Runninʻ On Aloha with Carole Kai

From a very young age, Carole Kai showed a flair for the dramatic — sometimes pulling a bedsheet off the clothesline and holding it tightly across her shoulders while flying around the backyard like a superhero. Other times, she showed a more businesslike approach — like the time she hosted a boxing match in her backyard and sold tickets to neighborhood kids for 5 cents apiece.

Carole enjoys sharing stories like these when asked where her entrepreneurial spirit came from. She credits that to her mother. Throughout her life, Carole says, her constant motivation was to live the life her mother couldn’t. “I just wanted to make her happy,” she explains.

“My mother was a wonderful person. She really had dreams. But in those days…” Carole pauses to compose herself, and then begins describing Ethel Shimizu — a pretty teenager who became a single parent who worked at a barber shop for 50 years. “I remember she was always hanging up towels. So when I earned my first paycheck, the first thing I did was buy her a washing machine and dryer,” Carole says with a smile. “And then I didn’t have to hang up towels either.”

Growing up in Kaka‘ako, Carole was sometimes teased for being “different.” In those days (the late ’40s and early ’50s), most of the kids in the neighborhood had a dad who went to work and a mom who stayed at home. But Carole’s father had left the family when she was young. She says her mother seemed to work all the time. And her brother and sister were a lot older than she was. So Carole was often left home alone — which was another thing that made her different from most other kids.

Making a difference

More than being different from others, though, Carole has made a difference for others, awarding the Carole Kai Scholarship to deserving students at McKinley High School, and humbly accepting many honors herself, like these, for her role in promoting health and fitness, music and entertainment, and community service:

  • “Carole Kai Day,” proclaimed by Gov. David Ige
  • “Aloha Is” Award for Community Service, at the
    Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards
  • Distinguished Alumni Award, presented by the
    University of Hawai‘i
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Award for Distinguished Community Service, awarded by the March of Dimes
  • Communication and Leadership Award, from
    Hawaii’s Toastmasters District 49
  • 2018 American Patriot Award, from the Honolulu Council of the Navy League
  • The Ihe Award, from the Hawaii Army Museum Society
  • Mana O Ke Koa “Spirit of the Warrior” Community Service Award, from the U.S. Army, Pacific (USARPAC)

And Carole is especially proud of the achievements that have made a lasting difference in the lives of people in the community:

  • the Great Aloha Run, which has given more than $14 million to charitable causes, will celebrate its 35th year in 2019
  • “Hawaii Stars” is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018
  • the Carole Kai International Bed Race gave away more than $2 million to charities in its 20 years

But while it might seem that Carole Kai has led a charmed life, the little girl from Kaka‘ako with big eyes and even bigger dreams who grew up to be one of Hawai‘i’s biggest stars, has faced her share of adversity. When Carole’s father left the family, he left them with the stigma of abandonment. Her grandparents shunned Carole and her siblings. And her mother had to give up her own dreams in order to raise her three children.

Carole has few memories of her father. “One story I remember about my father was when I asked him why my name has an E in it,” Carole says. “Other girls I knew that had my same name spelled it C-A-R-O-L. But my name ends with an E. And my dad told me, “Don’t you know? The E is for energy!” Fluttering her eyelashes, Carole adds, “I guess I was an energetic little girl.”

E is for energy

Carole is one of those people who is filled with energy — constantly setting and achieving new goals. And she’s also one of those people who can fill up a room with energy — inspiring others to achieve their own personal goals by entering the Great Aloha Run and “Hawaii Stars.”

As co-founder and president of the Great Aloha Run, Carole leads a team of thousands of volunteers and dozens of businesses that give back to the community and support tens of thousands of participants in the annual charity run.

As co-star and executive producer of “Hawaii Stars,” Carole leads the sales efforts for the local TV show that is “making stars shine” and joins co-star Kimo Kahoano in welcoming people to showcase their talents onstage and on TV.

And the common element in all of this is the energetic Carole Kai Onouye.

Today, at the age of 74, Carole continues to keep busy, working daily in the Great Aloha Run office in Iwilei and traveling (most recently to Peru) with husband Eddie Onouye, who’s a successful businessman and entrepreneur, and Carole’s high school sweetheart.

