THE FAMILY TREE
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL /
The Robello family owns Aloha Beach Services, a Waikiki beach concession stand which was started in the 1950s by late patriarch Harry Robello. Pictured are Didi Robello, second from right, his wife, Lori, and their sons, Shayne, 13, and Ryan, 18.
Life on the beach
The Robello family has taught generations of tourists how to surf in the Waikiki waves
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Those who love to surf know it's tough to be where you're supposed to be when the waves are calling. Given a good swell on any school day, the number of kids with face to the board instead of the books will attest to that -- not to mention big kids playing hooky from jobs. So Harry D. "Didi" Robello counts his blessings that the ocean is his office, and beach time is all in a day's work.
"You got the greatest job in the world here. You don't make a ton of money, but you have a good life."
Harry D. "Didi" Robello
Aloha Beach Services
"You got the greatest job in the world here. You don't make a ton of money, but you have a good life," said Didi, who admits, "After a while it's just work. But it's a heck of a lot better than anything else."
The sandy coast not only serves as his 9-to-5 venue, but is also where he spent the bulk of his youth, met his wife, Lori, and where their children, Ryan and Shayne, are getting their feet wet about life.
Didi is head of Aloha Beach Services, a hub of activity on the grounds of the Moana Surfrider hotel, not only for tourists renting beach-related items and signing up for surf lessons, but also for the ocean-loving family that assists him.
The concession is in his bloodline and was much more of a hang-loose party scene way back when his father, Harry S. Robello, set up shop in Waikiki in the 1950s. As early as the sixth grade, Didi was recruited along with his brother William to strip caked wax from surfboards after school, a tally of 300 stored at the house, awaiting rotation.
When Didi was old enough, Harry put him to work at the shack, which Didi took over in 1983 after his father retired. Harry died four years ago at age 86. Now grandsons Ryan, 18, and Shayne, 13, pitch in, straightening surf racks, scraping wax off boards at the beach and carting them for customers during school holidays and summers -- when not in the water themselves.
"Pop was the last of the original beachboys with Duke (Kahanamoku) and all those guys," Didi said, referring to the legendary group of surfers often called the Ambassadors of Aloha, who serenaded wealthy travelers on their ukuleles and gave surf lessons in the days when the Gold Coast had just two hotels: the Moana and The Royal Hawaiian.
Henry moved the stand to various locales, including the Outrigger Canoe Club, before settling onto the Sheraton properties in 1958. The hotel is now branded a Westin Resort.
"It's the oldest beach service, going on its 50th year," Didi said. He continues the tradition of sharing the aloha spirit with beachgoers, some lucky enough to catch a mix of the old and new generation on a whim, strumming ukes on the shaded lanai of Duke's Canoe Club next door for all to enjoy.
Didi says he had no idea when his father first brought him on board that he would be at it this long, nor does he know how much longer he'll be there. "But I'll do it as long as I can, as long as it's there."
He credits the beach stand's longevity to the relationship fostered with the Moana Surfrider by his father, one that he continues.
"They know they can trust us to keep everybody happy and safe; we'll be the first to shut down when the surf is rough, and (the hotel) appreciates that," he said. "Better than people getting hurt; we tell the tourists, 'Stay out of the water, you're not experienced.'
"We close up shop," he laughed, "Then we go surf!"
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Harry D. "Didi" Robello is a second-generation beachboy but also a third-generation Kahanamoku.
"My grandfather (Bill Kahanamoku) and Duke were brothers. My mom, Barbara, was (Bill's) daughter, and she's the one who taught me how to surf -- my dad didn't do it because he was too busy working."
"When Pop started in 1958, he had about six guys who were pure Hawaiian. Now there's just one left, Blue Makua Jr. ... The others have passed away. We work by the ocean, and when we die we bury (scatter ashes) our own in the ocean. We know exactly where their graves are and visit regularly."
Harry D. "Didi" Robello
Aloha Beach Services
Beachboys in his father's day were paid to do what they loved best and made sure people had a good time, but "this was all they knew," said Didi. "Most of them never finished school."
