Beachboy artist Barry Napoleon, inspired by Hawaiian traditions, dies at 92

Barry Napoleon, a Waikiki beach veteran and accomplished high school athlete who dedicated his final years to pursuing his craft and defending Hawaiian sovereignty, died Feb. 20 in Honolulu.

Born on July 22, 1929 in Honolulu, he was 92 years old.

Napoleon died peacefully in the presence of his two daughters a few weeks after being hospitalized after a fall, said his daughter Eva Napoleon Porter.

She said her father was a lifelong innovator whose creative ideas were sometimes inspired by Hawaiian traditions.

“He was always thinking of a new way to rinse surfboards or make a better cart to haul your golf stuff,” Porter said, and he “designed and built a double-hulled fiberglass canoe” in 1961, more than a decade before. the Hokule’a double-hulled voyaging canoe was launched by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1975.

On May 23, 1961, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published a photo of Barry and Allen Napoleon launching the 38-foot-long, 700-pound craft with help from Chuck Yarro and Bobby Ah Choy.

Napoleon, who carved tiki figures mounted on both bows, told the newspaper that his canoe was inspired by the Bishop Museum’s drawings of early Polynesian voyaging canoes which he had modified for surfing.

His daughter Shelly Napoleon said her favorite childhood memories were of her father paddling with her from the Halekulani on a surfboard, putting her on his shoulders and riding in it.

Porter enjoyed golfing on the Ala Wai course with his father every afternoon after school. “He let me drive the cart and wash all the balls.”

Napoleon enlisted his family in the research and development of his inventions, Porter said, and while not all of his ideas came to fruition, “if it wasn’t a good idea, we wouldn’t have helped, we wouldn’t have tried.”

But his love of novelty didn’t extend to fashion: Napoleon was a “very old-fashioned gentleman” who maintained strict dress standards on and off the beach.

“I’ve never seen him wear slippers,” Porter said. “He wore canvas slip-on shoes, a button-down shirt and tailored shorts like a good beach boy would.”

One of eight children born to Walter K. and Katherine Kalauwalu Napoleon, Barry Napoleon wrote in his memoir, “The Keepers of the Sand: A Waikiki Beachboy’s Story,” about following in his father’s footsteps to work on Waikiki Beach, where Walter Napoleon was lifeguard captain and superintendent of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

After graduating in 1948 from the Iolani School, where he was a football and track star, Napoleon studied art at the University of California and Utah before starting out as a Waikiki beachboy. in 1952, working in the concession of the Bohemian Surf Club with his younger brother and comrade. Allen Napoleon, former student of the Iolani Raiders, who also played football at Stanford University.

Napoleon’s former wife, Patricia Shanahan Bernard, the mother of his daughters, said she met Napoleon while paddling for the Outrigger Canoe Club, then in the heart of Waikiki.

In the 1950s and 60s, when tourists came for a month or two, beachboys and their customers were friends, she says.

Among her ex-husband’s clients were Desi Arnaz, Marlon Brando and the head of 20th Century Fox.

Bernard remembered Napoleon as “a great athlete, a very handsome, attractive, individualistic man who did what he wanted”, she said.

“He was very popular (in his) beach concessions, but above all he was a terrific entertainer.”

It was not until the age of 70, she added, that he devoted his time to painting.

Raised in the Punchbowl neighborhood of Honolulu, Napoleon said he grew up “with such freedom” in a simpler Hawaii “where there were still horses around for the neighborhood kids to ride, and they would dive for quarters when the Lurline passed”.

Although her father felt connected to his Hawaiian culture, “when he was younger he never thought about sovereignty,” Porter said.

She said his political awakening came during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, and he then “went to The Hague to represent the native people of Hawaii for sovereignty.”

Towards the end of his life, Napoleon told his daughters that he wanted every native Hawaiian to have $1,000 a month.

“He said, ‘Something has to happen. We have to have the space to create our own,” Porter said.

“Our family motto for him was ‘He does it his way,'” she said.

Barry Napoleon’s ashes were scattered in the ocean off Waikiki during a beachboy ceremony on March 3.

In addition to daughters Eva Lani Napoleon Porter of San Rafael, California, and Michelle “Shelly” Mahealani Napoleon of Santa Rosa, California, Napoleon is survived by his sons William “Bill” Davis Tonnesen of Arizona, John Barron Deering Napoleon of Oahu and Darren Kamaki Robinson of Maui; sister Naomi Weight of Waimanalo; 13 grandchildren; and 37 nieces and nephews.

He was predeceased by brothers Walter, Nathan and Allen and sisters Margaret Costello, Dorcus Kahuanui and Elizabeth DeCaires.

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