MYPC Q&A: James R. Duke Aiona, Raised in Pearl City

Feb 14, 2012 | PC Community


James R. Duke Aiona is best known for his public service to our state and city as a lieutenant governor, state family court judge, city prosecutor and city attorney. Mr. Aiona’s professional career continues on today as Executive Vice President of Development and Recruitment for his alma mater St. Louis School where Aiona ’73 was also a multi-sport athlete and in later years a coach.

I recently had the honor of sitting next to Mr. Aiona at a business conference in Waikiki. It was actually by chance. There was an empty chair next to me in the very crowded luncheon portion of the conference and the former LG asked if it was available. What a thrill. It was even a bigger thrill when I learned that he grew up in Pearl City as a kid.

Wow! I thought, now this would be a great opportunity, if I could get him to agree to being interviewed for my next MYPC Q&A. I chanced it and he agreed.

Mr. Aiona has a deep rooted childhood connection to Pearl City as a typical local kid growing up in the 60’s. He moved with his family to Pearl City from the downtown Honolulu area in 1960 when he was five years old. Mr. Aiona has fond memories of playing sports, riding bikes and having fun in his Hookani Street neighborhood. It was a time and place where kids freely enjoyed the outdoors and hanging out with their neighborhood friends, school classmates and youth sports teammates.

Pearl City was less crowded back then, but was starting to build as Oahu’s growing population migrated west as jobs became available at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. The sugar cane fields that dominated the upper Pearl City landscape for decades were rapidly being replaced with brand new single family home sub divisions. If you grew up in Pearl City in the late 50’ and early 60’s, you probably spent hours playing in the sugar cane fields that is now the Momilani sub division that was built in the late 60’s.

There were so many memories of growing up in Pearl City that Mr. Aiona shared with me from playing youth sports, to a life threatening accident while riding his bike that left him in a coma for 5 days, to his daily commute to downtown Honolulu where he attended grade school at Maryknoll School. 

I grew up a few streets away from Mr. Aiona’s Hookani Street address in the 70’s and remember the neighborhood as a great place and community to be a kid.

I would like to thank Mr. Aiona for sharing his childhood experiences while growing up in Pearl City. I learned that he has a big heart and a true love for Pearl City. He is grateful for the support he has received from our community and the opportunity to serve the people of our state and city in the many roles and positions that he has held throughout the years.

What made him smile as we ended our interview? Being raised in Pearl City!

It is a true honor to present the following MYPC Q&A featuring JamesR. Duke Aiona with our ohana.

                                                       Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Q: Why did your family move to Pearl City back in 1960?

A: We were renting a home in downtown by Lusitania Street where the freeway is right now. They were going to build a freeway so they moved everybody out so we had to move. My parents moved out to Pearl City. When we moved out there our backyard was sugar cane fields. There was no Palisades. We were the last street, Hookani Street which is right above Pearl City Highlands, maybe about four or five streets up. I remember my parents said they bought our house for like $20,000. It was a three bed room, bath and a half.

Q: How was your daily commute in the 60’s to town and back for school?

A: I went to Maryknoll School. We would drive everyday into town and that was an experience. There were no freeways so everything was Kam Highway. I still remember the old Kam Highway. We would go Nimitz, Kam Highway and then to downtown and then you get to Maryknoll. We used to leave early because they were building outside of Honolulu so traffic got pretty bad. Kam Highway was only two lanes, pretty much of what it is today, that’s what it was back in the 60’s. Where the viaduct is right now, that was Kam Highway, under the viaduct. That’s the route we would take. I just remember there was a turn lane on Kam Highway and so if you wanted to beat all the traffic you would go in that turn lane and kind of cut back in. My dad wasn’t that kind of driver.

Maryknoll was just building their brand new school so they split us in half. So half of us went in the morning and half of us went in the afternoon. It just so happened that my sister and I went to Maryknoll. Her time was in the morning and my time was in the afternoon so I didn’t go in the morning. We just went to that schedule and my dad was going down that street and got into a major accident that nearly killed him and my sister.

Q: What was it like playing with your neighborhood friends?

A:  When I was about eight we used to live at the park (Pearl City Highlands). Everybody played at the park. Basketball, Baseball, Football, every sport. We very rarely went down to Pacheco Park because we lived in the Pearl City Highlands area. That’s a big difference now between growing up today compared to growing up 40-50 years ago. Everything was outside. You rode your bike, you played on the street, and you played at the playground. I mean that’s what you did. I remember what we used to do with old baseballs. What we used to do was take out the insides and then take out the core. There used to be a small little core in there and then we would rewind the ball and then stitch the skins back up. That would make a soft, hard skin ball. That’s how we used to play baseball. The same guys would always be down there everyday to play. We went from morning to night. That’s how life was.

Q: Can you reflect back on the day you nearly lost your life riding your bike through the neighborhood?

A: I would have to go up this big hill to get to the park. Everyday you would fly down on your bike and then you would cut the corner to make it up the hill. One day, I cut the corner and I hit this car. I was unconscious for a few days. My mom said it was five days or something like that. I went to the old Pearl City Hospital. It was on a hill, a wooden structure, a two building structure where Pali Momi is today. It was up there by itself on the hill. I will never forget that. I still remember being in there.

Q: How big of a role did sports play growing up?

A: Life was about baseball and later my mom finally let me play Pop Warner football. Mainly it was just baseball that I played in Pearl City.

