Retired Kailua auto dealer Mike McKenna, who appeared in newspaper and TV ads with his beloved golden retriever Hana Girl, died Thursday. He was 84.
McKenna, who formerly owned Mike McKenna’s Windward Ford in Kailua, was “known so far and wide for his love of the community” and his active involvement, said David Rolf, executive director of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association. McKenna also owned McKenna Motor Cars in Kailua-Kona.
Rolf said he learned of his death Thursday and fondly spoke of him as a “dear friend.”
McKenna was selected as one of nine legacy dealers honored at this year’s auto show but was too ill to attend, Rolf said.
McKenna sold Windward Ford in 2014 to California-based Jay Gill for undisclosed terms.
One of his notable community contributions was his generous tradition of giving away cars at Project Grad Night festivities.
Rolf said the tradition began after a parent from a nearby school came knocking on McKenna’s office door to request a $100 donation for an alcohol-free, drug-free graduation night party.
“Mike surprised the parent by saying, ‘How about a car?’” Rolf said. “At first speechless, the parent said, ‘Well, I think that would help us get nearly everyone.’ It did.”
That year he set the goal at 95 percent attendance for Project Grad at that particular Windward school to give the car as a door prize, and the class hit a record 97 percent attendance, the highest in the state.
At 17, McKenna was a passenger in a car accident on graduation night in Rhode Island, and admitted he and his friends had been drinking. No one was seriously hurt but he broke his arm.
A 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article reported that for the previous five years the then 63-year-old “cigar- chomping ex-Marine” had given away a total of 12 cars at graduation night celebrations to four Windward high schools. In 2005 he was named National Dealer of the Year after donating more than 25 free cars and approaching his personal goal of donating more than $1 million to Hawaii schools.
He also began in 1996 a “Holiday Spirit” program in which he gave $100 to schools for every new vehicle sold at his two Kailua dealerships: Windward Ford and Windward Volkswagen/Mazda.
Although born in Providence, R.I., McKenna spent much of his childhood growing up in Kihei, Maui, Rolf said.
He joined the Marine Corps at age 16 during the Korean War. He ended up in California and, along with partners, started his first business: a newspaper.
“Mike recalls the rough early times as ‘when he served mustard sandwiches for dinner,’” Rolf said.
When the newspaper became profitable, he sold it and opened the first of his 19 car dealerships.
One of his early operations was Sun Datsun in Whittier, Calif., which was one of the Japanese manufacturer’s first 10 dealerships in America.
With three partners, McKenna built Orange County Raceway in 1969. He also raced with his raceway partner Larry Vaughn in the Baja 500.
Rolf said that although he did public relations work for McKenna, putting his dogs in the TV commercials was all McKenna’s idea.
His iconic spokesdog, Hana Girl, died at age 18 in 2007, and he sent out a news release of her death.
She frequently accompanied McKenna to charity events and even had a speaking part on TV.
“She had a great life,” he said. “She’d meet the customers all day and then go home and go swimming every day in the pool.”
In March 2010 McKenna expressed interest in buying the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and planned to make inquiries just before the paper was put on the market.
He said if what was offered was attractive, he would put a group of investors together to pursue a deal. But McKenna did not put in an offer.
This story has been updated with McKenna’s age and the day of his death.