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Most of Molokai‘i's prime ‘opihi grounds are only accessible by boat. Jordan Spencer, just offshore of Wailau Valley, September 2006
Vol. 9, No. 6
December/January 2007

  >>   Hearts of Palm
  >>   On the Rocks
  >>   Top Flight

School of a Lifetime 

story by Paul Wood
photos by Chris McDonough


The arcade of triumphal arches rises—roofless, silent and monumental by Maui standards—in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cane fields and withdrawn more than a mile from anything you’ll find on a map. The North Shore tradewinds of Hamakua Poko gust through its empty ten-foot-high windows. This, the main building of the original Maui High School, constructed in 1921, is now an eloquent shell, robbed by time of its doors, its floors and—this is the astonishing thing—of its community, which once clustered thickly around its walls. Gone are the houses, the camps, the vegetable gardens and laundry lines. Gone are the paths along which the students would run home for lunch every day. Gone are the trains and tracks that carried students to school from Wailuku, Kahului, Pu‘unënë and Ha‘ikü. In the dizzyingly short period of fifty years, this school’s entire world vanished.

That’s the tragedy of success.

Maui High School’s beautifully democratic mission was to educate the children of the camps—kids whose parents had come from afar to labor in sugar and pineapple fields. The teachers did such a fine job that the kids rocketed right out of there and never looked back.

They became lawyers, judges, doctors, military officers, successful entrepreneurs and political leaders. Maui mayor Alan Arakawa is an alumnus; likewise two of Maui’s most colorful and influential other mayors, Elmer Cravalho and Hannibal Tavares. One of its grads changed American history—U.S. Congresswoman Patsy Mink. The alma mater served so well as an accelerator of progress that it made itself obsolete.

The camps themselves became obsolete during the social turbulence between World War II and statehood. The people of “H’poko” abandoned the district, most of them moving to modern housing tracts in Kahului. Old Maui High School closed in 1972 just as a new Maui High opened smack-dab in the middle of Central Maui’s post-plantation “Dream City.” Although the county and the state continued to use the remote H’poko site for limited purposes, the school buildings—especially the noble administration building, which was designed by C.W. Dickey, the most respected architect in Hawai‘i’s history—slid into ruin.

Until about two years ago.

That’s when Jan Dapitan went out to look at the place. Jan is head of Community Work Day (CWD), a nonprofit organization dedicated to beautifying the environment. By organizing some 5,000 volunteers, CWD manages hundreds of effective projects, including county-wide cleanups (five per year), “Compuswaps” that collect and dispose of tons of bum computer components and the rescue and reuse of numerous old buildings. When Jan visited the H’poko site, she says, “I was astonished at the condition. The Dickey building was encased in a tree and buried in the jungle, not even visible from the road.” She targeted the campus as a “hot spot” for her CWD volunteers. She also began talking with community members who shared her concerns for the school and its history. One of these, Barbara Long, made a smart move. She put together a low-cost newsletter and mailed it to all the alumni. Instantly the envelopes started flooding in—donations in amounts that ranged from $5 to $10,000. Jan and Barbara, not OMH grads themselves, quickly realized the force that they had tapped, the wellspring of loyalty and love felt by the school’s alumni, who had migrated all across the island, the state and the country.

Says Barbara Long, who is now president of the Friends of Old Maui High School (www.oldmauihigh.org), “That school was a breeding ground for movers and shakers. The kids got such a good education, it’s just amazing.”

In order to understand the emotional symbolism of this project, you probably have to shed some contemporary assumptions—that high school is grimly practical and mandatory, a kind of low-security prison for teenagers, certainly not a neoclassical edifice rising like a cathedral amidst the villages of immigrants, certainly not a beacon of hope.