Carole and high school sweetheart Eddie celebrating an anniversary at Lake Como, Italy.
Carole and high school sweetheart Eddie celebrating an anniversary at Lake Como, Italy.

“Eddie was my first love,” Carole says, slowly, as she shares another one of her favorite stories. “He was my first boyfriend. And I was so in love.” Eddie was the same age as Carole and was making plans to go away to college after graduating from Farrington High School. “On his graduation night, he took me to a special place. I honestly thought he was going to propose to me,” Carole says softly, dipping her head to one side. Then she adds quickly, “But he dumped me.”

Twenty-five years later, in 1987, Carole Kai and Eddie Onouye were married.

Throughout those 25 years, between 1962 and 1987, their separate journeys took Carole and Eddie away from the islands and apart from one another, and ultimately gave them experiences and life lessons that made them who they are today.

Eddie studied engineering in college, volunteered for the draft and served in the Army, and became a successful, self-made businessman.

Life lessons

After Eddie left Hawai‘i, Carole focused her energies on music, which she had always loved. Her first job, at The House of Music near Ala Moana Centerstage, didn’t last long. Carole enjoys telling the story of telling a customer, “I’m sorry, the store is really underhanded,” when she really meant to say it was understaffed. “I got fired,” Carole says quickly. Decades later, that young teenager would find herself hosting a TV show and singing competition on that nearby Centerstage.

Carole with her mom, Ethel, on graduation day, McKinley High School, Class of 1962.
Carole with her mom, Ethel, on graduation day, McKinley High School, Class of 1962.

Carole’s mother Ethel encouraged her daughter’s talent, paying for piano lessons and dance classes. “She always told me, ‘Whatever you want to do, you can do it. And I’m there for you,’” says Carole, adding, “I had no fear of failure.” So, from a very early age, Carole believed that she could be and do anything she put her mind to. And for her, that was a career in music.

After graduating from McKinley High School, Carole earned a degree in music from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. But she didn’t become a concert pianist as her mother had wished. “I wasn’t into practicing eight hours a day, all day, like some of the students in the music department,” Carole adds. “I’d rather be around people.”

Carole is truly a “people person” and enjoyed surrounding herself with crowds of people — entertaining audiences in Waikīkī and Japan and Las Vegas/Reno/Tahoe throughout the ’60s and ’70s. And she was happy to have her mother stay with her during her stints in Vegas. “I was doing things that she would have liked to do herself,” Carole says. “My mom also had dreams of being an entertainer.”

Carole Kai’s first professional gig was singing and playing the piano at the Tropicana Hotel as the opening act for Guy Lombardo. She later opened for Jerry Lewis, Roger Williams, Shecky Greene, George Carlin, and Don Rickles, and spent time with another girl from Hawai‘i, Elaine Okamura and her husband Wayne Newton.

Carole performed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Garden Bar (1968 to mid ‘70s) with the Fabulous Krush and singers Sonya Mendez and Debbie Simpson
Carole performed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Garden Bar (1968 to mid ‘70s) with the Fabulous Krush and singers Sonya Mendez and Debbie Simpson

Voted the “Most Talented” student at Washington Intermediate and McKinley High School, Carole was also named the “Most Promising Newcomer of the Year” in Las Vegas. And when she returned to Hawai‘i, she opened for Don Ho and later staged her own Vegas-style show.

In the late ’90s, Carole joined forces with powerhouse singers Loyal Garner, Melveen Leed, and Nohelani Cypriano to perform and record as The Local Divas. That musical match-up was quite a way for Carole to end her professional musical career. But she has continued to shine onstage, on television, and in the community.

Throughout it all, the exuberant Carole Kai never let celebrity go to her head. Instead, she used that platform to “do good” for other people. “My mother was always working,” she says. “So she never had time to give back to the community. And that’s what drives me to do it now.”

“My mother always told me, ‘You cannot keep taking out of the well, because the well will become dry. So you have to always give back,’” Carole adds. And she’s lived by those words to this day.

Giving back, with aloha

The Carole Kai International Bed Race was a popular event that raised over $2.5 million for charity from 1974–1994.
The Carole Kai International Bed Race was a popular event that raised over $2.5 million for charity from 1974–1994.

