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Harry Huffaker On Keo Nakama’s Passing

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Famer Harry Huffaker remembers Keo Nakama:

For me, the news of Keo‘s passing was very sad news. 50 years ago in 1961 Keo became the first person to swim across the 26-mile Molokai Channel. When I moved to Hawaii in 1966, I was just getting my feet wet with channel swimming.

At that time Hawaii had a one-year residency requirement for people to become eligible to take state board exams to obtain a professional license. I passed the time selling cars, teaching swimming and working in an children’s dental clinic at Palama Settlement for which a temporary dental license could be obtained.

In lieu of any other personal or professional responsibilities, I began training to duplicate Keo’s feat. When I got off the plane in Honolulu, I knew two people who lived there. After seeing an article in the paper about my channel intentions, Keo telephoned me and invited me to lunch. During lunch, he offered to answer any questions I had in addition to an offer to assist in any capacity which might be needed.

After my crossing, he took the time to write a very nice congratulatory note. Over the years, our paths crossed occasionally.

Three years ago during a return visit to the islands I decided to seek him out. The search led to a rather deplorable old structure in the form of a Chinese nursing home. There were only a handful of people in residence. Upon walking in I found him sitting alone in a large room. My heart sank. I had been looking forward to a pleasant visit along with an opportunity to say thank you for the interest he had taken in me years ago.

I attempted to rekindle his memory as to who I was and why I had come to see him. A rather lengthy period of gesturing, providing him with a calling card, drawing a map with paper and pencil followed. His face suddenly lit up and he stood up and gave me a big hug. After a brief time of hand-holding, I got up to leave. When I got to the door, I looked back through watery eyes and waved goodbye. He also had a few tears running down his face along with his infectious smile.

Keo was small in stature, but it never let it stop him beating any and all comers and towering over others. He was an easygoing, soft-spoken man with a tantalizing smile who was very modest and a real honor to know.”

Copyright © 2011 by Open Water Source

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