Buttons Kaluhiokalani

by Glenn Sakamoto on November 12, 2009 · 11 comments


Buttons Kaluhiokalani is a surfer from Hawaii whose energy and radical maneuvers in the ‘70s set the stage for modern surfing. After trouble with drugs, he has kicked out those demons and is super-charged with a mission: to give back, surf, and enjoy every day.

What was it like growing up in the Islands?
My family was originally from The North Shore and we moved to Waikiki, where I was raised by my mom. I was six years old and my Uncle Buddy had this 10 footer at the house and every day he would walk to the beach and I would watch him surf. He had served in Vietnam and he had super long hair. I would follow a few feet from him as he walked to the ocean and I would sit on the sand and just watch and be amazed at what he could do on a surfboard. When I was eight, I used to hang out at Waikiki with my friends and I taught myself how to swim, got my first paipo board and it was on after that, baby!

Who did you look up to and admire as a young man?
Where I grew up, Reno Abellira lived down the street from me and Barry Kanaiapuni used to surf in town. As I got older, 12 or 13 years old, my idols were like Jock Sutherland, Sam Hawk, Gerry Lopez (of course), and Rory Russell. And let’s not forget Eddie Aikau. Those guys were my heroes.

What was it like when you first stood up on a surfboard?
To tell you the truth, I was a natural at it. I started standing on my paipo board and then learning to do it on a surfboard. From that day on, I was like, “Whoa.”

Even when I was a kid, I did these crazy things that pretty much no one was doing at the time on a foam board or paipo board—360’s, spinners, switchfoot. As I grew into a teenager, I was doing even more crazy things on my surfboard!

How is it you were able to pull off such radical maneuvers in your career?
I’ll tell you this: I am half-Black and half-Hawaiian. So I guess it was my genetics.


Where did the name “Buttons” come from?
When I was born, I was premature at 4 lbs. and my hair looked like little buttons. So my Grandma named me “Buttons.” My given name is Montgomery Kaluhiokalani. My mom named me after her favorite actor, Montgomery Clift. Buttons fits my personality (laughs)!

Of all the places you’ve traveled, what was the most memorable and why?
I got a chance to go to Tahiti. It was only my second time with the towing in. And for me being 51 years old and being towed into Teahupo was the gnarliest thing I have ever done in my life. It’s this wave – this pit that is to da max! That was definitely the most insane thing I have every experienced. And I’d do it again!

What period of surfing holds the most cherished memories for you?
When I was 21, I did the Pipe Masters and the Sunset World Cup. I did the Sunkist Malibu Pro and won. Being in those contests were the best surfing times of my life. I was doing moves that were ahead of their time.

How do you choose to live your life?
I just cherish life more—to live one day at a time, and to go out and fun. Cherish it. I love life – I have a nice beautiful child, a nice lady. I just don’t take life for granted anymore.

Who /what inspires you?
My family, the ocean, my surroundings. I have 7 kids and 7 grand kids. And I couldn’t ask for anything more beautiful than where I live. I have a beautiful life and a beautiful family. Those are the things I cherish the most. Most of all, God inspires me. He gives me hope – he’s my savior. He’s pulled me out into the right direction.


What meaning does surfing hold for you?
The love and the passion. That love, passion, and mana of surfing. I’m the kind of person that lives and dies for surfing.

Who do you think are the people that are shaping the path for surfing today?
You know, surfing is a Hawaiian sport. And it’s a history that has been passed down to every generation that comes after. It all started in Hawaii since the 1700’s.

It’s those up and coming kids, man, kids like Mason Ho. You know, Michael and Derek Ho and myself, we all have kids. Those kids and others like them are the next generation that will bring surfing to a whole new level.

How important is it to be Hawaiian?
The Hawaiian tradition has to live on. We cannot forget where we come from. I cherish what I am and who I am and my Hawaiian blood. It’s really important to me that the culture lives on from one generation to the next. I get my power, or mana, from the Hawaiian gods. I am so proud to be Hawaiian and there are not a lot of us out there.

And I would tell the next generation of Hawaiians that you never forget where you come from. Know where you come from. Don’t forget the culture—go to school and learn the Hawaiian language. Keep the mana, keep the Hawaiian spirit, and keep the aloha going—and the Hawaiian culture will live on.