Through the Carole Kai International Bed Race, Carole invited the community to share in a fun event that raised millions of dollars for dozens of charities between 1974 and 1994. That included $2 million raised for the Variety School, a school for children, teens, and young adults with learning differences. The Bed Race was a huge success, but Carole would make an even greater impact with her next venture.

In 1985, Carole launched a great new idea. The Great Aloha Run brought together nearly 12,000 participants who made their way along an 8.15-mile path from Aloha Tower to Aloha Stadium, making it the largest first-time running event in the world.

The event’s instant success was a credit to its co-founders: Carole Kai Onouye and Dr. Jack Scaff, a renowned cardiologist known as the Father of the Honolulu Marathon.

To date, the Great Aloha Run and Carole Kai Charities have:

  • generated over $14 million in charitable giving
  • benefited over 150 nonprofit health and human service organizations, the military, and community groups, and
  • distributed 95 percent of its charitable donations within the State of Hawai‘i.

In 2019, the Great Aloha Run will celebrate its 35th year. That’s a major milestone for Hawai‘i’s largest participatory race — with more than 20,000 runners, joggers and walkers; over 4,000 volunteers; dozens of sponsors and donors; and only two full-time staff members.

“And we could not do the race without the input and guidance of our board members; Larry Okinaga, Randy Hiraki, Jean Hagi, Robin Campaniano, Ali Nikkhoo, Emi Anamizu, Stanford Carr and Mike McCartney,” says Carole.

Walking the walk, running the run

Carole Kai Charities, which “runs” the Great Aloha Run is a nonprofit organization whose sole mission is to raise funds for charities in the State of Hawai‘i. And the two people who “run” the office, Claire Nakamura Rochon and Brent Imonen, are a perfect complement to each other in skill set, mindset, and personality.

Claire works to maximize charitable giving by minimizing expenses, while Brent manages event operations and marketing, bringing new ideas to enhance the experience for participants.

“We solely exist to give money to charities,” says Claire, listing a few of the expenses vital to operating a safe and profitable event: from T-shirts and buses to barricades and port-a-potties, and from renting the Blaisdell Center and Aloha Stadium to lining the roadways with special duty officers. But Claire is always happy to say, “Our biggest expense is the charities. Once we pay all our bills, the rest goes to charities.”

The dynamic duo

Claire Rochon and Brent Imonen.
Claire Rochon and Brent Imonen.

Claire Nakamura Rochon is a perfect fit as the Administrative Event Coordinator for GAR (the Great Aloha Run). She participated in the event herself (as a walker in high school). She worked at the Variety School (a beneficiary of both the Bed Race and GAR) and served as an administrative liaison for the events. And she volunteered for GAR before being hired to run its day-to-day operations. That’s the ideal resume, built over 30 years. And that makes for a perfect fit.

Today, Claire’s personal goals align with her professional ones — to ensure that both the Great Aloha Run and the giving can continue.

As Race Director for the Great Aloha Run, Brent Imonen is a perfect fit for his role, too. The former professional triathlete and competitive swimmer also volunteered for the event and participated in GAR as an elite runner, completing the 8.15-mile run in under 41 minutes. And before Brent worked as the GAR race director, he managed field marketing programs for sports drinks and other products at events that included the Great Aloha Run and Expo. He continues to work with community events like the Duke’s Oceanfest and Honolulu Ekiden & Music Festival. Along with his experience, Brent brings a for-profit mindset and creative ideas in event marketing.

When he’s asked about his vision for the future of the charity run, Brent points to the past. “In the early ’80s, when GAR first started, there was no internet, no social media, and there were fewer community events for people to choose from,” he says. So, for the Great Aloha Run to continue its success well into the future, Brent adds, “We need to be able to provide ‘that experience’ that people want to have and want to share. We all believe in the mission. But my perspective is a little out of the box. I think part of what I’m here to do, is to help transform GAR for the next 35 years. That’s the piece I add.”

