For 53 years and counting, Carolee Nishi has taught Hawaiian Studies as a volunteer at the Nu‘uanu YMCA. For 41 ears, she worked at United Airlines, and for a while, took a part-time job at Liberty House. For more than 20 years, she taught Hawaiian Studies at Hawai‘i public schools. And yes, in case you’re counting, the multitasking 77-year-old has worked more than one job at a time.
Hula Hui O Kapunahala
Carolee Nishi is best known as the kumu hula (hula teacher) of Hula Hui O Kapunahala (HHK) at the Nu‘uanu YMCA. For 53 years, HHK has delighted audiences on stages from Waikīkī to Waipahu, from City Hall to the Hawai‘i Theatre and from Disneyland to Expo ’70 (the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan) with students aged 3 to 83, representing keiki to Kūpuna (children to seniors).
HHK isn’t a formal hālau hula (hula school), which is why it’s called a hui (club or group). And Carolee takes pride in saying that at HHK, every child is welcome. “We accept all ages; all nationalities; all personalities,” Carolee says with a chuckle. And when the group enters competitions, “We might not ever win,” she says. “And it’s okay. It’s okay not to win. Because life is not all about winning.”
The key lesson that Carolee imparts on all her students is to have an attitude of gratitude. “Aloha is everything. But gratitude is everything else. And gratitude is very important,” she says.
At HHK, students learn life lessons, along with Hawaiian language, music, dance and cultural values. Many of Carolee’s students have become kumu hula themselves. And many more have brought their children to Carolee’s classes. While she says she couldn’t begin to count how many students she’s taught over the years, it’s clear that she’s had an impact on generations of them.
Lately, the community has been showing a lot of love to Carolee, both for her service to the community and for teaching and preserving Hawaiian culture. But for someone so petite and so humble, accepting these laurels hasn’t come easy. But Carolee has stood tall and received all this respect with characteristic grace and humility.
In 2020, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii announced its 45th set of Living Treasures of Hawaii, including musician and Kumu Hula Robert Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani Cazimero; Hawaiian language champion Larry L. Kimura, PhD; Japanese brush painting master Sachie Saigusa; and volunteer and Kumu Hula Carolee Mei-Jen Kapuamae‘ole Nishi — four community leaders who have demonstrated “excellence and high achievement in their particular field of endeavor, and who, through continuous growth, learning, and sharing, have made significant contributions toward enriching our society.” An official announcement stated that, “Carolee Nishi’s selfless generosity of her time, knowledge and passion with the young and old for more than a half-century truly qualifies her as a living treasure.”
When Carolee accepted this tremendous honor, she insisted that she didn’t earn the recognition on her own. But that wasn’t the only time she’s been feted recently.
In 2019, the Kalihi-Pālama Culture & Arts Society used the stage at its annual Queen Lili‘uokalani Keiki Hula Competition to present Carolee with the Miriam Likelike Kekauluohi Achievement Award that is named for Princess Likelike, the mother of Princess Ka‘iulani and sister of Queen Lili‘uokalani.
In 2018, Carolee was recognized by the YMCA of Honolulu – Nu‘uanu Branch for 51 years of volunteerism, for her dedication to teaching Hawaiian culture and hula, and for teaching discipline and core values to youth in the community.
On Oct. 17, 2013, Ron and Carolee were joined by 1,017 of their closest friends in celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. This was one of the biggest, but certainly not the only honor that Carolee has graciously accepted recently.
For all the accolades heaped upon her, Carolee is adamant about sharing credit with others, like the kumu kōkua youth who volunteer to help teach hula to the children at the YMCA. She’s also fond of the Kūpuna volunteers, a group of about 30 seniors who, pre-quarantine, were getting together regularly to teach and dance hula with HHK.
To Annette Endow, Carolee is an inspiration. “She’s taught me so much, and I have so much more to learn from her,” says Annette, who could be considered an inspiration herself after working for 30 years as a special education teacher and nine years as a nurse. “And she has a heart of gold,” the 82-year old adds, describing one way that Carolee supports children and youth. “She writes tons of college recommendations,” Annette says with a smile, adding, “And they all get in.”
Work + Life = Balance
Carolee Nishi hasn’t always been a volunteer. She had a long and colorful career working for United Airlines from 1964 to 2005, starting in the data processing department in San Francisco, transferring to the Red Carpet Room in Honolulu and spending seven years in passenger service at the Lihue Airport on Kaua‘i.
Something that may seem surprising about Carolee is that she’s very computer-savvy. When she was first hired at United in 1964, she was doing statistics for the airline and learning to use computer programming languages like Fortran and COBOL. “I was a computer programmer,” she says. “But we didn’t call it that. It was performance operations analysis.”
A solid education at Roosevelt High School, the English standard school in Honolulu, helped to prepare Carolee for college and career. After she graduated with the class of 1961, she went on to earn a degree in sociology from the University of Hawai‘i, and also attended college in San Jose and Los Angeles while Ron was studying aeronautical science in California.
Ron’s first job upon graduating from college was as a mechanic for United Airlines. But in 1968, the US Army drafted Ron and shipped him off to Vietnam. After a five-year tour of duty, Ron headed back to college and earned a business degree
at UH. His career after that spanned multiple industries, and he retired as director of international sales and services at Hawaiian Tel. Ron and Carolee, friends since high school, have now been married for 57 years. And their family includes daughter Robyn Nishi Kuraoka and son Trevor Nishi (they were both born on the same day, two years apart), their spouses, and granddaughters Kaila Nishi and Kiralee Kuraoka (they’re both in high school and were born a few months apart).
