Aloha, Aka Hemmings
Aka Hemmings was a strong believer in dreaming big. The word can’t wasn’t in his vocabulary. He frowned when people asked, “Why?” Aka was one of those guys who asked, “Why not?”
I had known Aka for several years and had long respected what he accomplished as one of Hawaii’s finest watermen. The 1971 Punahou graduate achieved greatness in the sport of canoe paddling; a winner at every level of the sport. The epic 1980 photo of Aka, Tommy Holmes and Dale Hope wiping out on a 25-foot monster at Avalanche on Oahu’s North Shore in a 22-foot canoe is still talked about as one of the most insane feats ever attempted.
But it was his work in the latter part of his life that touches many hearts and reveals how special this man was to our community. And it was what I witnessed at Kailua Beach several years ago that I will never forget.
Our crew was approaching the shoreline when I saw a large group on the beach. Two fiberglass canoes were sitting at the ocean’s edge waiting to be filled. Five wheelchairs were on a plastic surface along with about a dozen men and women who appeared to be having a grand time.
And then it happened – a powerful moment that I’m grateful to have had the chance to witness. We all watched in awe as Aka emerged carrying a young woman in his arms. He was laughing and smiling as he calmly walked to the canoe and gently placed her in seat five. He took a few moments to make sure she was comfortable and then rushed back to the waiting group.
A warm feeling filled my heart as we watched Aka slowly guide a young muscular man to seat three. The young paddler was visually impaired and he too was beaming with a smile from ear-toear. Aka spent the next few minutes walking paddlers to their canoes, even piggybacking a man who could not walk; the whole time he never stopped smiling. I later learned we had witnessed the beginning of Aka’s dream of providing adaptive athletes the chance to not only participate in canoe paddling, but also compete at the sport’s highest level. It was the start of the Pure Light Program.
For the next several years, Aka was the light for dozens of courageous watermen and women. He tirelessly gave his time and even his own money, coaching the Pure Light Racing Team to a gold medal in the World Sprints in Hilo in 2004 and eventually across the Kaiwi Channel in the 2008 Molokai Hoe.
I was at the finish line at Duke Kahanamoku Beach at Hilton Hawaiian Village when Pure Light reached Oahu.
Aka was in tears knowing this group of men and women had proven that anything was possible and that there are no limitations.
It was Aka’s defining moment.
Aka also spent countless hours serving Wounded Warriors. It was his way of giving back to men and women who had served our country. Despite his hectic schedule, he somehow found time to hold steering clinics for clubs all across Hawaii. He never stopped giving and making a difference. He called it his therapy.
Aka Hemmings recently died after an extended illness. He was only 59, but in his too-short lifetime he touched thousands of lives. We often hear people talk about making a difference – Aka simply got it done.
Two years ago, I received a call from Aka, who said, “Ron, how do I get on the Oprah Winfrey Show? She needs to know about Pure Light. Can you help?” I was stunned, but not surprised. I gave him the number to Oprah’s producers and he thanked me. If anybody could do it, it was Aka.
Aka never got on Oprah, but no dream was too big for him. He was all about going big, and in the end we all benefited.
Mahalo, Aka, for touching our lives, and thank you for helping us realize our dreams.
Hemmings is survived by brothers Mark and former state Sen. Fred Hemmings, sisters Maria and Heidi, and several nieces and nephews. Aka’s ashes will be scattered at sea in a memorial service Sunday, April 21, 7:30 a.m., at Kailua Beach Park.