation Athletic Awards Dinner at the Sheraton Waikiki. "Even to my brothers. I haven't said anything. They might freak out."
Yonamine normally shies away from publicity, but will speak openly about causes he is passionate about. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Early detection helped to clear his health and he now gets regular checkups every three months.
By talking about prostate cancer at that time, he hoped that more of his peers would follow suit and get regular checkups.
The same, he believes, could happen with the endowment.
"People who know about it, they might want to help kids in Hawaii," he said. "I'm hoping some of my friends will donate, too."
When Yonamine began his foundation years ago, he filled its coffers with the revenue he earned by giving lectures. A golf tourney raised $10,000 annually.
"All of that, I gave to Keith (Amemiya)," he said, referring to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association's executive director.
Giving back has been on Yonamine's mind for decades. With his father's permission, he left the tiny plantation village of Olowalu after his sophomore year. He arrived at Farrington and starred many a time for the Governors in the old Honolulu Stadium.
From there, he returned home to help his father, turning down a football scholarship from Ohio State. However, the San Francisco 49ers signed him, and he played for two seasons before a serious wrist injury derailed his plans.
Yonamine switched over to baseball after talking with Lefty O'Doul of the San Francisco Seals. Shipped out to their minor league team in Salt Lake City, Yonamine hit .335 in 1950. O'Doul, who led a group of traveling All-Stars to Japan for playing tours, advised Yonamine to pursue a career there.
"I didn't want to go," Yonamine said. "The first couple of years was tough. The food was really bad in those days. We had to travel third class, sleeping on the floor of the trains."
After his career as a player and manager ended, he started a thriving pearl jewelry business. That has enabled Yonamine to give back generously.
"A lot of guys have come up to me and said, 'Thanks,' for helping out," Yonamine said. "I always tell my grandchildren, 'Study hard and try hard all the time.' "