Q: So your love for baseball came at an early age?

A: Absolutely. I started playing baseball when I was seven or eight years old. I played minor league and then major league because all we had was Little League. We didn’t have Pony League or Babe Ruth. I think they had PAL. The whole thing was to get to the Majors and then make the all star team. Pearl City always had a good team but we never won the state title. Mostly 12 year olds make the team. Very rarely do 11 year olds or 10 year olds make the all star team. When I became 12 years old I made it and we went all the way to the semifinals of the regional round and then we lost to Ewa Beach. They lost to Aiea who had Gerald Ako that year. Aiea won the state title and went to the mainland. We had a couple 11 year olds on the team that year, Jay Fukuda and Eric Texidor. They came back and they won the state title the next year. They were the first Pearl City team to go to the mainland and represent Hawaii.

                                                       Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]

Pearl City Highlands "Field of Dreams".

Q: Did you play sports with any of your youth teammates later on in high school?

A: Eric and I were from way back in our hanabada days. Eric and I played baseball against each other. I think he played for the Athletics. I played for the White Sox. We had this big rivalry going. When I finally played Pop Warner Football, he was the running back and I was quarterback. Later we went to St. Louis. He was the running back and I was the quarterback. Eric was also a good baseball player in high school. He made all league at St. Louis for three years. He actually started as a sophomore.

Q: What was your experience like playing Pop Warner football for the Chargers?

A: For Pop Warner we were the original Chargers. I remember Paul Joy was the coach. Paul Joy was a great man. He was like a second dad to me. He let me call my own plays. He never brought plays in. I’ll never forget this one game, it was 4th and 1 against Waipahu and I called a streak. A one man pattern and thank God we completed it. If we didn’t complete it I think he was ready to take my head off.

Every Friday night a bunch of us would sleep at his house and we would go to the stadium and watch the game of the week. Whatever it was, Kam, Punahou or Farrington, Roosevelt. We would get pumped up and play the next day. That was back in 1967-68. We were the first team to win a championship. We won the Leeward Championship. We lost to Kainalu in the state playoffs.

Q: Favorite places to eat and hang out back in the day?

A: We were very limited. We never went to Waipahu. We stayed in Pearl City. Scotty’s Drive-In was the main place and also the (Leeward) bowling alley. I spent a lot of time in the bowling alley. I also participated in a couple of their leagues that they had. There was also a restaurant across the street, I can’t remember the name but we used to go there a lot. My mom and I went there a lot. We ate breakfast and lunch over there. The food was really good. W&M Hamburgers had a drive-in near Blaisdell Park. That was the original W&M. During Lent as a Catholic we couldn’t eat meat so we would go over there and eat fish burgers. I still remember the taste. They had really good fish burgers. My dad wasn’t home much so it was mainly me and my mom and my sister. My mom would take us out to eat so we knew all the spots. Scotty’s was 50 cents for a hamburger, french fries and a coke. Scotty’s had their own unique mustard and their ketchup is what got you. Waimalu had the Chinese Restaurant. We would also hang out at the driving range in Palisades. Palisades was just being built at the time in the late 60’s.

Q: As a kid growing up in Pearl City you must have played with friends in the cane fields above your neighborhood?

A: We played there all the time. Actually, after a while it became off limits. My mom said I couldn’t go but we would go. If you got caught by the field workers you would just run. That was funny. I remember one time this guy had a pitch fork and chased us out. I also had a friend who lived in Halawa. A couple times I rode my bike to his house in Halawa which was quite a distance. I would go down the cane haul road but you had to watch out for the guys hauling cane and when their trucks are coming you had to ditch it and hide in the field until they pass. That was the kind of fun we had. We didn’t have Game Boy or Nintendo.

Q: What type of reception did you receive from the Pearl City community while running for elected office?

A: I had a connection to Pearl City. For me I would say this is my town. This is where I grew up. A lot of people didn’t know it. They didn’t know that I lived in Pearl City. It’s interesting because in Hawaii the political party you belong to makes a difference. It shouldn’t, but it does and Pearl City is a heavily Democratic district. It’s interesting because they didn’t know who you were and just by the feedback you get when you’re talking to them it seemed they weren’t very interested in me for whatever reason. I don’t think it was so much my ideology or my philosophy, but mainly because of my party, but as soon as they found out that I was raised in Pearl City everything changed. They kind of test you and they would ask you questions. When you come back with things that are no longer here in Pearl City anymore they go, “hey, he was raised here, he knows a lot,” and then it was like I got their vote. The old timers were really cool. The old timers really liked it. I guess what they liked also was that I had pride. That I had pride in the fact that I came from Pearl City and I was raised in Pearl City and I still think it’s a great community. Even my old house, I go back and I look at it. That house was really the best house. You know, I miss all the neighbors, Mrs. Leong, the Fujioka’s, the Meyer’s and all the memories.

Q: In your opinion, how have the times changed from the days of your youth growing up in Pearl City?

A:  It’s not like that anymore. People are busy now. The streets were where you could ride your bikes because cars wouldn’t be driving fast. In the day you get up, brush your teeth, wash your face and boom! you jump on your bike and go down the driveway and go on your way. We would come home late. We would play in the street until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. Nobody worried about you. Parents didn’t have to worry. Everybody knew each other. I kind of miss that. To me living in Pearl City was like a real community.

                                                       Photo by Barry Villamil | [email protected]