Hard-earned route to top
By Lee Cataluna
The shorthand version is that Honolulu's new police chief has his doctorate from USC. Impressive, but the backstory is much more revealing.
It was a special program offered at Hickam Air Force Base, where USC professors were flown in to teach every other weekend. It took Louis Kealoha six years worth of weekends to get through all the course work for an Ed.D. He plugged away while working at the police department, taking care of his family and wondering if he had what it took to graduate.
When Kealoha, 49, jumped from the rank of captain to chief, it was a rare shortcut in a life of going the long way to get anywhere. For all his accomplishments, nothing came easy, especially for a man who says he was a poor student in high school.
"In Damien, there was what is called in education a 'tracking system' where there were six different classes according to ability. I was in the lowest class and in the bottom of that class," Kealoha said.
The story of Kealoha's transformation from self-described "knucklehead" to the charismatic leader of the Honolulu Police Department is why so many officers flat-out love the guy — because he comes with the message: "If I can, you can, too."
Kealoha grew up in Kalihi, the son of a body-and-fender man with a sixth-grade education.
"Both sides of my grandparents didn't go to school," he said. "My mom's father went as far as the second grade and her mother went to seventh grade. On my dad's side, nobody ever saw the inside of a classroom."
Kealoha's mother graduated from St. Francis and went to business college in California. She wanted her children to go to Catholic school, but mostly for the discipline.
"When I was growing up, more important than education to my family was morals. They told us 'Be a good person.' "
He struggled through school, lagging behind in every subject. "My favorite subject was surfing," he said.
He liked performing and danced with Louise Kaleiki's hālau when they won the 1974 Merrie Monarch Festival. He also performed Tahitian dance at the Fort DeRussy officer's club with the group.
"I wasn't good at it, but I was passionate about it," he said.
As though offering evidence to support this, Kealoha shows the scar on his wrist from when he hooked himself doing a Sāmoan knife dance in a high school talent show. The memory makes him smile. He was bleeding but he kept going.
Hoping to find something he could succeed in, Kealoha tried out for different sports in high school. He was on the Damien football team for two seasons, but sat on the bench a lot. "At the end of the game, I was the only one with a clean uniform," he said.
All those hours spent warming the bench turned to introspection. "In my heart, I knew I was different, but that being different didn't make me any less than anyone else," Kealoha said.
A DIFFERENT ROUTE
He realized if he kept doing the same things in his life, nothing would change for him. Slowly, he started to do things differently.
After graduating from high school in 1978, he went to an FBI recruitment and signed on to the program, spending a year and a half in Washington D.C. When he came home, he enrolled in Leeward Community College but dropped out to join the Honolulu Police Department in 1983. He thought it was a chance to remake himself in a new image, to walk away from "struggling student" and become a successful cop.
"I wanted to leave all that behind and start new," Kealoha says. "But then I realized, wow, I still feel like I'm sitting on the bench. Why are all the same things happening again?"
Kealoha made himself go back to school. "I wanted something more for myself," he said. "I leaned into my fear."
It took 15 years of night school to get his four-year degree from Wayland Baptist University. He actually got two: a bachelor's in criminal justice and a second in business administration.
His master's degree from Chaminade University took almost five more years. Along the way, he studied learning theory. The idea that different people learn in different ways was like finding the Holy Grail. He realized that traditional rote learning didn't work for everyone, and certainly not for him.
"The way I learn, I want to talk to people, watch people, experience and get involved," he said.
Applying this new understanding of learning theory, Kealoha studied for the lieutenant's exam. Though he was used to taking police department tests more than once before passing, this time, he passed on his first try. That was it. He wanted to teach what he had learned.
"I found this gem. I found this gift and I wanted to give it back," he said.
Kealoha started a test-prep class for HPD officers wanting to take the sergeant's and lieutenant's exams. He's been teaching the class for 10 years, helping police officers better their careers, better themselves and see themselves in a new light. That is why so many on the force love Kealoha: He was the teacher who made a difference for them. He was the teacher who told them they could do it and showed them how.
He tells his story to his HPD classes and to the students in the criminal justice classes he team-teaches with his wife, attorney Katherine Puana Kealoha, at Chaminade. He calls the lecture "Lessons from the Bench" and is writing a book with the same title.
Lesson 1 is, if you want to change what's happening to you, you have to do things differently.
Lesson 2 is, stop listening to negative people. "In fact, negative people made me want to try harder ... I sought out those who wanted to teach and share knowledge with me."
Lesson 3 is, everyone has something valuable to share. "No matter what people said, I knew I had something to contribute."
As for being chief, Kealoha said that was never his goal, though he wanted to serve in a greater capacity. His students were the ones who challenged him to put his name in for consideration.
"They told me, 'You cannot teach us to do things to move ourselves up in life and tell us not to limit ourselves if you're not willing to do that yourself.' "
Taking on a role like police chief has a steep learning curve, but Kealoha knows how to be a persistent student.
"I still have student loans I'll be paying for a very, very long time," he said. "With what I owe, I could have bought a real nice condo."
But what he got is a life redeemed and the hard-won credibility to say to just about anyone, "You can do better. It's hard work, but if I can, you can too."