EDITOR’S NOTE: I met Ben Wood seven years ago when I joined the Honolulu Star-Advertiser as features editor. He was already one of Hawaii’s most illustrious journalists, and although no longer a full-fledged member of the newspaper staff, Ben hasn’t lost his newsman’s instincts and maintains his far-reaching network of celebrities and community notables, which includes a coterie of lady friends he calls “honorary songleaders” of his beloved Roosevelt High School.
I came to respect him most for his dedication to word craft and accuracy. Every week he would stroll into the newsroom, nattily attired in a sharp aloha shirt and slacks, often sporting tinted glasses and a fedora tipped just so, to go over the page proof of his “Wood Craft” column. (In today’s parlance, we would say that Ben has swag.)
If I was lucky, I could get him to dish on some of the stars he’s known over the decades, and there are plenty.
Although ending “Wood Craft” in its present form, Ben’s promised to share some his colorful stories as an occasional contributor, starting today with a look back at his small-kid time selling newspapers on the streets of Honolulu and the start of his celebrated career in journalism.
— Christie Wilson, Star-Advertiser
I walked into the newsroom Sept. 13 to notify my editors that after 63 years, I was stepping away from the newspaper business and that my next “Wood Craft” would be an “aloha” column. I’ll turn 86 on Oct. 26 and feel the demands of putting out a worthy column on a regular basis have become too strenuous and stressful and that it’s time to go.
It was not an easy decision to make, as I have loved the newspaper biz ever since I walked in the back door of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on Queen Street during World War II in early 1943 when I was 12 and told a man, I believe his name was Archie, that I wanted to sell newspapers. He gave me a stack of papers and told me to walk up to the Hawaiian Electric building corner at King and Richards streets and sell them. I did.
The newspaper cost 5 cents and for every three I sold, I got to keep 5 cents.
Selling papers on the streets of Honolulu during wartime was not only a moneymaker but also exciting for a boy my age. After a couple of months, Archie moved me around to other, much busier spots, such as the OR&L Train Depot and Aala Park in Chinatown, before making my main base the Army-Navy YMCA bus depot at Hotel and Richards streets, now the Hawaii State Art Museum.
It was a busy spot, as thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines stopped here on their way to Pacific combat. Many would never make it back home. So it is not surprising they would patronize Chinatown houses of prostitution for what could be their last encounter with a woman.
Walking back into town from Chinatown, I would see two long lines of servicemen outside ramshackle buildings a few stories high. I later learned that one line was to get inside the building to the girls, and the other was to get a shot after being “serviced” for protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
Years later, a World War II veteran who worked with me at Stars and Stripes in Europe told me that during his wartime stop in Honolulu, he went into a building to do his business and then got in the line to get his shot. He may have been a bit drunk and somehow staggered into the shot line again. Realizing he had made a mistake when he got near the door, he got out of the line and tried to walk away. A military policeman grabbed him and put him at the end of the shot line again, thinking he had just come out of the house. Protests failed and he had to have another shot. His name — no joke — was John. Quite appropriate …
A SWEET HOMECOMING
In the 1930s and up to shortly before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, our family home was on Nehoa Street across from Roosevelt High. I often watched the football team practice and later play their games at Honolulu Stadium. I loved it. The team, games, band, songleaders and cheering thrilled me. All I ever wanted to do growing up was to play football for Roosevelt.
And I did. I wanted to be in the band, too, and I achieved that also, after learning and playing trumpet for three years in band class under teacher Don “Mac” McDiarmid Sr. at Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate. Mac was also a dance band leader, trumpet player, composer and founder of Hula Records. He came along with us to Roosevelt.
In his band class there, I brought in music for dance and swing tunes as a junior and Mac led us in a couple of numbers in the annual student concert. Our schoolmates loved it. In my senior year, I also played trumpet for the lowering of the American flag after school.
Also in my senior year at Roosevelt, I was a quarterback of the football team and had two good games and two bad games. The other four could have been better. I was also elected senior class treasurer.
I wanted to go to the University of Hawaii after high school, and as we neared graduation in 1949, I told my senior class adviser that I wanted to go to college. She laughed in my face. Apparently she thought I was nothing but a locker room ignoramus.
After going to night school for a year, I got the proper credits and entered UH with some help from track coach Moses Ome. I was a point scorer in the high jump and broad jump in high school and later on the UH track team.
In my first year at UH, my English teacher, Eleanor Billsborrow, sent me to the student newspaper, Ka Leo, where I became sports editor and later a columnist.
My four years at UH were followed by three years in the Army. I was assigned to Stars and Stripes in Europe after my first year in an infantry division, and after discharge worked for the newspaper in Germany as a civilian.
Home on vacation, I went to the Roosevelt choir Christmas concert. And guess who was selling tickets at the auditorium box office? The one and only teacher who had laughed in my face when I said I wanted to go to college. Did I ever give it to her. She was speechless. That was so enjoyable …
As far as my football and sports dreams were concerned, I played a year on a senior league football team and was on a track team after high school, and then entered UH the following year.
In that year out of school, I rented cushions to spectators at Honolulu Stadium and the Civic Auditorium. George Premo, a former football coach at Roosevelt, owned the business and sold it to me. It kept me financially stable through all my college years.
During UH preseason football practice in 1951, I thought I would make the varsity as a flanker back in the single-wing offense when I suffered an injury. I was running with the ball and was tackled from behind by Moses Kealoha, a fine athlete.