Brent, Claire, and Carole enjoy working with community partners, sponsors, and volunteers year-round. And during the few months that the office quiets down and the office computers would otherwise sit idle, they invite seniors to attend free computer classes (taught by volunteers, of course) to learn to use technology and continue to enrich their lives.

Personal goals

This time of year — the end of one year and the beginning of another — is the perfect time to take the time to contemplate the accomplishments we each have made, while setting new goals that we can achieve, big or small.

If you’re like many people, participating in the Great Aloha Run is a major personal goal and may be one of the healthiest things you’ll do this year. And for some, it’s actually one of the healthiest things they’ll do all year.

A good way to start working toward that goal is to participate in this year’s Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk for Seniors. Preparing for that event can lead to health benefits for you, and a good, fun time for all.

If you set the goal of participating in the upcoming Great Aloha Run or Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk, consider training with a friend, and work to keep one another motivated. Visualize your goal becoming a reality. Imagine the feeling of being encouraged and sharing the aloha spirit with others around you as you cross the finish line.

And for those who may not wish to run or walk, you can also volunteer to help at the events and share your aloha with others throughout the community.

It’s never too late to set new personal goals, or work toward ones you may have set for yourself many years ago — like Carole Kai Onouye, who’s living up to the personal goal she set as a little girl: just to make her mother happy.

By sharing her aloha with other people in the community, Carole is like a backyard superhero with a bedsheet cape.

Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk

The Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk for Seniors is a fun, healthy walking event planned especially for seniors age 55+ on a 2-plus mile course around Ala Moana Park. (The flat, traffic-free route will begin near McCoy Pavilion.)

The Hawaii Recreation & Parks Society, which produces the event in conjunction with the Great Aloha Run, offers participants lots of encouragement along the course, refreshments, entertainment, door prizes, and an official Silver Streaks T-shirt when they reach the finish line. Participants will also receive FREE entry into the Great Aloha Run Sports Health & Fitness Expo on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (That’s one week after the Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk.)

Great Aloha Run

The Hawai‘i Pacific Health Great Aloha Run (GAR) is held each year on Presidents Day and is viewed differently by different people. It’s a competitive race for elite runners, a fun run for fitness fans, a healthy walk for groups and individual weekend warriors, and an annual event for local military groups. It’s promoted as having a place for everyone who wants to participate, with a warmly inclusive philosophy reflected in the Hawaiian phrase, “Ke kukini me ke aloha pau‘ole” — the race with compassionate love.

Many people benefit from participating in regularly scheduled In Training Workshops throughout the year. And thousands of people of all ages attend the annual Great Aloha Run Sports Health & Fitness Expo where they gain new information and helpful tips to improve their health and fitness. To learn more about the Great Aloha Run, the Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk for Seniors, and the Great Aloha Run Sports Health & Fitness Expo, visit the website at:

2019 Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk

For the first time ever, the 30th Silver Streaks Sunrise Walk for Seniors will be held in conjunction with the Keiki Great Aloha Run. Both events will take place on the same 2-mile course, on the same day.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

6:45am walk numbers distributed
7:15am warm-up
7:30am walk begins

Meet at McCoy Pavilion, Ala Moana Bch. Pk.

$15 by January 31, $20 on or after February 1 (shirt size guaranteed for entries postmarked by Jan. 23)

Sign up on the day of the event

INFO: Leave a message at 808-548-1108 and someone will return your call or email:


2019 Hawai‘i Pacific Health
Great Aloha Run

The 35th Great Aloha Run is open to all. Come out  as a participant or a volunteer!

Monday, February 18, 2019
Presidents Day, 7am–10am

Aloha Tower, 155 Ala Moana Blvd.

$10 Babies in Strollers
$25 Keiki (5–12 yrs.)
$25 Seniors (65´ yrs.)
$30 Military
$45 Individuals / $60 late reg (Feb. 16–17)

Feb. 16–17. Sign up at the GAR Sports Health & Fitness Expo

REGISTER / VOLUNTEER / INFO:, 808-528-7388,


One response to “Runninʻ On Aloha with Carole Kai”

  1. Jan Leonard Atkins Avatar
    Jan Leonard Atkins

    As Misu’s Big Sister with Phi Sigma Rho at UH, I couldn’t be more proud of this wonderful, successful lady!

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