Aloha Oe, Buttons Kaluhiokalani

Montgomery Ernest Thomas ‘Buttons’ Kaluhiokalani. Photo courtesy Lisa Scott Owen

Montgomery Ernest Thomas ‘Buttons’ Kaluhiokalani. Photo courtesy Lisa Scott Owen

We had just completed a training run from Hawaii Kai to Kaimana Beach when my cellular phone rang. I figured if it was important the caller would leave a message, so I continued putting away my canoe.

Less than a minute later, the phone rang again. I thought to myself, “This must be important,” so I answered. My friend Wendell was on the line: “Did you hear? Buttons died!”

My heart immediately sank. Hawaii had lost another legend.

“I’m very sad and numb,” says his partner of seven years, Hiriata Hart. “He was in good spirits last night and told my daughter and I that he loved both of us.”

Buttons would die a day later, Nov. 2, in California, succumbing to stage 4 lung cancer. He was only 55.

“I’ll remember how much he loved me,” says an emotional Hart. “Through my family, the love of my friends, a great support system and my children, they’ll help me be as strong as I possibly can.”

Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani started surfing at the age of 7, and by the time he was a teenager, many knew he was destined for fame. Kaluhiokalani was given the nickname “Buttons” by his grandmother, who thought his curly hair looked like buttons. The kolohe kid dropped out of McKinley High School in the 1970s to pursue his dream of surfing on the professional tour.

Buttons was an innovator of modern-day surfing. He was one of the first surfers to execute a 360 on film. But after several victories, his ride came to an abrupt end because of drug abuse.

“You can go to the dark side or go to the good side,” said Kaluhiokalani in June. “I’ve been there, and it was all about me. Now, I’m giving back. It is what I’m supposed to do, especially for the kids.”

For five years, Kaluhiokalani shared the gift of surfing with people with disabilities by volunteering with AccesSurf. He often talked about his new purpose in life.

“God sent me here. It also helps in my recovery and healing,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the ocean, I don’t know if I would be around today. I’m lucky, fortunate and blessed because the ocean saved me.”

In June, AccesSurf honored Kaluhiokalani along with longboard legend China Uemura for their many contributions to the adaptive surfing community. Buttons didn’t think he deserved the honor. Hart believes otherwise.

“He did a lot of charity work for AccesSurf and Mauli Ola Foundation, and he had the most generous heart you could possibly imagine,” says Hart. “He believed in sharing his aloha and giving back to the community and helping children who maybe didn’t have family or were troubled. Everybody loved Buttons.”

Two months ago, Kaluhiokalani was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease spread quickly, and the family decided to seek holistic progressive treatment in California.

“We wanted to explore all possibilities that we can to fight this battle and to conquer it,” explains Hart.

Kaluhiokalani was starting his second month of treatment when he developed pneumonia. He had started radiation on a tumor on his back with a goal of returning home to Hawaii.

“He was a very loving father to our children,” says Hart. “We did everything together. We worked together, lived together and traveled together. We were inseparable. No matter where we went, our children were always with us. They’re very sad.”

His final message to MidWeek in June: “To all the ones who are suffering, my message is: If we can do it, you can do it. Just make better choices, hang on to the positives and let go of the negatives. Life is too short.”

Buttons is survived by his partner, his eight children and nine grandchildren. Hart says family and friends celebrated Buttons’ life with a memorial in Malibu. They’ll hold similar memorials in Hawaii and Tahiti.