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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 22, 2002

Charles Watson, sculptor and construction executive, dead at 86

By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer

Visitors to Ala Moana Center may be more struck by his light-hearted heavyweight sculptures of animals than by the fact that he built the center itself.

Charles Watson in his studio with a model of the net mender sculpture. The actual sculpture graces the fountain at the top of Kapi'olani Boulevard.

Advertiser library photo • July 26, 1988

His Dune Circle neighbors may recall not only complaining about the long nights when he noisily pursued art hammer and tong in his backyard, but that he fired a rifle into the air the night he moved away to a Lanikai hillside studio to make sure the folks in the neighborhood remembered him.

Charles Wyndham Watson, former president of Hawaiian Dredging and Construction Co. who pursued a second career as a sculptor, died Saturday in Kane'ohe at the age of 86. He was, like his 1.5-scale sculptures of Hawaiian heroes, larger than life.

His small pieces, such as the net mender at the fountain at the top of Kapi'olani Boulevard, the leaping porpoises at Sea Life Park, the giraffe at Ala Moana Center, the man with an o'o on Kapahulu Avenue, and his Hawaiian helmets at the entry to the Halekulani Hotel, are part of the daily texture of Hawai'i life.

His larger works are also even more familiar: Ala Moana Center, Aloha Stadium, the reef runway at the airport, and Pier 2.

A real-life rags-to-riches Horatio Alger, Watson was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, Aug. 30, 1915, and moved to California with his father early in life to operate a moonshine still in Horse Thief Canyon, hauling grain in and booze out in a Stutz Bearcat car to help slake the thirst of Los Angeles, said his son Kerry.

After working as an apprentice carpenter during the Depression, "Tiger" Watson won the California Welterweight Boxing Championship in 1939 and remained undefeated as a prize fighter in aircraft carrier boxing matches during World War II.

He studied engineering briefly at Santa Monica City College, but had little other formal training when he came to Hawai'i after the war as a manager for McNeil Construction, then moved to Hawaiian Dredging in 1950 as a general superintendent. He retired from the company in 1980.

While studying the original Byodo-In Temple in Japan in preparation for duplicating it in concrete at Valley of the Temples, Watson became a lifelong friend of Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

He seemed like an American Zorba, a man who "tried to teach us that excellence and achievement were attainable if we would only persevere," Kerry Watson said last night.

In addition to his son Kerry, of Colorado, Watson is survived by his wife, Poni, of Lanikai; his other son, Mark of Lanikai; daughters Cathi Sanders of Honolulu and Wendy Erickson of Kailua; and seven grandchildren.

The family will hold private services, followed by release of a red balloon. Watson's favorite book to read to his children and then his grandchildren was "The Red Balloon."

Correction: The family of construction executive and artist Chuck Watson, who died Saturday, plans to release a single red balloon, filled only with helium, after a private funeral service. The balloon is in memory of "The Red Balloon," a story Watson read to his children and grandchildren. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.