Hawaii surf activist John Kelly dies
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By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
In the days before he died Wednesday, there was much that John M. Kelly Jr. couldn't remember about his storied life:
That he invented the hydroplane surfboard and was one of the first surfers to ride the waves at Makaha;
That he was a decorated sailor and Juilliard School graduate who wrote books, conducted symphonies and spoke out against nuclear weapons;
That he founded a grass-roots environmental group responsible for saving 140 surf sites on O'ahu.
But there was one thing that Kelly, who had Alzheimer's for nearly two decades, could never forget: his love of the ocean.
Even just a few months ago, Kelly, lanky and nimble, would swim back and forth in the saltwater pool near his home at Black Point.
It was this passion — for the ocean, for human rights, for environmental causes — that people will remember.
Kelly passed away quietly and peacefully, his family said, in his bed on Wednesday afternoon, his 64th wedding anniversary. He was 88.
"He was probably the greatest humanitarian I've ever met in my life, and I've looked around," said longtime friend and fellow surfer George Downing, 77. "You couldn't buy John, you know what I mean? And people tried. You just couldn't budge him."
SAVE OUR SURF
Kelly was widely known for two things: surfing and saving surf breaks.
His ocean-based environmental group Save Our Surf, founded in 1961, fought to prevent offshore development around the Islands that would have destroyed reefs, surf sites and other ocean resources.
"I can't imagine what this place (Hawai'i) would be without him," Downing said.
At its peak, the group — which consisted of dozens of surfers, ocean-users and environmentalists — staged protests, organized beach cleanups and spread the word using posters and leaflets about development projects that would impact the environment.
These activists helped thwart the state's plans for a proposed reef runway from Wai'alae to Hawai'i Kai, a beach-widening project in Waikiki and evictions of families on Mokauea Island, which later became a historic site.
"He was a pain in the neck sometimes, but I had to admire the guy because he was a leader in protecting and preserving the greatest natural resource we have here," said Bill Paty, 86, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources from 1987 to 1992 and longtime surfer. "He was willing to go to the mat with anybody. ... I tip my hat to him. He kept us on the right track."
Kelly was born on March 3, 1919, in San Francisco, the only child of artist parents.
His father, John Melville Kelly, earned acclaim for his etchings of Islanders and for his designs on the menu covers of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His mother, Katherine Harland, was a noted sculptor.
The family moved to Honolulu in 1926, then built a shingled cottage at Black Point that overlooked the ocean a few years later.
Kelly was 9 years old when he got his first surfboard, a 7-foot redwood plank shaped by David Kahanamoku, Duke's brother.
Nine years later, in 1937, Kelly had the idea to streamline the tail section of the board he was riding to have more control in bigger waves.
He and friend Wally Froiseth took an axe to the rear end of another friend's wide-tailed plank, narrowing the tail section and carving the planing surface into a rounded hull.
The result was a new design called the "hot curl." It's credited as a development that led to the start of big-wave surfing.
Not soon after did he find a spot perfect for this new kind of board.
While spear-fishing and camping along the Wai'anae Coast, Kelly discovered the waves at Makaha, which, 10 years later, was the site of Hawai'i's first international surfing meet.
"I remember seeing John surfing at the point at Makaha," said Fred Hemmings, 61, a state senator and former world surfing champ. "There weren't many people surfing out there then. ... And as with most surfers in those days, (Kelly) was iconoclastic. He was a man who definitely did his own thing."
One of the more memorable contributions to surfing — even if it never caught on — was Kelly's hydroplane surfboard, created in 1963.
He got a patent on the strange design, which combined the speed of a longboard and the maneuverability of a shortboard in its slightly raised tail section.
The hype lasted for a couple of years; now these rare boards are worth more as vintage collectibles than functional surfboards.
"It was a crazy board," Hemmings said, laughing. "But it showed some real innovation. Even though it wasn't functional and it never caught on, in a curious way it was illustrative of his character. He was an out-of-the-box thinker, an innovator."
Though Kelly surfed well into his 70s — most often at Black Point — his life wasn't solely defined by his love for the waves.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Kelly earned a bachelor's degree in music from the prestigious Juilliard School in 1950.
For years he conducted symphonies and choral groups and served as the director of the music school at Palama Settlement.
"Our parents gave us so many opportunities to experience different kinds of art and music," said his daughter, Kathleen Kelly, 58. "I remember being a little girl, half-awake at these late rehearsals and watching him get these people to sing. ... He was used to getting people to work together, to connect."
Kelly was also a decorated sailor who witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, even helping to pull people from the water.
In 1944, Kelly, a skilled free diver, earned a Navy and Marine Corps medal of heroism for voluntarily retrieving submerged torpedoes off Kaho'olawe with just his goggles and a gulp of air. He told a reporter at the Chicago Daily News War Service that "any Islander could have done it."
He also wrote books, most notable "Surf and Sea," 304 pages covering nearly every aspect of the sport. It was published in 1965.
Not to mention, he self-printed all the fliers, posters and leaflets for Save Our Surf on an antiquated printing press in his basement that would run all hours of the night.
"I used to sleep in the room above (the basement)," Kathleen Kelly said. "And it would be running until 3 or 4 a.m. Clickety-clack, all night long."
Though a World War II veteran, Kelly was an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons, to the point it allegedly cost him his job at Palama Settlement.
In 1959 he served as a delegate to the Fifth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima. He considered it a "privilege and a duty as an ordinary American citizen."
"Good for him that he spoke against that racism, that arrogance, that insanity," said Kathleen Kelly, who inherited her parents' activism and was arrested at a Vietnam protest in 1967.
When she called home from jail, her parents responded, "Good for you," Kathleen Kelly said, laughing.
"That's the kind of parents they were," she said.
SURFING FIRST LOVE
Of course, surfing was always Kelly's first love.
For decades, he would jump off Kupikipikio Point, surfboard in tow, and catch waves at Black Point or Browns.
As he got older, though, bodyboard replaced surfboard until he ditched them both several years ago. Instead, he would climb down the cliffs, glide into the ocean and swim all the way to Ka'alawai Beach.
His wife, Marion, would walk from their home to the beach with his slippers and a towel. Then they would walk back to Black Point together.
"This guy once told me he went for a swim with John, just on his regular swim," Downing said. "And he told me, 'I thought I was going to die. But John didn't blink an eye.' He was special."
About 20 years ago, Kelly was struck on the head by his own surfboard, his daughter said, leading to a decline in his mental capacity.
Soon after the accident, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Then, in 1995, he found out he had bladder cancer.
Worried that his condition would only worsen, his wife and granddaugther, Corey Smrekar, began collecting and organizing everything, from fliers he had created to newspaper clippings that mentioned him.
In 2004, the Hawaiian Collection of Hamilton Library received a $3,075 grant from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa Diversity and Equity Initiative to digitize posters, fliers and other ephemera from Save Our Surf to preserve this social and environmental movement.
The collection is currently available online.
Had Kelly's condition not deteriorated in recent years, Kathleen Kelly said, he would've been protesting development plans at Kaka'ako and rallying against the Superferry.
"He knew that if you stick together and educate the public about what's really going on and speak out, you can have victories," Kathleen Kelly said. "You can win these things that make a difference."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at email@example.com.