Robyn celebrated her 50th birthday earlier this year and is proud to say that she’s grown up with HHK. She’s now following in Carolee’s footsteps — working full-time at Hawaii Medical Service Association (HMSA) while volunteering and teaching keiki hula classes at the YMCA. During the lockdown, she’s been teaching hula classes via Zoom. “I’m very proud of Robyn,” Carolee says, eager to share examples of the ways her daughter encourages young students and keeps organized behind the scenes. Robyn has learned well from a very good teacher.
“Hula is a way of life,” says Robyn. “Hula is our way of life.”
Born Carolee Mei-Jen Kapuamaeole Chung on Jan. 3, 1944, Carolee comes from a big Chinese family. “My father’s family is quite celebrated,” she says, describing how her father’s father came to Hawai‘i from China. “He was with the first wave of Chinese people that came here.” In contrast, her father’s mother was born in Ka‘ū on Hawai‘i Island and was “very local.” The pair married and had eight children. Robert Mon Gee Chung, Carolee’s father, was born in 1898, the seventh child. All five Chung brothers attended Punahou School. The eldest son graduated from Yale University and the next one from Harvard Medical School. The second brother’s daughter, Hawai‘i State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, was the flower girl at Ron and Carolee’s wedding.
Many of the life lessons Carolee enjoys recounting are words of advice from her father. “He used to say: ‘If you’re gonna give, give. If someone asks you to do something, do it. Don’t ask what’s in it for me? Those are fighting words. Don’t ever think that way. If you’re going to give, you don’t tell people what to do with it. You just give it.’”
“The word ‘hā‘awi’ means ‘to give,’” says Carolee. “But there’s never a time that you give that you don’t receive.”
HAY: How Are You?
Another piece of advice from her father motivates Carolee daily. “My dad taught me that phone calls are important. When I was young, he used to tell me, ‘You better stay in touch if you want to be friends.’” And that’s the reason Carolee makes at least five phone calls to friends every day.
“I have a HAY list,” she says. It might sound like she’s saying, “Hey!” But she’s really saying, “HAY,” an acronym that Carolee made up for the phrase “How are you?” Sometimes the HAY calls are very brief. “I called Laura the other day and said, ‘How are you?’ She said, ‘I’m fine.’ And that’s it. I said, ‘Good talking to you.’ And that’s all we needed to say. Just called to touch bases.”
Making phone calls to friends is good for the soul. It’s good for both parties. And it’s a good practice for us all, especially at a time when we’re encouraged to follow social distancing guidelines.
It’s safer, for now, to use our phones to keep in touch. So it’s better then, to call and say “HAY.”
Longtime friend, 83-year old Charlie Ishii, enjoys getting calls from Carolee whom he calls an angel. When COVID-19 vaccines first became available for seniors 75 and over, Carolee helped Charlie register for his shots. “I gave her the information she asked for,” says Charlie. “Full name, date of birth, last four digits, you know,” adding quickly, “She hustles; she’s a hard worker.” Carolee even arranged for a young volunteer to take Charlie to the mass vaccination site. “I know he could drive himself,” Carolee says. “But isn’t it nice to have someone do the driving for you?”
During the pandemic, Carolee hasn’t been quite as busy as before. But she’s still getting much done. In addition to helping friends register for vaccines, she also assembled a Zoom Crew of young volunteers to help seniors navigate technology. It’s an idea that might seem outside the box to some, but it was oh so obvious to Carolee: Mobilize people under the age of 30 to help people over the age of 70. It’s her own Genius Bar!
For the first several months of the quarantine lockdown, Carolee rarely left her house. But she really didn’t need to. She learned quickly to appreciate connecting to people and teaching classes via Zoom.
One benefit to teaching online, says Carolee, is that it forces her to be organized. She’s found that she needs to prepare lesson plans and have all her song sheets on hand before each class begins. But she isn’t complaining. Rather, she says, “It is the most wonderful way to get together. It really is.”
And the spry 77-year-old is continually innovating and reinventing herself. She started something new in 2021 — teaching virtual ‘ukulele classes to seniors. And it seems that everything about the remote ‘ukulele classes is a win-win for the teacher and her students. Classes began with the basics and have gotten progressively more advanced, which is a good challenge for their brains. Plus, it’s good for seniors to connect with others, to learn new skills, and to sing songs and play music in a group. And as an accidental bonus, the classes often become talk story sessions, which can also be a really good outlet for seniors’ mental health. “It’s really good to see them zooming along!” says Carolee.
Lifelong Learning, Learning for Life
It’s never too late to learn a new skill and you’re never too old to start. Just look at Carolee Nishi. She learned to dance hula as a child. But she didn’t learn to speak Hawaiian until she was an adult. Her first formal education in the Hawaiian language was from Dr. Larry Kimura at the University of Hawai‘i. And it wasn’t until she was about 30 that Carolee, along with her buddy Genoa Keawe, studied Hawaiian language, Hawaiian song and slack key under Auntie Alice Nāmakelua. Then, after the age of 35, Carolee began studying the Japanese language. And today, she’s using that skill when teaching another new program — virtual ‘ukulele classes for students in Japan, in Japanese.
“I don’t think I’ve, ever in my life, been bored,” says Carolee. “There is always so much to do. I mean, just tons of things.”
After state and CDC guidelines forced the YMCA to close and shut down in-person hula classes, Carolee found that she has more free time now than ever before. “I’m writing song books now and I’m getting people together, and I’m doing
a family reunion because I have all this time.”
At 77, Carolee Nishi is making good use of her free time while having the time of her life.