Before it gave rise to the nation's No. 1 high school athletic program, this fertile patch on the island of Oahu endured a prolonged dry spell. A lack of rain, legend has it, made life a struggle for an old couple living at the base of Rocky Hill in Manoa Valley. But on successive nights, one and then the other had the same dream: If they pulled up the hala tree near their home, they would find water to fill their gourds.
The tree was uprooted, revealing ka punahou -- the new spring -- whose waters pour forth to this day at the center of the Punahou School campus, a palm-lined, 76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku. Founded in 1841 by Congregationalist missionaries who could no longer bear the thought of shipping their children to New England to be educated, the school's first class consisted of 15 students.
Today, with a K-12 enrollment of 3,760, Punahou is the largest single independent school in the U.S. It is also the oldest in the country west of the Mississippi, and seemingly the most overachieving. Since 1958 the Buff 'n Blue have racked up 368 Hawaii championships -- a state-record 16 this school year alone, including eight in the past two weeks.
The new spring -- could there be a more serendipitous name for a place of learning? -- now feeds a lily pond over which Thurston Chapel was built. It was there in 2004 that a noted alum told seniors not to sweat it too much if their motivation wavered once in a while or if they fell behind in their college applications. "I didn't reach my full potential until after I left Punahou," confided Barack Obama, class of '79 and a reserve on the state-champion basketball team that year. "In fact, I was kind of a pain in the butt when I was here."
Beyond the pond and across Rice Field, on which soccer and softball are played, sits Dillingham Hall, the 600-seat theater where student musicians Dave Guard and Bob Shane delighted audiences at Punahou's annual Variety Show in the early 1950s. (A few years later they invited another guy to join in, then called themselves the Kingston Trio.)
Up the hill is Waterhouse Pool, in which Buster Crabbe trained before starring at the 1932 Olympics (he won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle) and, later, on the big screen (as Tarzan and Flash Gordon, to name a few roles). Renovated in 1981, the pool is a sparkling 50-meter gem -- one of the gleaming facilities that are very much the norm on this Athenian campus.
With one notable exception.
To stroll down Punahou's Hall of Champions in the physical education center is to be awed by the rich athletic tradition of the Buff 'n Blue. ("Buff" represents the color of sand, "blue" the ocean.) There's a photograph, circa 1965, of a smiling Charlie Wedemeyer in his too-short basketball shorts; reputed to be the best all-around athlete Punahou has produced, he also starred in football and baseball. (He now helps coach the Los Gatos, Calif., High football team as he battles Lou Gehrig's disease.) A grainy black-and-white from the early '70s shows running back Mosi Tatupu, the future New England Patriot, a nanosecond before annihilating a would-be tackler from Iolani School. There's a shot of ripped goalie Chris Duplanty ('84), who would play on three U.S. Olympic water polo teams, lunging to make a save.
Koa wood plaques celebrate Interscholastic League of Honolulu (ILH) and state titles. Yet the Hall itself is tucked into a charmless, windowless corridor. Its gray carpet is dull and worn, and there are cracks in some of the ceiling panels.
Punahou's endowment is north of $180 million. Would it bust the budget to drop a few bucks on, say, frames for pictures, some track lighting, maybe a new trophy case or two? Not here. Not where ha'aha'a -- Hawaiian for humility -- is a cardinal virtue. Punahou goes out of its way to avoid even the appearance of rubbing opponents' noses in the islands' red dirt. That's one reason Hemmeter Fieldhouse is not festooned with championship banners.
Buff 'n Blue athletes are taught to savor the journey to a championship more than the triumphant moment itself. "If you make winning your be-all, end-all and then you lose, what do you have left?" asks boys' volleyball coach Rick Tune.
Punahou officials cringe when they hear the expression embarrassment of riches applied to their school. Which suggests that Punahou has an embarrassment of riches. How else to describe the dynasty over which water polo coach Ken Smith presides? In addition to the girls' 10 ILH and three state championships, the boys' team has won 32 of the last 35 league titles and produced 12 high school All-Americas. There's been at least one former Punahou player on every U.S. Olympic men's water polo team since 1988, and Brandon Brooks ('99) is expected to be the goalie in Beijing. Smith is himself a former All-America at UCLA, the preferred destination for Buff 'n Blue water polo standouts. Four of the top 10 scorers in Bruins history are Punahou grads; in '82, five of UCLA's seven starters had played for Punahou.
