Dr. John Corboy has had an interesting life. He witnessed martial law in Hawaii during World War II, went to Saint Louis School after being kicked out of Punahou School, and founded Hawaii’s largest ophthalmology practice.
His father, Phillip Corboy, M.D., was a flight surgeon in the Pacific during World War II, and John, then 2, didn’t see him for four years.
“In 1945 the war had moved sufficiently far to the Western Pacific that it was considered safe to transport some dependents to Hawaii. My mother and my two siblings traveled by train from Indiana to San Francisco and waited a week or so until a troop ship was ready to take us to Hawaii.
“We zigzagged all the way to Hawaii with a submarine escort. A five-day trip took 10 days. The ship was very interesting because it was made of concrete. It was the flagship of Henry Kaiser’s Permanente fleet, and it was called the Permanente because it could be built in half the time and cost of steel ships.”
Kaiser had huge cement plants and proposed building ships out of cement. They were approved for cargo and troop ships but not for actual warships.
One of them is still intact on the coast of Lanai today, 70 years later, on Shipwreck Beach, Corboy says.
“The first thing I remember in Hawaii was being fingerprinted. And because of martial law, a siren went off at 8 o’clock at night, and everybody had to be indoors with blackout curtains drawn.
“There was a neighborhood warden who would go up and down the streets to make sure that no light escaped from your house after 8 p.m. so that if a Japanese airplane had gotten near Hawaii undetected, they wouldn’t be able to find us in the dark.
“All the car headlights were painted over except for the bottom. Only emergency vehicles were allowed out at night. And even then they couldn’t be spotted because the headlights were covered.
“I was 6 and learned to walk barefooted and speak pidgin. I was sent to Lincoln Elementary, which was an English standard school. When I got there they handed me a second grade book and asked me to read it.”
He read it well, so they gave him a third grade book, then fourth and fifth. They said, “Mrs. Corboy, maybe your son should go to a different school. There’s a school called Punahou, and they have a little higher standard.”
“In September 1945 the whole Punahou campus had been an Army base, and I remember the Italian PWs — prisoners of war — wearing striped suits like jailbirds, were removing the barbed wire from the night- blooming cereus, which covered walls around the campus.”
Over 50,000 Italian soldiers were captured by the Allied forces, and 5,000 were sent to Hawaii. The term “POW” didn’t come until Vietnam.
In November of his freshman year, Corboy was involved in some mischief and suspended. “Dad took me to Saint Louis thinking the brothers would straighten me out.
“I was one of two haoles; worse, I was a Punahou haole. Every day, the big strong guys beat up the little guys, and so they had to beat me up to see where I fit into the pecking order of physical prowess.
“Every day I’d get beat up, until finally one day I thought, ‘I can take this guy,’ and so I beat him up. Once my place was established, the fighting was over.
“The people below me had to carry my books, and I would carry the books of the people above me. It was a little bit challenging, but in retrospect it was kind of fun.
“I wasn’t much of an athlete, but I got on the debate team. I loved to go back to Punahou and debate and (usually) beat them.
“In seventh grade I was 13 and had a friend at KIKI radio. He got me a job for 50 cents an hour, summers and weekends, filing records in the library and cleaning up.
“A lot of the disc jockeys in those days partied late,” Corboy continues, “and wouldn’t show up for their broadcast. I had listened to all of them and knew what their style was. One day Buckskin Bob, who was the country-western guy, didn’t show up, and the manager said, ‘We need somebody to do his show.’
“I volunteered because I knew all of his records. I was 14 or so and started the show saying, ‘Buckskin Bob ain’t here today, but Cactus Corboy is!’
“Later I worked at KGU. Lucky Luck was often hung over at 5:30 in the morning, so he’d wander in late and I would cover his first hour. I once did his entire show when he failed to show at all.
“Don Chamberlain was my mentor at KIKI. He made me insist they pay me a dollar an hour, which was big money then. And every now and then when he would be out, I would do Don’s Fishbowl, which was a booth at Fran’s Drive In on Ena Road.”
On weekend and summer nights, kids would all come to the drive-in and flirt with kids in other cars and make requests and dedications, Corboy recalls. “It was pretty exciting for a 15-year-old deejay!”
In his junior year he was class president, and Punahou invited him to re-enroll and lead their debate team.
“I had just been elected student body president. I thought I would just be a small frog in that pond if I went back there. So I stayed and graduated in the Saint Louis class of 1956.”
As the class president, Corboy had to show up to the senior a prom with a date, but all the women he knew were in broadcasting and over 25 years of age.
“So, some of my friends found me a sweet little girl from Sacred Hearts, and I took her to the prom, brought her home, kissed her on the cheek and never saw her again.”
Corboy went to medical school at the University of Illinois and later pursued a specialty in ophthalmology. Returning to Hawaii, he worked at Kaiser Permanente — which reminded him of the ship that brought him to the islands. Five years later he left to open his own clinic in Wahiawa in 1975.
“A number of doctors came to Wahiawa and asked to work with me. In time they convinced me to open an office in the Ala Moana building and then one in Kailua, Wailuku, Kaunakakai, Lanai City, Lihue, Hilo and Kona.”
Twenty-five years later he had nine offices with a surgery center and a staff of 94 people. Forty percent of eye care in Hawaii was through his Hawaiian Eye Center, which was named for the popular TV show “Hawaiian Eye.”
On a trip to Tonga, Corboy found there was just one eye doctor with very poor equipment for 100,000 people. “I came back the next year with a load of equipment and supplies, and taught him modern surgical techniques.”
That led to creating the Hawaiian Eye Foundation, which sent a medical mission to Tonga annually until he retired in 2000. Corboy then expanded the foundation to the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
“Our volunteer surgeons, nurses and techs did 30 missions last year, including 2,000 cataract surgeries for the blind poor. Nothing is more satisfying than restoring vision to a blind grandma who has never seen her grandchildren.”
For this work the University of Chicago, his alma mater, awarded Corboy its Humanitarian of the Year 2019 Award last week.
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