Didi maintains his father's beach concession, Aloha Beach Services at the Moana Surfrider hotel, but for his sons -- Ryan and Shayne -- "school comes first."
He does hope that when they're older, they'll be more involved in the business of equipping tourists for beach activities. "Right now Ryan, he's second captain on a canoe paddling team for Hui Nalu and pretty soon a licensed surf instructor. He's getting good to go."
The siblings are apprentices, soaking up the ins and outs of a trade that evolved from a romanticized era when traveling to Hawaii was mainly for the elite, something the rest could only dream about. "Mostly they're go-fers ... extra bodies just to help."
They not only learn about his livelihood, but also about values and camaraderie from an extended ohana of hanai uncles and aunties dear to Didi.
"Of course, there's my brother Billy and my sister Sybil, but all the people who work here, we're like family. The boys learn about loyalty, and it gives them a sense of place. They learn to respect them as if they're blood.
"When Pop started in 1958, he had about six guys who were pure Hawaiian. Now there's just one left, Blue Makua Jr.," said Didi. "I grew up around them. Blue's been here since I was born. The others have passed away. We work by the ocean, and when we die we bury our own (scattering their ashes) in the ocean. We know exactly where their graves are and visit regularly."
COURTESY DIDI ROBELLO
Didi Robello's father, Harry S. Robello, top left, at Waikiki Beach. Also pictured is Menehune, back; and front row, Joe Wright, left, David Malo, Rabbit and Koko.
Time spent at the concessions not only has ingrained a certain set of ethics, but perhaps honed a desire to nurture and protect the surroundings the tourists enjoy. Shayne, who just completed seventh grade at Niu Valley Intermediate, volunteered in a Kuliouou cleanup a few months ago. And Ryan is participating in a summer coastline cleanup project for the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps, a group committed to educating the younger generation about Hawaii's ecosystem.
The recent Kaiser High School graduate said he enjoys working at the stand. "You get to meet all different kinds of people." He sees himself continuing to lend a hand as needed -- "It's fast cash" -- but for a career his plan is to explore avenues in conservation studies. He's down to earth about the family's ties to the Duke, international symbol of surfing, and how that affects their affinity to the water.
"We're just regular people. We pretty much grew up on the beach. That's why we like the ocean ... not so much genetics."
"My sons always say, 'We're water lovers, not landlubbers,'" Lori Robello said of the brothers who've made the ocean their playground -- surfing, bodysurfing, boogie-boarding, diving and paddling canoe. The former cosmetologist, originally from Wahiawa, helps behind the desk when they're in a pinch but mainly runs the household, making sure schoolwork gets done.
The couple met at the beach through a relative. "I worked with Didi's cousin, and she took me to Waikiki Beach," she said.
She's an avid standup paddler but wasn't always a water babe.
"Didi took me tandem surfing on one of our first dates, and he caught a really gigantic wave ... too scary," she said. "I didn't wanna do that again." From then on she steered clear of surfing but, fortunately for Didi, not of him.
After they married and had Ryan, then Shayne, "I would bring the kids to the beach and just lay out" while they splashed around or helped their dad. But she recently discovered stand-up paddling and now says, "It's fun, good exercise. I try to go whenever I can."
Lori says it would be nice if her kids stayed connected with their father's calling, but she's confident they'll find their own paths. "I'll leave it up to them."
For now, just like a beach boy, Shayne stays in the moment and sums it up simply. "I love the ocean," he says. "I can't wait to help at the stand -- just to be at the beach."
COURTESY "A BEACH BOY PARTY" / HANA OLA / 1963
Harry S. Robello, who started Aloha Beach Services, now run by his son, was part of the original Waikiki beachboys who included, from front row, left, Splash Lyons, Fat (Abraham Kala), Panama; back row, left, Squeeze Kamana, Ox, Waltah Clarke, Kalakaua, Jimmy Hakuole, Robello, Duke Kahanamoku and Chick Daniels.