Palama Settlement offered a number of activities including barefoot football. The photo above is from 1935. Other activities included swimming, diving and gymnastics. Photos courtesy Palama Settlement

Barefoot Days

Once the sports center of Honolulu,
Palama Settlement celebrates its 100th anniversary with a proud tradition of helping children to a better life

By Pat Gee
Special to the Star-Bulletin

He lived on a street so small and inauspicious he dubbed it "Peanut Butter Lane, off of Crackseed Road," when talking about his beginnings.

He had only one pair of heavily patched trousers his mother washed by hand at night so he could wear them the next day. She worked long hours making Chinese dresses for 35 cents apiece. His father had forgotten he had a family.

There was only one pair of shoes in the house for three children to share, and when their feet got too big to fit them, they cut the shoetops out.

One day, they had chicken for dinner. In the middle of a mouthful, he realized it was his scrawny pet that his mother had cooked. But because he was always so hungry, he choked it down anyway.

There were hundreds like my dad, Bill Gee, who lived on poverty-stricken Peanut Butter Lanes in the Palama area 70 years ago. But they say all roads lead to Mecca, and the dirt footpaths and one-car roads off Vineyard Blvd. in those days led young people in droves to a haven called "Palama Settlement."

The settlement, which is celebrating its 100th birthday with year-long festivities beginning June 1, has long been associated with sports activities and championship teams. But old-timers who went there say that the best thing about it was that it was like a second home, their friends became their family and the staff taught them to be productive members of society as well as outstanding athletes.

Bobby Rath, the son of founder James Arthur Rath, was born and raised on the grounds of the facility. Now 80 years old, the trustee emeritus remembers "hundreds of kids of all nationalities came after school and weekends, and stayed all day. It was their second home," away from homes filled with strife and tension in low-income districts. Many came from broken homes or their parents were too busy working to give them the attention they needed.

"This was the sports center of Honolulu. Everybody went from one sport to another. We had the best gym and swimming pool in name it, we had it," he said.

There was a football and track field, tennis courts, game room, classes of all kinds, arts and crafts, music, dances at night, and hot running water - a luxury in those days - which inspired many to "live in the showers," Rath said.

"There was a very strong feeling of aloha. People were very proud to be a part of Palama Settlement. The major thing we had was outstanding people to work with," including his brother, "Junior" Rath, and athletic directors Wilder Parker and Bill Gee from the 1920s to the 50s, he recalled.

"Nelson Kawakami must have taught 40,000 kids to swim. For 25 years John Makolo and Anthony Ah Sam were fixtures here and surrogate fathers to the boys. They took care of the locker room and kept the kids in line. Nobody ever swore around here and you never heard any dirty stories for fear of losing their membership; it was extraordinarily important to them."

Most important to the parents, said Rath, a longtime swimming coach and diving champion at Palama, "they knew their kids were absolutely safe and were taken care of in every sense of the word."

In addition to the excellent staff and athletic facilities, Palama also boasted a complete medical department with 23 nurses and six dentists, subsidized by the city, and made free to card-carrying members who paid 25 cents a year to belong to the settlement.

Another trustee and self-described "Palama boy," Moses "Moke" Kealoha, excelled in weightlifting and bodybuilding and recently was recognized by the State Senate upon retirement for his business accomplishments, community service, and for being one of the best all-around athletes in Hawaii's history.

Now 67, Kealoha first started going to Palama at the age of 6 and still returns "to give a little back," as a lot of members did throughout their lives.

"People associate Palama Settlement with sports, but it was more culture than athletics," he said. "The staff emphasized the necessity of developing strong family ties and getting a good education. They didn't have (college) degrees but taught from experience and compassion; they inspired trust in the kids and did what they thought was best for their futures."

As a result, he said, "year after year Palama produced outstanding politicians, musicians, judges, educators, doctors and professional people ’xxx If we didn't behave and cut classes, they (the school teachers) would suspend you from Palama Settlement. In other words, you cannot go back 'til the teacher says OK. That (suspension) was worse than 50 lashes."

Kealoha and Harry Fujinaka, another alumnus who attributed his success in life to playing every sport at Palama, are organizing volunteers to set up for a luau June 1 on the settlement grounds for the centennial celebration. (Call 845-2428 for tickets.)

Fujinaka, who has spent most of his 63 years as an educator and principal, said he hated school as a kid.

"The only reason I went into education was because I wanted to coach football," he said. "Coaching is my love ’xxx being a coach is being a teacher ’xxx I thought I could turn people around. I think I made it because of sports."

He has fond memories of his Palama "step-dads": Kawakami, Gee, Matsuo Fujii, Kiyoshi "Knuckles" Matsuo, Joe-gans Kupahu and Harry Mamizuka.

"They were a great bunch of guys. We really cared for each other," Fujinaka said.

Jimmy Koo, 75, was also among the hordes who "practically lived there" at the settlement from the time he was 6 years old. Although he excelled in basketball, he played everything, including barefoot football in the 120-pound league.

Members of the 1937 Palama Settlement 140-pound championship team get together for a team photo.

Reminiscing about his ragtag team put a smile in Koo's voice. Barefoot football meant wearing long "sailor-moku" pants, no helmet, no shoulder pads, and of course, no shoes because no one could afford any equipment. Their feet were naturally toughened from growing up barefoot, so it wasn't much of a hardship, he recalls.

In basketball "we had a great team," coached by Gee, Koo said.

They were together for 10 years and won the senior league championship several times. They even played against the famed Harlem Globetrotters and "taught them a few things ourselves," said Koo, proudly.

One game plan was to hoist one of their shortest guys onto the shoulders of another and throw him the ball so he could make a basket. "That was our forte - we did it quite often," Koo said.

The small, scrappy team included Frances Sing, Charlie McKee, Kupahu and Sylvester Abili. Koo said the Globetrotters "were too good for us," but the Palama bunch must have won their respect because they asked them to provide three substitutes when they were short-handed during one of their tours to the islands, he remembers.

The Related Story:

Palama Settlement is 100 years old

Harry Mamizuka makes a difference

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