Friday, February 2, 2001
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Posted on: Friday, February 2, 2001

Kapa'a principal always put kids first

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Staff Writer

Cliff Bailey was the hardest person to interview. It wasn’t because he didn’t answer phone calls, because he always did. It wasn’t because he wouldn’t answer tough questions, because he always would. It was because he was constantly being interrupted by children eager to share some little slight or observation or triumph. And he’d stop, camera still rolling, and turn his attention to the little upturned face of whoever was tugging at his pant leg. He’d make that child feel like whatever they had to say was the most important thing in the world.

The first time I met principal Cliff Bailey was the day he wore bloomers to work. Bailey had struck a deal with his students at Kapaa Elementary School on Kauai, challenging them to read a huge number of books over a short time. If they reached the goal, he promised to wear the bloomers. They did, so he did.

One of the parents made the bloomers with polka dots everywhere, a clown face on the butt and those funky dangle-ball chenille-blanket fringes on the legs. The students were beyond hysterical, and looking at their faces, red and puffy from laughter, you knew this was a day they’d talk about for years.

Later, another challenge was issued to the students, another goal was met. Bailey promised to spend the day on the roof of the school, so there he was, desk, chair and smile, waving to the kids as they cheered from below.

But no one ever thought of Cliff Bailey as silly or wacky. Not for a minute. He managed to be dignified in dangle-ball polka-dot shorts.

He was cool under pressure, too. As a reporter, I was sent to the school for more than just cute features. Sometimes there were problems or issues. Sometimes, people were mad. Cliff Bailey could be counted on for an interview, and not one of those say-anything-just-to-get-the-media-off-my-back-but-really-say-nothing sound bites.

There was a time when the story was about a covered playground that the state had built for the school. The roof over the open-air court was ridiculously high, too tall to offer much shelter from Kapaa’s frequent horizontal rain showers. It doesn’t help much in the rain, he told the kids, but it’s nice and shady on hot days, isn’t it? The kids agreed. He found good even in a frustrating situation.

These thoughts came back to me last week as the community mourned the loss of Cliff Bailey at the terribly young age of 50.

Everyone who knew him will have their own memory of Cliff Bailey, but I’m sure I’m not alone in cherishing the image of the polka-dot bloomers with the dangle-ball fringe, a day when he made the kids laugh and feel proud and loved, a day when he showed them dignity is a goal met and a promise kept.

Lee Cataluna’s e-mail address is

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