On terra firma there is holy terror Manti Te'o, a junior strongside linebacker who's rated by Scout.com as the nation's best player at his position. He has received scholarship offers from Florida, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and every school in the Pac-10. Te'o is 6' 2", 225 and runs the 40 in 4.55 seconds but plays faster than that. "We've never had anyone like him," says coach Kale Ane, a Punahou grad who played in the NFL from 1975 through '81. Considering his range and temperament on the field, Te'o reminds his coach of Lawrence Taylor. ("And he's taking AP environmental science!" gushed Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh on a recent recruiting visit to the island.)
But Te'o is a smaller fish in his pond than sophomore surfing sensation Carissa Moore is in hers. In March the 15-year-old regular-footer knocked off reigning world champion Stephanie Gilmore at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast competition in Coolangatta, Australia. (A year earlier Moore took down seven-time world champ Layne Beachley.) While there is no state title for Moore to go after -- surfing is not an interscholastic sport in Hawaii -- she's won a record 11 National Scholastic Surfing Association titles. So effective has the effervescent Moore proved as a tour guide for prospective Punahou students that admissions officers call her The Closer.
Neither the linebacker nor the surfer have the Q rating of golfer Michelle Wie ('07), who turned pro in the fall of her junior year and signed endorsement deals worth a reported $10 million -- not that any of it fazed her friends on campus. Now, while Wie works to revive her stalled career, her Hawaii junior records are under assault from Cyd (The Kid) Okino, a Punahou freshman who had two holes in one by age eight, won the Hawaiian women's match play championship at 11 and on April 21 won the girls' ILH title.
The scary thing about Punahou athletics is, that's just the half of it. "We have our superstars in different sports, but they tend to keep things in perspective," says Dr. James Kapae'alii Scott, now in his 15th year as the school's president. "At this school they have to. They look around them and see other kids excelling -- and not just in sports -- and they figure, What makes me so special?"
I've lost track, to be honest," says Bernard Gusman, director of Punahou's tennis program, when asked how many state titles his teams have won. (It's 40 for the boys since 1958 and 34 for the girls.) "The most important thing I want kids to get out of this program is how to lose with grace and win with humility. It's about respecting your opponent and being a classy competitor."
It's also about... parking as close to the clubhouse as possible. On April 21 senior Alex Ching, who will attend San Diego next year on a golf scholarship, was tied with T.J. Kua, a senior at rival Kamehameha, after 17 holes in the ILH championship. Ching birdied the 18th to snatch the victory with a wind-whipped 75 at the Waialae Country Club. After accepting his medal and consoling Kua, his friend, Ching hopped in a car and hightailed it for Central Oahu Regional Park, about 20 miles away. Arriving with 20 minutes to spare, Ching joined fellow Punahou senior Erik Shoji in blitzing an Iolani doubles team, 6-0, 6-0, in the ILH tennis quarterfinals. The next day they rolled their semifinal opponents, at which point it was Shoji's turn to run a few yellow lights. The three-time all-state volleyball player beelined back to Punahou and had 20 assists in the Buff 'n Blue's 25-19, 25-16 victory over Kamehameha in a regular-season match. Shoji will play volleyball for Stanford.
After winning 13 state championships in each of the previous two school years, Punahou had eight in 2007-08 through the winter season (boys' air rifle, basketball, swimming and wrestling; girls' basketball, canoe paddling, cross-country and swimming). Then came the spring bounty: state titles in baseball, boys' golf, judo, tennis and track and field, and girls' golf, tennis and water polo.
With an enrollment of 1,732 in grades nine through 12 (all day students), Punahou is one of 27 programs in the ILH, Oahu's private school league and the dominant conference in Hawaii. Sixty-two percent of those students play on at least one of 81 jayvee and varsity teams in 21 sports.
Tuition is $15,725, a major hit for most families but half the cost of comparable schools on the mainland. Also, Scott says, Punahou is generous with financial aid. "If you're admitted, we want you to come regardless of your financial circumstances. It's a noble vision. It's also an expensive one."
Punahou backs that up with 333 endowed need-based scholarships (K-12), which helps the school lure some of Oahu's most talented youth. "People talk about recruiting," says Darren Hernandez, football coach at Kapolei, a public school along Oahu's southern coast. "The truth is, a lot of parents recruit Punahou. It's the Harvard of Hawaii, and they want their kids to go there."
