Dwayne Steele, 71, Isle philanthropist
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Philanthropist and businessman R. Dwayne Nakila Steele, who had no Hawaiian blood but came to embrace Hawaiian music and language later in life, died Wednesday at his home in Nu'uanu. He was 71.
Steele was president of Grace Brothers Ltd. in 1984 when it bought Pacific Concrete & Rock Co. Ltd., Hawai'i's second-largest ready-mix/concrete supplier, to form the Grace Pacific Corp. construction company, a business owned by its employees and directors.
As Grace Pacific's CEO, Steele "wasn't one who worried about getting the last dollar or best deal," said Walter Dods, First Hawaiian Bank's former CEO, who sits on Grace Pacific's board of directors. "He felt that whatever extra you had to pay to make everyone happy, you'd make it up in the long term."
Under Steele, Grace Pacific's annual sales shot up from $8 million to $135 million as it grew from 50 employees to 500. His business persona also allowed Steele to share a generous heart — even as cancer began to take its toll.
In the last few months, Dods said, Steele "reminded us to keep charitable giving as a priority of the company. His values and his generosity are unbelievable. He is one of the most beautiful people I've ever met. I love him. It hurts me to see him go. He's the most Hawaiian man I've ever known in my life."
Steele wanted Grace Pacific's employees to enjoy benefits like profit sharing and stock purchase plans and told Bob Wilkinson, Steele's successor as president and CEO, to "be the kind of boss that everyone would like," Wilkinson said.
"His fundamental attitude was that if you want people to work for you, don't hesitate to pay them," Wilkinson said. "He felt that if you want people to perform, you also have to give them the responsibility to do well, and then you reward them for it."
As the head of a construction company, Steele also possessed a strong environmental ethic and penchant for sometimes eschewing business concerns, said his best friend, Oswald Stender, a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs who also sits on Grace Pacific's board of directors.
A few years ago, a passenger in a car was injured by falling rocks from a Grace Pacific quarry and Steele ordered company officials to do "whatever's right," Stender said.
"Most companies would just turn it over to the insurance company," Stender said. "He said, 'Go to the family and tell them we were wrong and we'll fix it. Whatever it costs, do it.' "
Steele was born in Kansas, raised in Colorado and moved to the Islands in the 1950s, said Stender, who over the last several years shared three different offices with Steele.
Steele befriended the late guitarist Johnny Almeida, which began Steele's journey into Hawaiian music, language and culture.
"I was the brownie, and he was the white guy," Stender said. "I meshed with him because he spoke the language and I didn't. So he was the interpreter. ... I always said he was the brother I should have had and the brother that I needed."
Twenty years ago, Steele and Stender helped fund the 'Aha Punana Leo Hawaiian language school for pre-schoolers in Kalihi, which has since "spread all over," Stender said. They also founded a primary school in Kekaha, Kaua'i, to preserve and enhance the Ni'ihau Hawaiian dialect for children of Ni'ihau.
"They just loved him," Stender said. "The fact that he's a white guy speaking the language just blew them away. He has a big heart for things Hawaiian."
Steele retired as CEO of Grace Pacific in 1989 and began studying Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai'i, where he quickly discovered a lack of Hawaiian language textbooks.
"He said, 'What is this? How can you learn a language with no textbooks?' " Stender said.
Steele helped publish several Hawaiian language books and four years ago launched a project to digitize 44 Hawaiian language newspapers that existed in the latter half of the 1800s.
Steele had become fluent in Hawaiian language and proofread and fixed many of the original grammatical errors in the newspapers, said Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawai'i Community Foundation.
"He was an initiator and instigator of so many wondrous things," Taketa said. "He was just an incredible guy who was brilliant, but such a kind and humble person. He did things in a very quiet way and sometimes anonymously."
Steele sat on the boards of some of Hawai'i's largest business and charitable organizations, including the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, First Hawaiian Bank, Hawai'i Community Foundation, Hawaiian Historical Society and Punahou School. But he declined all offers to be honored by the groups — except in the case of the 'Aha Punana Leo Hawaiian language school, Stender said.
"You name it, they all wanted to honor him for the good work he does," Stender said. "But he wouldn't let anyone honor him except 'Aha Punana Leo — because by doing that, he knew it would recognize the school."
As Taketa said, "the amazing thing about his support was that it was often unsolicited. When he saw a need, he volunteered to help. It was often very small projects or groups that could never have done what they accomplished through Dwayne."
In 2004, residents of Ni'ihau composed a song in Steele's honor, entitled "Lei No Nakila," whose lyrics included: "So giving with gracious humility/We call out your name Nakila, this is our lei/For you to wear in honor, a symbol of our aloha/We raise our song to our Heavenly Father/That he care for you Nakila, with eternal love."
Steele is survived by his wife, Marti; and children, Chris, Ridy, Aito and Elizabeth Pualani Steele of Honolulu, Donna Jones of Topeka, Kan., Flo Doyle of Denver and Jenny Steele of Oklahoma City. Steele had another daughter, Terry, who died.
Services for Steele are scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Oahu Country Club.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to:
'Aha Punana Leo
96 Puuhonu Place
Hilo, HI 96720
Awaiaulu Hawaiian Literature Project
2505 Pali Highway
Honolulu, HI 96817
Reach Dan Nakaso at firstname.lastname@example.org.