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Don Ho’s Hawaii

Getty Images / CBS Photo Archive / CBS

Don Ho’s Hawaii

Singer and Hawaiian icon Don Ho died April 13, 2007. On the fifth anniversary of his death, Jessica Campbell fondly recalls meeting the legendary entertainer.

Ten years ago I visited Hawaii for the first time. My boyfriend Steve and I'd planned for months – more accurately, I was the one who had planned, spending endless hours poring over Internet listings to find the best B&Bs and rental cottages, restaurants and markets, beaches, and hikes… the perfect vacation. And what did Steve contribute to the itinerary? Tiki bars and Don Ho.

Don Ho by Shag

Don Ho poster by Shag

Though I had endured Steve's tiki-lust for years and had long since come to accept his peculiar hobby, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to dedicate one of only two nights in Honolulu to Don Ho. I was sure that Hawaii's largest city had more to offer than a lounge act whose popularity had peaked in 1966. There were so many museums, restaurants, and shops showcasing the diversity that is Hawaii. I wanted to eat Chinese dumplings and Portuguese doughnuts, learn about Hawaiian royalty, shop for traditional quilts … Listening to Don Ho sing "Tiny Bubbles" and "Suck 'Em Up" while sucking down a mediocre Mai Tai was not on my to-do list.

But Steve insisted – and I am so glad he did. On paper, it was a hotel dinner show starring a one-hit Hawaiian wonder from the '60s. In reality, it was a family affair with our charming host (Don Ho was no diva) welcoming us as if into his home. He greeted us and posed for a picture before the show began. On stage, he sang, told stories and jokes, talked about his family – and, in so doing, painted a picture of Hawaii that we might not have seen otherwise.

In so many ways, Don Ho was Hawaii: cultural diversity (Ho was of Chinese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Dutch, and German heritage), surfing, and life on the beach, love of the islands (so many of the songs he recorded were love letters to his home), beautiful music, and the aloha spirit.

What I realize now is that Don Ho was America, too. The Hos are the mythical melting pot. Don Ho's was the classic American success story. And Ho himself was the classic All-American guy: football player and Air Force veteran who married his high school sweetheart, got his college degree, and then helped his parents run the family business before finding showbiz success. Not unlike another Hawaiian we know who's recently achieved some success in the political arena. Don Ho and Barack Obama may not have much more than Hawaii in common, but in their own unique ways, these Hawaiians represent America.

I'll drink to that.

Written by Jessica Campbell

Don Ho and Me, 2002