In the depth and breadth of its offerings, Scott sees Punahou as more like Stanford than Harvard. A former pitcher at Punahou, Scott ('70) played baseball for two more years, at Stanford, before hanging up his spikes. "I quit," he explains, "before I could get cut."
After graduating from college, he taught American history and coached three sports at Stevenson School (Pebble Beach, Calif.) before heading to Harvard to get his doctorate in education. He was named Punahou's president -- only its third since World War II -- in 1994. While the student body was less homogeneous than in the days of Buster Crabbe, Scott saw the need for more economic and ethnic diversity.
"When I was there, Punahou was known as a school for rich white kids," recalls UCLA offensive coordinator Norm Chow ('64), who is of Chinese descent. "If you know anything about the history of this state, you know those passions and prejudices can run pretty deep."
Shelley Fey, a Chinese-Hawaiian who coached Punahou's girls' basketball team to four state titles and now chairs the high school P.E. department, prepped at nearby Kamehameha, a private school whose century-old admission policy gives preference to native Hawaiian children. "Punahou was our rival," she says. "My perception was, they were the well-to-do kids of the CEOs. It was my perception because it was true."
Scott made it a priority to create a student body that more closely mirrored the island -- "to lower the walls," as dean Peter Hata puts it. To a large extent, Scott has succeeded -- in the last eight years the financial aid budget has increased 85%, and the six-year-old Trustee Scholar program provides full rides to Pacific Islanders and immigrants. But the stereotype of Punahou as an Anglo enclave still lingers. For many Hawaiians, Punahou remains a symbol of the haoles (white foreigners) who annexed their land.
"I have Hawaiian and Chinese blood in me, but I look white," says Lindsey Berg ('98), a 2004 U.S. Olympian who will likely play in Beijing. "I'd do club volleyball in the summer and get a bunch of crap [for my Punahou connection]. It was, 'You're spoiled, you have money, you go to Punahou, the haole school.' Then I'd go back to school, look around and think, There aren't that many haoles."
To paraphrase George Cross, the Oklahoma president who in the early 1950s stated his desire to "build a university the football team can be proud of," Punahou has built an academic reputation that its athletic department can be proud of. Which, frankly, is saying something.
Most impressive is the range of opportunity afforded each student. "We offer five languages: French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian," says Laurel Bowers Husain, Punahou's director of communications. "A lot of kids enjoy taking a language that enables them to speak to their grandparents in their native tongue.
"One of our study-abroad groups goes to China. We take 30 kids. They go to Beijing, but then they go to a rural town, Baojing, where they teach English to Chinese middle school kids."
But the essence of Punahou may best be captured by Carri Morgan, director of the school's Luke Center for Public Service: "Each year we have a carnival to raise money for our scholarship fund. All the [cooking] oil used to make the fried doughnuts sold at the carnival is put into a biodiesel converter for the kilns in our glassblowing shop."
"We offer three levels of glassblowing," adds Husain.
Thus does Punahou crank out the sort of multilingual, eco-friendly, vase-making young adults who quicken the pulses of college admissions officers. Ninety-seven percent of the class of 2007 matriculated to four-year colleges or universities. Over the last four years Punahou placed 85 students in Ivy League schools, 29 at UCLA, 23 at Stanford, 13 at Pepperdine and 10 at Notre Dame.
"I could've been a better ballplayer and a better student," Obama says now. "But Punahou gave me a great foundation so that when I got older, and wiser, I knew what it was to work hard and strive for excellence. I think it instills that in a lot of kids."
The light goes on earlier for some than for others. Four years ago River Kim was a freshman wide receiver and a bassist in Punahou's orchestra when he cofounded Malama Jam, a benefit concert for the island's homeless. Kim has gone on to Yale, but Malama Jam remains an annual event featuring musicians and dancers from high schools throughout Oahu. The concerts have raised more than $100,000.
Not everyone makes such a big splash, but every student does something. Last fall, when the football team visited the nearby Shriners Hospital, four-star running back recruit Dalton Hilliard befriended a paraplegic boy named Miko, whom he's gone back to visit several times. After Texas-bound volleyball standout Sydney Yogi bonded with a developmentally disabled toddler, she began considering a career in education.
"It's no big deal," says Hilliard about his volunteer work. He quotes his father, Larry, a major in the Marines who is partial to a maxim that might as well be the motto for Punahou:
"To whom much is given, much is expected."