Painting worth its weight

A watercolor painting of the Old Maui High School Auditorium – erased from the Maui County landscape by fire in 1999 – has been placed in the hands of those keeping the memory of the Hamakuapoko campus alive.

The painting by Kunio Ogawa, Class of 1935, was purchased a year ago at a yard sale in Central Maui by Jeff Reiss, who recognized the building and its surroundings from his work with the Friends of Old Maui High, a volunteer nonprofit group organized to save and restore the campus as a resource education facility.

Reiss recently called Barbara Long, with whom he had worked through the years with the Friends, over to his Paukukalo home to take a look at the painting he had bought.

“Holy cow, that’s it,” Long said, referring to the gym/auditorium, when she viewed the painting.

Reiss has donated the painting to the Friends of Old Maui High, which will be producing a limited-edition glass display paperweight with the painting to mark the centennial of the school. The paperweight will be for sale at the Old MHS Centennial Celebration at the campus Sept. 13-15.

An April 1927 story in The Maui News outlined the plans for the gym/auditorium during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors. Some $15,000 was budgeted for the 124-foot-by-54-foot structure with 22 feet of length taken up by a stage.

The building with arched windows and twin stairways went up two years later and served as a venue for athletic and social events for more than six decades, said a news release from the Friends. There were roller-skating classes, drama club performances, dances and assemblies. It was affectionately known by students as “The Barn.”

When Maui High School moved to its current site in Kahului in 1972, the old gym/auditorium served as a venue for community gatherings, sports events, classes and other gatherings until it burned to the ground in May 1999, a victim of arson.

Reiss and Long never saw the original building, knowing it only through photographs. Reiss, who considers himself “a Maui historian,” had put together a video of the old Kahului Railroad, which students at one time rode to attend the school mauka of the north shore. He got involved with the Friends in the late 1990s.

The building depicted in the painting at that garage sale reminded him the old gym/auditorium.

“The painting I knew was an original painting,” Reiss said. “Looked to me like it was Old Maui High.”

He recalled photos of the Old Maui High main administration building with its notable cupola designed by architect Charles W. Dickey and the gym/auditorium next to it.

“When I saw it, I thought this is it,” Reiss said.

He couldn’t recall exactly how much he paid for the painting, but it was no more than $50.

“I knew it was an original, and I knew I had in mind to give it to the Old Maui High (group),” Reiss said. “I knew it was the real deal.”

Today, the gym/auditorium is gone, as is much of the old high school that once served the plantation camps of East Maui and other families in Upcountry. Its alumni include the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, current Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa and former mayor and former Speaker of the state House Elmer Cravalho.

The painter’s life story may not have been as publicly colorful as Mink’s, Arakawa’s or Cravalho’s, but based on dabs of information from relatives, documents and his obituary, it appears that the canvas of Ogawa’s life includes splashes of note.

Born Oct. 23, 1916, Ogawa was one of three siblings from a family in Haiku, said Long, who talked to a relative after learning of the painting. A biographical sheet he did in 1997 for the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center said that he lived in Lilikoi Camp above Giggle Hill and attended Haiku School before going to Maui High.

Prior to joining the military, he worked on Molokai as a carpenter and cement finisher, the biography and his discharge forms said.

He was inducted with the original set of 442nd Regimental Combat Team volunteers on March 24, 1943, and trained at Camp Shelby, Miss. He was assigned to the 100th Battalion, the biography said.

Rising to the rank of sergeant, Ogawa carried and fired the Browning automatic rife, also known as BAR. It was a 20-pound weapon that could fire 650 rounds per minute.

He fought in Italy and France in the Rome-Arno, Po Valley, Rhineland, North Apennines and Southern France campaigns and was wounded in Ociana, Italy, in July 1944, and Castelpoggio, Italy, in April 1945.

His discharge forms show decorations and citations: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Distinguished Unit Badge and Good Conduct Medal.

The document also shows that on Feb. 19, 1946, Ogawa received a disability discharge.

He had contracted tuberculosis in Italy and was treated at Kula San, Long was told. Because of the illness, Ogawa could not continue to ply his trade as a carpenter.

There isn’t much information about Ogawa after those years. He was single, a merchandiser for Mid-Pacific Sales, retiring in 1979. Through the years, he lived mostly in Wailuku, but also resided in Kahului, Makawao and Honolulu, his biographical form said.

He died March 15, 2009, at the age of 92 and is buried at Makawao Veterans Cemetery.

How he got into art is unclear. He did have an artistic side going all the way back to Maui High School.

“Kunio is one of these lucky chaps who can write a poem in three minutes if need be,” comments next to his photo in the 1935 Maui High yearbook, “Silversword,” said. “What a break to be able to get in good with the English teachers! He knows his history, too.”

Ogawa attended art school at some point. Long said it was after the war but Ogawa’s niece, Joyce Ogawa, said that he may have gone to art school in Honolulu before the war.

The war veteran painted landscapes and buildings in acrylic and watercolor and gave them to family and friends, Long said.

“Obviously, a very skilled painter,” she said.

Joyce Ogawa said that after a while her uncle stopped painting, though Long understood that he painted until he died. Watercolors was one of the hobbies he listed on his biographical form.

His niece said that he gave her a couple of paintings, which she put up in her home until they began to crack. When her uncle moved to Hale Makua, she said that they found a few paintings as they were cleaning up his residence. She took one home, a landscape of a place unfamiliar to her.

Her brother found two paintings of the Old Maui High, she added. Joyce Ogawa had no idea how the painting of the gym/auditorium ended up at a garage sale.

That painting found in the garage sale will be on display at the centennial celebration, expected to attract more than 1,000 Maui High alumni,

family and friends, the Friends said.

For information on the centennial celebration, call 579-9287 or go to

* Lee Imada can be reached at