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Newspaper veterans sheathe pens

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    Helen Altonn, left, Ben Wood and Mary Adamski at their retirement party Wednesday at Murphy's Bar & Grill.

  • Mary Adamski posed at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie when it was being built in the mid-'60s.

  • In 1980 Ben Wood, left, was backstage at the Polynesian Palace for entertainer Don Ho's 50th birthday.

  • Helen Altonn surveyed damage Hurricane Iniki inflicted on Kapaa, Kauai, in 1992.

Collectively, they tallied more than 146 years with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, long enough to outlast the newspaper that chronicled Hawaii history for 128 years.

Long enough also to see the paper join with its once fierce rival, The Honolulu Advertiser, last month.

Reporters Helen Altonn and Mary Adamski and columnist and copy editor Ben Wood like to say they have seen, heard and interviewed almost everyone during their respected and distinguished careers. For all three the time has finally come to put the daily deadlines behind.

"When I started working for the Star-Bulletin in 1960, Helen Altonn’s laughter filled the newsroom on Merchant Street, and her stories filled the newspaper. She could write anything: police and prisons, weather, agriculture, politics, science, education. She could write on deadline; she could write a think-piece that would take weeks of research. She championed the science fair for high school students. She resisted promotions because she wanted to report, not supervise other people, not to edit, but to write."

Chuck Frankel, former Star-Bulletin news editor

Her stories still fill the paper. With so many left she’d like to write and the curiosity and passion to pursue them that has marked her career, Altonn is not really ready to retire.

But she knows it’s the time, as the paper that’s been her home for six decades evolves into the Star-Advertiser.

"I’ve had this fantastic career at the Star-Bulletin for 55 years," Altonn said, admitting it was hard to leave it behind. "I’ve had opportunities that I wouldn’t have had at any other place," interviewing people ordinary and extraordinary, including three presidents, countless celebrities and the unforgettable Charles Lindbergh.

Altonn, 79, joined the Star-Bulletin on Oct. 22, 1955.

A native Nebraskan, she attended Colorado Women’s College, where a news-writing class spurred her to get her journalism degree at the University of Missouri.

Her first newspaper was the Orange Daily News in Southern California. There a colleague who had worked for the Star-Bulletin soon set her sailing on the SS Lurline to what she thought would be a temporary adventure in a place then covered in sugar cane and pineapple fields.

Her second paper turned out to be her last, as she staked her life and career in the middle of the Pacific. Altonn started out writing about agriculture, the University of Hawaii and science, then spent years covering government and politics.

She covered the Territorial Legislature when it was based in Iolani Palace, and was there to celebrate statehood in 1959 and the opening of the state Capitol 10 years later.

"I loved covering politics," she said. "You know all the movers and shakers. I got to know all the governors and the congressional representatives."

But her heart has always been in writing about health and science — black holes in the universe, volcanoes in the ocean, organ transplants and cord blood banks: "different stories that might benefit people in a small way," she said.

She has racked up awards too numerous to mention, from community, scientific, professional and government groups. In 1982 then-Mayor Eileen Anderson named her one of Honolulu’s 12 outstanding women; in 2006 former Mayor Mufi Hannemann proclaimed every Oct. 22 "Helen Altonn Day" to mark her first day with the Star-Bulletin.

In retirement she plans "to have lunch with friends and go back to (making) pottery."

But, "I’ll miss news-gathering because I love to report," she said. "Basically, I’m a reporter, I’m not a writer. I love to get stories. There are so many stories out there. … I can’t think of another thing that would have made me as happy as this job."


"Mary is the ultimate professional — insightful, thorough and always fair. As a police reporter and later a religion writer, she set the local standard for her beats. … She was a leader in the newsroom, a generous soul who made sure nobody’s birthday was forgotten or without her famous cookies. In her tireless work as president of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild, Mary had the utmost respect of her fellow employees and management alike."

Dave Shapiro, former Star-Bulletin managing editor

Adamski is a Midwestern girl at heart, born in Sparta, Wis., but those Wisconsin winters can be bone-chilling.

She had never been to Hawaii, but there was a Hawaii Club at Marquette University, where she graduated with a degree in journalism in 1960. Then there were the aunt and uncle who had visited Hawaii: "In the dead of winter, I would hear Alfred Apaka singing Hawaii songs," Adamski recalled. So, in August 1961, after just a year as a reporter at the Waukesha Daily Freeman, she headed to Hawaii with no job in hand, thinking she’d stay two years to warm up.

