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Nalepa, 76, popularized POG

Charles “Charlie” Nalepa, who is credited with making Haleakala Dairy’s POG juice and milk covers an internationally known product, has died.

The Kihei resident was 76. A celebration of life will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2 at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku. Donations may be made to Hospice Maui.

Peter Baldwin, former owner and president of Haleakala Dairy, initially hired Nalepa in the 1970s as an accountant. That lasted for about a month; Nalepa’s role switched to sales and marketing.

“We could see together, he could see and I could see what his creative talent was,” Baldwin said. “But more than the creative thinking, he had the ability to energize an idea and make it happen.”

That was clearly on display when Nalepa came up with a creative marketing plan for Haleakala Dairy’s newest juice in the mid-1970s.

The daughter of Colin Cameron, chairman and president of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., who also sat on the board of Haleakala Dairy, is credited with coming up with the name for the passion fruit, orange and guava juice product.

Cameron’s daughter Effie was heard calling the juice “POG” for short, Baldwin said.

“Then Charlie was the one that said, ‘Oh that’s a good idea, that’s what we’ll call the juice,’ ” Baldwin remembers.

As part of his marketing plan for POG, Nalepa reintroduced milk caps – not for milk bottles but for an old game that was making a resurgence. The hard paper caps were printed with the POG name and logo.

By then, Haleakala Dairy, which is now owned by Meadow Gold Dairies, was no longer selling milk out of bottles and did not need caps. But in the days when the dairy was bottling milk, children would take the covers and use them in a game.

In the 1980s, children played the game again, stacking the caps and using another cap to slap the stack to turn them over. The caps that were turned over became the winnings of the person slapping the stack.

The caps became known to that generation as POGs and became collector items. The dairy sold POGs in long brown paper tubes, Baldwin recalled.

“Kids loved them, and it went way beyond kids. It just took on a life of its own and went worldwide,” Nalepa said in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story in 2005.

He also told the newspaper that he recalled seeing people talking about the POG game craze on national television.

There was a POG character, or “Poglodyte,” as well. Nalepa consulted with a Walt Disney Co. designer on the POG character, a sun-shaped gnome creature with skinny arms and legs often depicted on a surfboard.

The POG logo would go on windsurfing sails, racing cars and even racing speedboats.

Nalepa’s promotion of the POG name and the reintroduction of the milk cap game “totally” drove up juice sales. “It went out of sight,” Baldwin recalled.

That creative energy continued to flow even after Nalepa left the company after 25 years. He pursued plein air painting.

“After many years of finding my niche, I am now pursuing my dream of a career in painting and enjoying my retirement here on Maui, where I have lived for the past 40 years,” Nalepa wrote on the Plein Air Painters of Hawaii website.

On the site, there is a photo of Nalepa in a rapeseed field in France. He said that he had joined a group of other painters and an instructor on a 10-day “odyssey” in the Loire Valley of France.

His wife, Shelley, said that her husband also had pieces in the Art Maui juried show.

Nalepa was deeply involved in the community, conducting events and public relations campaigns. He was a member of Rotary, Toastmasters and the Jaycees and was involved in the March of Dimes. One year, he got a national March of Dimes poster child to appear on Maui.

Nalepa and his wife also worked together selling promotional products and had a printing business.

Shelley Nalepa called her late husband “very creative” and a person who made others laugh.

“He loved people above all,” she said. “What I loved about him was how kind he was to people everywhere.”

This kindness was bestowed on doctors, waitresses and anyone who crossed his path. Nalepa forgave a bulldozer driver who rammed into a train car in Spain when he was 26. Nalepa lost a leg in the accident, while the woman next to him died.

“He always wished he could get ahold of the bulldozer driver and let him know that (it) was OK,” said Shelley Nalepa.

He lost a lot of blood in the accident and contracted hepatitis C in the transfusions, which affected his health and his liver in his later years, she said. Nalepa died of liver disease Aug. 2 at his residence in Kihei after a three-year battle that included hospital stays on Maui and Oahu.

Through it all, she said, Nalepa stayed positive.

It was after the accident in Spain and his yearlong recovery in a Michigan hospital spent saving his other leg that Nalepa, then a teacher, moved to Maui from his home state.

Charlie and Shelley Nalepa were married in 1984. In their later years, they traveled to New York, often to see Broadway shows, with Charlie Nalepa insisting that his mother-in-law come along.

Nalepa was a good father to his biological son, Charles, as well as to the couple’s three hanai sons, Robert DeRego, Ivan Kwan and Stephan Gross. Shelley Nalepa said all four boys are brokenhearted over their father’s death.

Nalepa also is survived by his sister, Linda Nalepa, and seven grandchildren.

Nalepa may have died but his POG campaign has left a lasting mark on Maui, including a milk carton boat race that Meadow Gold continues.

In maybe his greatest marketing venture for POGs, he organized a football camp in 1972 that brought to Maui members of the National Football League’s then-Los Angeles Rams. It was born of a horseback ride between Baldwin and Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel.

After the ride, Nalepa, Gabriel and Baldwin got together for some beers. Gabriel said he wanted to bring some of his team to Maui for a football clinic.

“Charlie said, ‘We’ll do it,’ ” Baldwin recalled.

The clinic took off that year. Fifteen Los Angeles Rams came to Maui – including Gabriel and Hall of Famers Merlon Olsen and Deacon Jones, half of the famed “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line of the Rams – and had a clinic with 700 youths, Baldwin recalled.

It was huge exposure for Haleakala Dairy. Nalepa rounded up many other sponsors, including McDonald’s, which provided lunch for the children.

Some of the Rams were in the Fourth of July Makawao Parade. Other professional football players participated in events at the Makawao Rodeo, Baldwin said.

“This is all Charlie,” said Baldwin. “Charlie was the creative mind. He was the energy to make it all happen.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

* This article contains a correction from the original published on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. Charles “Charlie” Nalepa died Aug. 2, 2014, at his residence in Kihei. His survivors include three hanai sons, Robert DeRego, Ivan Kwan and Stephan Gross.

The date and location of Nalepa’s death and the relationship of his hanai children were incorrect in a story Tuesday that began on Page A1 and continued to Page A4.

The Maui News apologizes for the error.

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