By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009
HONOLULU -- When President-elect Barack Obama visited the lush campus of his old high school for a game of basketball in the waning days of his vacation this week, he returned to no ordinary Hawaiian school, but one with a rich history of teaching the island's elite and an array of distinctions: the nation's No. 1-ranked athletic program, the largest U.S. independent day school and the oldest west of the Mississippi River.
Nowhere in a state overflowing with pride in its native son is that pride felt more strongly than on the palm-lined campus of Punahou School, from which Obama graduated in 1979.
Obama spent eight years at Punahou, whose tranquil 76-acre Manoa Valley campus rivals that of many private universities. Low-lying classroom buildings with sloping green-tile roofs are set on perfectly manicured grassy hillsides. Flowers and palm trees dot the campus, and all around you hear birds chirping. In the distance is the Honolulu skyline and Waikiki Beach, while volcanic mountains rise beyond the swimming pool and football field.
"There was something about this place and this school that embraced me, gave me support, gave me encouragement and allowed me to grow and to prosper," Obama told students in a visit to the school one month before being sworn in as a U.S. senator. During that visit, Obama told students to "dream big."
Sophomore Daniel Dangaran, 15, said the speech made an indelible impact. "I've kept that with me my whole life," he said. A squad leader in Punahou's JROTC, Daniel is rehearsing with the school band that is scheduled to march in Obama's inaugural parade in Washington on Jan. 20. About 135 Punahou high school students will travel to the nation's capital this month to perform the school's official song, "Men of Punahou," as well as a traditional Hawaiian song, "Aloha Oe."
About 600 Punahou alumni will be gathering in Washington for an inauguration reception, while Obama's Class of 1979 is planning a reunion that week in Arlington. And there will also be the first-ever Hawaii State Society Inaugural Ball.
Alumni of the school have traditionally stayed connected to it. "Once you go there, you're there for life," said longtime Punahou teacher Pal Eldredge, who taught Obama math and science. "It isn't a place you spent four years or 13 years and never come back. Everyone stays connected."
One of Punahou's most famous alumni is Steve Case, founder of America Online, who was born into a politically powerful Honolulu family and graduated three years ahead of Obama. Case contributed $10 million to build a new middle school at Punahou. The building, named in honor of his parents, opened in 2005, becoming one of the nation's first certified green schools.
John Nagamine, who graduated seven years behind Obama, returned to campus the other day with his 5-year-old son, Jace, who is applying for kindergarten. The Nagamines enjoyed an afternoon picnic lunch on the grounds of the school chapel, which rises up from a large spring-fed lily pond with turtles, tadpoles and carp.
"Who's going to be president?" John Nagamine asked his son.
"Barack Obama!" Jace replied with glee.
"Everybody knew Barry -- and we called him Barry then," said Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher, who now teaches keyboarding classes. "I have been very fortunate to help a student like Barry, and look at where he's gone. I wish I could share that feeling with every teacher in the world."
But, Kusunoki added, "we don't want to be too boastful of Barry."
Punahou was founded in 1841 by Congregationalist missionaries who tired of shipping their children to boarding schools 5,000 miles away in New England. The first class had 15 students and tuition cost $12. Today, the K-12 school has about 3,760 students, including 425 in the senior class, and tuition sets you back about $17,000.
To many native Hawaiians, Punahou long was an establishment of the haoles -- the local term for white foreigners -- who migrated to the island and built the school as an Anglo enclave.
In recent decades, however, Punahou has diversified its student body to more closely mirror the ethnic makeup of Hawaii, and the school now awards scholarships to meet the demonstrated financial need of each accepted student. The school's endowment, valued at $174 million, is on par with those of many colleges.
Among Oahu's professional class, sending a child to Punahou is a status symbol.
"At the hospital, even nurses and aides who don't make a lot still sacrifice a lot to send their kids here," said Michael Carney, a Honolulu doctor.
"The interview process is more rigorous than even my college applications," said another Honolulu doctor, James Kakuda, whose son is in first grade at Punahou. "Here in Hawaii, whenever someone asks where you went to school, people say where they went to high school."
Many in the Punahou community followed Obama's long campaign closely, especially Eldredge, who kept in touch with his former student via e-mail. "I said, 'You'll always be Big O to me,' " Eldredge said. "He wrote back, 'You'll always be Mr. E to me.' Now I wish I could be with him every day just to talk to him. . . . There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think many times about him."
Eldredge, a burly man who wears Hawaiian shirts and shorts, is packing for Big O's inauguration.
"I've got to buy an overcoat," he said. "Where can you get an overcoat here -- and in my size? I haven't worn a tuxedo in 40 years. Heck, I haven't worn long pants but four times: two funerals and two weddings."