Wise retired from politics in 1925 and took up the quiet life of a farmer on Moloka‘i, where he raised pigs and grew taro. A new passion, however, soon drew him back to Honolulu. Having worked so tirelessly to shape Hawai‘i’s future, his new focus was its past. Wise was a recognized authority in a variety of traditional practices including la‘au lapa‘au (herbal medicine), ku‘i a lua (combat) and ‘olelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language), and he became a leader in the efforts to preserve the disappearing knowledge of his kupuna (ancestors). In 1926 Wise was hired by his alma mater, Kamehameha Schools, to head the recently founded Hawaiian-language department and lecture on Hawaiian culture. In the same year, Wise was also hired by the University of Hawai‘i as its secondever professor of Hawaiian language.
Wise died of pneumonia on August 12, 1937, at 68 years of age. His funeral services were held at Kawaiaha‘o Church, the “Church of the Ali‘i (chiefs),” in Honolulu, where two kia‘i (guards) from the Royal Order of Kamehameha stood over his body throughout the day. At a meeting soon after his death, the University of Hawai‘i, which he helped found by sponsoring the bill that created it in 1919, named the school’s athletic field Wise Field. Few recall his name on campus today; Wise Field was torn up long ago.
Wise’s life seems to present a jumble of contradictions. He was born half native and half foreign. He embraced Christianity while honoring the ancient akua (dieties). He worked diligently to master English and fought passionately to preserve his native tongue. Yet his life was a response to and a reflection of the challenges he and his people faced, challenges that exist today. In his time, John Henry Wise met these challenges head-on, embracing the future while staying rooted in the past.