My foot hurt after the play but I kept practicing. The pain worsened after practice and my foot was a bit swollen. I showed the injury to backfield coach Jerry Burns. “Run it out, Benny,” he said. For three days during practice, I “ran out” what turned out to be a broken foot. Thanks, Jerry. A huge, heavy cast was put on my foot and my season was over.
Jerry was young, in his early 20s, just a couple of years older than I was and in his first coaching job. He needed a car to take out wahine and I sold him my first car, a 1935 Ford coupe with a rumble seat, for $175. He gave me $100 down. That car gave him nothing but trouble, more trouble than my broken foot gave me. He had to park it on a slope and let it roll downhill to get it started.
There was a coaching change the following season. Jerry left town and never paid me the $75 balance. He became an outstanding football coach, and years later, when I was a Honolulu Star-Bulletin staffer, he was named head coach of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
My Jerry Burns saga was always good for a laugh in the office and whenever I told it. When a sportswriter from USA Today joined our staff, he talked to me about it and called Burns in his Vikings office. Jerry told him he had told me to run down and get an X-ray (fake news), not to “run it out.”
As for the $75 he owed me, the coach said: “Benny got all he deserved for that car.”
I concentrated on track and received one of three track scholarships Coach Ome had for two of my four years on the UH team …
LIFETIME OF ACHIEVEMENT
After four years at UH, I worked a few months at the Star-Bulletin. I had planned to return to college because I needed another year of a language to graduate. I was about to be drafted. The Korean War was winding down, but the draft for two-year service was not. The Army would not grant me a deferment but offered those who volunteered for three years the opportunity to be stationed overseas where we already had forces based.
I took the offer and picked Europe, figuring it was the only way I would get there. After a year in the infantry, I was assigned to Stars and Stripes’ European edition, where I really learned the daily newspaper business. Civilians from newspapers throughout the U.S. put out the newspaper and we soldiers were to take over if war broke out.
After a total of 10 years overseas, two as a soldier and eight as a civilian, I returned home and was eventually hired full time by the Star-Bulletin in 1967 after some part-time work mainly in the sports department.
As a full-timer, I am proud to say every day I would copy edit for the first edition, and then worked on the weekly food section for four months until a food editor was hired. After that I covered Waikiki entertainment at night. Then after a month subbing for Editor Bud Smyser’s associate editor, Bud named me entertainment editor. Other editors instrumental in my Star-Bulletin years were Hobe Duncan, Bill Ewing and John Simonds.
I was entertainment editor for 7-1/2 years, home editor and columnist at the Star-Bulletin before the newspaper was purchased by Canadian David Black in 2001.
I was a copy editor and columnist under the new ownership. I retired in 2010 but was kept on as a freelance columnist until today. The Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts honored me with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 for decades of covering Hawaii’s entertainment world.
Now, as I am about to turn 86, I start another chapter in my newspaper career as a contributor for the Star-Advertiser. Lucky me …
HIGH JINKS ON THE LINKS
I organized golf tournaments during the 1990s at the urging of one of my best friends, Frank “Steiny” Steinmiller, a high school football teammate who was the best all-around athlete in our Roosevelt Class of 1949. He thought it would be good therapy for me after my German wife, Brita, also known as the Frau, died in 1995.
He was right. The Brita Memorial tourney took flight in spring 1996. Steiny caddied as a young boy at Ala Wai Golf Course, learned to play there and became an accomplished golfer with a low handicap. He also had an award-winning temper. Once when we were playing at Koolau, his ball was deeply buried in a sand trap. He must have taken more than 10 strokes when suddenly his golf club came flying out of the trap. He never threw a baseball that well. That prompted Tim Smythe, another of our best friends in the foursome, to joke, “Never breed a Korean and a German,” as that’s what his mom Harriet and dad Al Steinmiller were, respectively.
The late, great Star-Bulletin cartoonist Corky Trinidad, another of our golfing buddies, memorialized the classic club-throwing incident in a cartoon for my golf column, which I wrote for a year or two for the Star-Bulletin.
Steiny won the inaugural Brita in ’96, and Don Ho and Gov. Ben Cayetano tied for first the following year. The tourney was lots of fun and popular, so I started a second one called the Mini Benny Birthday Tourney for Wobbly Golfers and Worthy Women, usually near my Oct. 26 birthday.
The late Jimmy Borges won in 2000. We had music after the tourneys, usually involving Mihana Souza.
I was not a good golfer, but I had a high handicap and managed to win two tourneys and get booed. Steiny was a golf purist and was on the scorers’ table with Alice Clay, Ed Chang and Sonny Beamer. He had to defend me when I won because we played together often and he knew what I could score with my legitimate handicap. It was all fun.
A high point for me on the golf course was when I played with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, the Rev. Abraham Akaka and his son, Dr. Jeffrey Akaka — all important people but it was like playing with ordinary guys.
The Rev occasionally called me when he had something worthy for my column. He officiated when Brita and I married in 1974. Steiny was best man and his trouser bottom split shortly before the ceremony. Melveen Leed was the wedding singer. Just before we walked down the aisle, she went to the bride-to-be and her attendants in their chamber and said I wanted her to sing “Please release me, let me go.” They screamed.
The Rev. Akaka conducted the Frau’s memorial service in 1996. Irmgard Aluli and Puamana sang; Borges sang two vocals, including “My Way.” Bill Cox’s Dixieland Jass Band performed. All of the music was at the Frau’s request before we lost her to cancer …
Ben Wood, who sold newspapers on Honolulu streets in World War II, writes of people, places and things. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.