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Bernie Ching, founding member of the Surfers

  • COURTESY RONA CHING KEKAUOHA

    Bernie Ching on campus at ‘Iolani School. Ching died last week from heart failure after a long illness. He was 79.

  • CAMERA HAWAII / 1966

    The Surfers, left to right, Clayton Naluai, back left, Pat Sylva, Bernie Ching and Alan Naluai.

Bernard “Bernie” Ching, a founding member of the 1950s recording group The Surfers, died Friday in Honolulu from heart failure after a long illness. He was 79.

Ching’s daughter, Rona Ching Kekauoha, said her father would be remembered “as a gentle soul who displayed the aloha spirit for everyone. He will be sorely missed by his family, his Kamehameha Schools classmates, by ‘Iolani School, the local athletic and beach boy communities, and anyone fortunate enough to befriend him.”

Ching grew up in central Honolulu. He entered Kamehameha as a kindergartner, graduated as a member of the Class of ‘57, and attended Glendale Junior College in California. It was there that he and three other young islanders — Pat Sylva and Alan and Clayton Naluai — founded the Surfers while they were taking a college choir class. The quartet went from performing with the choir to performing separately at campus events and from there to performing at other colleges. The next step was playing weekends at Disneyland, followed by full-time work in Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe and throughout the mainland.

A recording contract with Hi-Fi Records, a mainland record label, resulted in the quartet’s first albums — “On the Rocks,” “At High Tide,” “Christmas From Hawaii” and “The Islands Call.”

Hawaii music historian Harry B. Soria Jr., founder and producer of “Territorial Airwaves” said he was a Surfers fan from the first time he heard them in the late 1950s.

“They were as revolutionary in 1959 as the Sunday Manoa would be in 1969, a decade later,” Soria said Monday. “Their satin-smooth harmonies were done with taste, style and a sense of humor.”

The Surfers were later signed by another national label, Decca, which billed them for a while as “the Hawaiian Surfers” to set them apart from all the surf-rock groups of the early 1960s.

The group sang backing vocals on the Elvis Presley movie soundtrack album, “Blue Hawaii,” although they were not mentioned in the production credits.

Ching retired from the group in the mid-1960s and was replaced by Joe Stevens. It would be the only personnel change in the quartet’s history; 15 years later, Stevens was still describing himself as “the new guy.”

Back in Hawaii, Ching married Arleen Puanani Chong; the couple had four daughters but later divorced. After leaving the Surfers, Ching worked with his older brother, beach boy and professional wrestler Sam “Sammy Steamboat” Mokuahi, in Waikiki, coached several sports at ‘Iolani School, worked as a security guard, and played music with two friends at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort.

At ‘Iolani, Ching coached the girls basketball teams to Interscholastic League of Honolulu championships in 1989, 1995 and 1996, and to state championships in 1989, 1993, 1995 and 1996. He was also a boys basketball assistant coach in the early 2000s, an assistant coach for the paddling team, and was a head football coach of the intermediate school and and junior varsity teams.

He was also an avid noncompetitive surfer from the age of 12 when his brother loaned him a board.

The Surfers received the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.

Kekauoha said one of her father’s favorite leisure time activities was basketball.

“When I was growing up, he would play every Sunday down at ‘Iolani School, pick up games with a bunch of guys — that was a ritual. Every Sunday he’d go down to the gym — ‘Iolani only had one gym then — and I’d be in the gym or in the swimming pool waiting for him.”

“My dad also loved music, all kinds of music, but especially Hawaiian music, and he loved to eat. I got my love for ice cream from him, he was always eating ice cream. He loved to be with the family and go out to eat at the local hang-out restaurants in town.”

Ching is survived by daughters, Lisa Ching, Rona Kekauoha, Kehau Ponoke and Beth Ann Shizuru, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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