ALS Profile: Hawaiian Still Smiling

Chester Kahapea, once the jubilant face of Hawaii’s statehood, now adjusts to life with ALS

by Quest Staff on September 7, 2009 - 9:00pm


Chester Kahapea
Chester Kahapea
Photo credit: George F. Lee / Honolulu Star-Bulletin
Chester Kahapea as he looked in the iconic photo from 1959, and today.

On March 12, 1959, 12-year-old Chester Kahapea was selling newspapers on a street corner in Honolulu faster than he could have dreamed possible.

“I couldn’t cut the bundles open fast enough,” he recalls. “People were standing all around me, pushing, with money in their hands.”

His customers were anxious to get their hands on the edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that had the word “STATEHOOD!” in 6-inch letters on page one, along with a large American flag, newly sporting 50 stars.

“I was a kid. I didn’t really know what statehood meant. But I knew I was making more money than I ever had before,” he chuckles.

A photographer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin got a shot of a grinning Chester hawking his papers, and the image soon was picked up by wire services and appeared in newspapers around the world, becoming an icon of Hawaii’s addition to the Union.

Last year, because of the historical prominence of the photo, Kahapea was selected to be one of “50 Voices of Statehood” who recorded vignettes of their statehood day memories for radio and television.

Retired after 31 years as a quality control inspector for an engineering construction laboratory, the 63-year-old Kahapea received a diagnosis of ALS in March 2008.

Ambulatory with a walker until recently, he’s now using a power wheelchair, but ALS is not something he’s taken sitting down. “My companion Gloria and I loved ballroom dancing. When I told her about the ALS, she just said, ‘Well, before you get stuck in a wheelchair, let’s go.’”

And go they did, on cruises to the Caribbean, British Isles, Florida, England, Spain. “We pretty well danced our way halfway around the world. On every ship, about a third of the passengers came to know us by our first names because we spent so much time on the dance floor together,” Kahapea said.

These days, he and Gloria spend a lot of time volunteering at the local MDA office, helping stuff envelopes and getting mailings ready to go out to others in the MDA community.

“How can I not help out?” he asks rhetorically. “MDA has done so much for me. When the neurologist told me I had ALS, I said, ‘Okay, doc; what’s the cure?’ She said, ‘There isn’t one.’ I thank her today for being so up-front with me. Because of her, I can accept what I’ve got. Every morning when I see the sun rise, I smile.”

Kahapea was the youngest of seven children, all of whom sold newspapers. His job as a kid was to wake the rest of them so they all could walk the two miles into town, pick up their papers and start selling. The money they made went to their mom to keep the struggling family afloat.

They were a family that smiled a lot, he says.

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