Four months later, in December 1961, she was hired by the Star-Bulletin to be a roving photographer asking "The Question of the Day"; 49 years later it’s Hawaii she calls home.

Adamski, 72, joined the then-dominant afternoon daily when it was still based on Merchant Street, and about the time local financier Chinn Ho bought the paper and moved it to the News Building at South Street and Kapiolani Boulevard.

In 1963, when reporters at both major dailies went on strike, "My father wanted me to come home." But by then she had embraced the paper, as well as the people in the exotic new culture that was Hawaii.

In recent years Adamski established herself as the religion reporter.

"Young people think I’ve only been a religion reporter and that’s all I’ve been," she says rather indignantly. But she made her bones on the police beat, beginning in 1964, when she was assigned "temporarily" to be the night cop reporter.

"I was promised to eventually get off nights, but I’ve been on night shift ever since," she said just before she retired.

"As a young woman, (police) was an exciting beat," with underworld drug and gambling activities prominent in the news. It was as a cop reporter that she started baking cookies as a strategy to get police to talk to her. It worked.

Adamski covered the police beat until 1978, then worked as night assistant city editor for six years. But she missed writing and asked to return to reporting.

Of her many memories as a reporter, including interviewing celebrities ranging from John Wayne and Red Skelton to Desmond Tutu, she treasures her connection to the people of Kalaupapa. It’s been more than 30 years since she first wrote about the Hansen’s disease settlement on Molokai. To be able to go to Rome last year with some of the residents and write about Father Damien, the priest who devoted his life to them, being named a saint was, she said, a "discernible finale" to her career.

As for retirement: "I have missed sunsets all my adult life (because of working nights). One of my goals is to get my feet in the water at sunset … that, or sit at a window with a beer."


"Ben’s weekly columns … have helped reinforce the relationship local readers have had for a long time with their newspapers. Ben knows plenty of celebrities and fame-seekers, but his weekly ‘Wood Craft’ and previous columns tended to feature items about Hawaii people who weren’t necessarily headliners from the show biz scene. Columns like Ben’s are part of a newspaper tradition that fostered links with communities in ways that even today’s advances in blogging and social networking can’t match on a regular basis."

John Simonds, former Star-Bulletin executive editor

Officially, Wood had been with the Star-Bulletin since March 1967, but the Roosevelt High grad’s ties to the paper go back to 1943, when he sold the paper downtown for 5 cents a copy.

It was his University of Hawaii freshman English teacher who nudged him toward the Star-Bulletin newsroom and his eventual career, encouraging him to write for the student newspaper.

"Before I knew it, I was the sports editor, then a general columnist" for Ka Leo o Hawaii, the former high school quarterback recalled. He was still a few credits short of graduation when he became a sportswriter for the Star-Bulletin in 1954; he was then put on general assignment.

With the military draft at his heels, he voluntarily joined the Army, signing up for an extra third year so he could pick his duty station. He chose Europe. After a year in the infantry, in 1956, he began covering sports for the Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper for the U.S. Armed Forces. "That’s where I really learned the newspaper business," said Wood, who also worked on the copy desk and wrote features during his eight years there, mostly as a civilian.

He returned to Hawaii in December 1964 and rejoined the Star-Bulletin, as a part-timer, the next year. For a brief time in the mid-1960s, he was in the restaurant business (the Sty in Niu Valley), before becoming a full-time member of the Star-Bulletin on March 13, 1967.

For most of his career, he’s been on the copy desk, editing stories and laying out pages, but he’s also been acting associate editor, acting food editor, home section editor, entertainment editor, tourism writer and golf columnist.

"My proudest time at the Star-Bulletin was when I was doing three jobs (at the same time — as a copy editor, entertainment reporter and acting food editor) and it was all OK," he said.

Then, in 1980, former Star-Bulletin Executive Editor John Simonds gave him a three-dot column, writing about "people, places and things" as "Ben Wood’s Hawaii," then as "Wood Craft." After 43 years he’s leaving the paper, but will continue writing the column that "I love doing" for the Star-Advertiser.

Among his most memorable moments over the past 30 years: meeting the stars whose voices he heard on the radio as a youngster: Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Louis Armstrong.

"Through the Star-Bulletin I got to meet every one of those guys and so many others, even Elvis and Tom Jones."

But even more than meeting celebrities, the column gives him "a voice; I can say something. … I grew up a common guy, with not much opportunity, but I can bring out things from ordinary people as well as the stars."


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