KAHULUI - Eugene Kennedy was the last of his kind at Maui High School.
The longtime teacher, coach and registrar was the final remaining staff member who worked at both the old Maui High in Hamakuapoko as well as the Kahului campus.
Kennedy boasted a 41-year state Department of Education career entirely at Maui High - something not frequently seen in the department where an educator rarely remains at one school for an entire career.
Retiring Maui High School registrar Eugene Kennedy is cheered by co-workers, friends and family as he arrives to a surprise farewell party in the school library in Kahului on Dec. 12. After 41 years on the job, Kennedy said, he was “excited” by the possibilities of what comes next. “I’m going to miss you, but I’m going to have some fun,” he told the crowd.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
On Dec. 14, Kennedy retired, saying goodbye to his longtime workplace and friends.
Officially, his retirement begins at the end of the year. Maui High graduate and current staff member Shane Okamoto will take Kennedy's place as school registrar.
"I felt it was time and I felt good about walking away," Kennedy said of his departure during a surprise retirement luncheon at the school's library Dec. 12.
The 66-year-old Kula resident, who had lei stacked up to his neck, said the first time he walked onto the Hamakuapoko campus in 1971 and then the Kahului campus a year later, he just "loved it."
In a prior interview, he said he became "addicted to the kids."
That love and addiction made him stay for more than four decades, as Kennedy wore many hats, including being a language arts teacher, yearbook adviser and coach for many sports, such as varsity basketball, junior varsity football and track. He also served as the school's registrar, the position he's held since 1994. He still will coach the track team, although his son, Allen, who is a business teacher at Maui High, will be the head coach.
In an interview before his party, Kennedy said, "I love it here. I like the kids. I just liked work. I understand high school kids. I understand how they think."
Principal Bruce Anderson said he could not recall any educator spending his entire career at one school, and he praised Kennedy for his 41 years of service.
"Those who work those many years are usually among the most dedicated and best educators in our system," he said.
Anderson, who himself has served 30 years in the DOE, said he used to coach Maui High School basketball with Kennedy in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"Eugene is a great guy who has a very positive outlook and is a great mentor and role model for students. Students respect him, and he is also a leader among his colleagues. He always has the time to sit down and talk to students and adults alike."
Registrar clerk Kim Gaxiola, whom Kennedy credits for keeping him working for the last five years, is saddened about Kennedy's departure but pleased for her boss.
"It's bittersweet. I'm sad. (But) I'm happy he's still active," she said, noting Kennedy will now have time to play golf. "I'm looking forward to running into him one day, and I'll be all smiles."
"We love him," Gaxiola added as she watched Kennedy and 119 other people, including his family, fellow staff and retirees celebrate over lunch together. "He always puts the kids first."
Gaxiola said that at times four to five students would come into the registrar's office at once, but Kennedy didn't get frazzled and instead would sit down and talk patiently with them about their schedules.
"He's like a big teddy bear," she added, while describing how former students used to come back and hug Kennedy and thank him for his help.
Kennedy was patient, kind and has a big heart.
"He always made it fun to come to work."
And for Kennedy, work was fun, even though he has been challenged many times during his career.
He remembers his first year as registrar in 1994 when he inherited numerous schedule problems that caused students to form a long line outside his office along the school's sidewalk.
He said Oahu newspapers took pictures of the students waiting in line.
Kennedy said that was how he was introduced as the school's registrar, even though the problems were not of his making.
"Not the finest moment," he recalled.
But Kennedy didn't regret his decision to move from being a teacher to the school's registrar.
"I never understood quit. I liked problem solving. It became a personal challenge at that point. It's always been that way."
Kennedy said being a registrar and dealing with students' schedules was challenging.
"It's a giant puzzle that I had to work out every year. As time went on, I got better and better doing it."
During his career, Kennedy observed numerous changes in the students and in the school community, some easily visible and some not quite so.
He said current students have talents that "are spread out now" because of the technological advances throughout the years.
"I can't believe . . . texting and typing with two fingers? Come on. We have kids (now) that have broader knowledge than the kids in H'Poko did. There is a lot more information available to them."
But he added that there was a greater sense of community in the early years at the Kahului campus and at Hamakuapoko, which served students from plantation communities. But the camaraderie disappeared in the 1980s.
Kennedy said he believes those early years were "calmer times," when people were not as busy. "The community was so much part of the school," he said.
Kennedy added: "The part that always saddened me, I always believed and still believe, when King Kekaulike opened, Maui High lost its soul."
Upcountry students had always been part of the Maui High campus, he said. "What we had, was we had a community."
Kennedy said that over the years Maui High's outreach had to shift communities several times.
The school went from having solely Upcountry students to having a combination of Upcountry and Kahului students. At one point, the community mix included Kihei students.
Maui High gradually shed its Upcountry students after King Kekaulike was established in 1995.
"At one time that was real trying," he said of the student mix.
Kennedy explained that when these students were going to grade school in three different communities they competed against one another not only academically and athletically, but socially.
"It seemed like if they needed a place to act out they did it on campus. We did have a time we really did struggle. It was just one of those growing pains we went through."
Kennedy said now the campus is made up of students from Central and South Maui, and in the future when the Kihei high school is built, the campus will "settle down" to one community again.
As the school went through changes, so has Kennedy.
The young college graduate and his wife, Theresa ("Trish"), moved to Maui from Oahu just a little more than a week after they got married because Kennedy needed to be present for the school's summer sports camp in August.
Rent was $75 a month to live in the teachers' cottages on the Hamakuapoko campus, which included "all the centipedes and rats you want," Kennedy said with a laugh.
Trish Kennedy, who was from Oregon, came in contact with cane spiders and was worried the cottages were going to go up in flames when workers burned a cane field nearby, Kennedy recalled.
Later, the couple moved to Kula and Eugene Kennedy made the commute to the campus every day.
Trish Kennedy was a stay-at-home mom for 17 years and now is a teacher at Kula Elementary School.
Over the years, to make ends meet, Eugene Kennedy worked for Maui Land & Pineapple Co. as a supervisor and later worked for Maui County in its Summer PALS program.
Kennedy said that even though he worked 41 years at Maui High, he spent around half a decade teaching, working in after-school programs while he was a high school student at St. Louis High School on Oahu. He graduated in 1964 and participated in track.
In 1968, he graduated from the University of Portland.
Kennedy credited his English and math teachers at St. Louis High School for inspiring him to pursue a career in teaching and recalled that his math teacher used a pool cue stick as a pointer in class.
Over the 40 years of teaching at Maui High, one of the memories that sticks out in Kennedy's mind was when early in his career he worked with a student who had a difficult time reading.
"I tried a whole bunch of things; he just wasn't interested in it," he said.
But the student wanted to get his driver's license, so Kennedy and the student worked on reading the driver's manual.
"We must have done that for almost six months of the school year. He would come by during recess, we would go through it. He really, really pushed through it."
Finally the student told Kennedy he was ready for his test.
Kennedy said he judged the student wasn't ready, but encouraged him anyway. The student was successful, but not in the way Kennedy expected.
He told Kennedy that when he went for his driver's test, he told the lady at the office that he couldn't read, so she gave him an oral test instead, and he passed.
But some decades later, Kennedy still maintains he was happy for his student anyway.
"I was just happy he tried as hard as he did. I think he's always been a model. . . . He worked hard. He knew he wanted it."
Looking back at his long career at Maui High, Kennedy said he leaves on a positive note.
"I don't think I ever regret a minute here. I worked with good people. I worked for good people. (But) It's time to stay home and get paid."
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.