What is you favorite board in your quiver?
My favorite board right now is a twin-fin from Nelson Sadoy. And a quad shape Tim Bessel that is the bomb, bro. In addition I also have a quad fish shape from my new sponsor, Cote de Azul.

What is your favorite surf spot?
Sunset. Backyards. It is such an epic right, bro. It’s one of the coolest waves. It’s awesome. And also Waimea Bay. I just love that drop! I love the feeling and the rush of that place. I still surf Backdoor Pipeline, too. At 51, I am still charging. It’s like I’m a little kid.

What’s your favorite meal?
Oh man, for me it would be sashimi and rice. Ahi is what I love the best. And I would wash it down with a nice glass of juice or water.

What would you say to people who are thinking of using drugs?
I am not embarrassed to say that I am a recovering drug addict. And I have been sober for almost 3 years now. In life, we have to make the right choices. The devil is all around us. Stay around good, positive people. Do not use drugs because it will take you out. Live life to the fullest and make the right choices—and give it to God.

What else are you doing?
Well, I have a surf camp called Buttons Surf School. We’ve been in business for three years. It keeps me going, to see the students’ faces, to see their smiles. And every first Saturday of the month, I take physically and mentally challenged kids surfing from Access Surf Hawaii. It makes me happy to see them catch waves and makes me feel good inside for what I do.


What’s next for Buttons?
For me it’s just staying healthy, surfing, sending out messages to schools and sharing my testimonial of my life. I am sure I have touched some hearts and have gotten a lot of friends out of it. It is important for me to give and share my strength with others.

Find out more about Buttons Kaluhiokalani and his surf school here. Access Surf Hawaii can be contacted hereTop two photos courtesy Jeff Divine. Other photos courtesy of Gary Miyata.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mundo Reves November 16, 2009 at 9:38 am

That Jeff Divine photo is one of my all-time favorites. Great interview. Great subject.


Ron Croci April 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

Buttons, Ihave seen you come and go through the Kaiser parking lot for 25 years. You have morphed through many phases, and this one is the best.
The Kaiser Bowl, till death do us part.


Derek May 24, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Thanks for saving my board from the rocks at Rocky Pt. one morning a couple of years ago. I think you were talking story with Kirk Hodges (may he rest in peace) and another guy by the walkway and you came running down and saved my longboard from getting pounded into the exposed rocks. Most people wouldnt have made that effort and let my board get thrashed. Mahalo. I wish you all the happiness the world can give.


Robert August 25, 2011 at 11:48 am

Glad you back, “Buttons” stronger and with God our savior. Amen Brother!


lynette wich (@missxooley) March 30, 2012 at 8:28 am

I love to see and hear this. Great interview. Full circle ~ MANA . God is good.


Gary Young September 16, 2012 at 10:19 am

Hey Buttons… great to see your doing well. I think your experience was a common one for most of us that grew up in Waikiki during that time. I was one of your Hoale brothers at Kaiser’s back in 1967-1972. Larry B. was a good friend and nemesis when it came to contests. I went to Mckinley High and also was the only Hoale member of the Sunshine Surf Club, ala the Kaulukukui brothers. I miss Oahu very much and have incredibly vivid memories of Kaiser Bowl and In-betweens when the south shore would close out. I also miss the concerts at Sandy Beach. I’m living in Encinitas and still surf occasionally. God Bless Brother.


Eddie May 28, 2013 at 3:40 am

This is the very reason why we decided to choose Buttons as the very first recipient of our “Ocean of Possibilities” award. It is not only the motto of AccesSurf but testament that people can reach for the stars if simply given the chance.
Come support him on June 15th, 2013 @ the Hard Rock Cafe in Waikiki.


Jose November 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm

RIP Buttons..


suzanne November 2, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Thank you Buttons for always being so nice to me, at Little Beach by the Ala Wai Harbor in the 1970′s. You always had a Hi, and a hug for me when I would see you and your friends hanging at the old Hilton hele-port. Life was so hard for a Haole back then. Your beautiful smile, and sweet nature ment so much to this Little Harbor Rat. I can only wonder how Magical the liquid blue waves must be in Heaven, I will always remember you with Love.
Suzanne Andrews


Michael Clebert Willis November 20, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani March 30, 1959 — November 2, 2013.
Malibu, Surfrider beach paddle out

In honor and with big love and respect an official ceremony and paddle
out was held for legendary, truly iconic surfer, Buttons Kaluhiokalani.
Kaluhiokalani a Hawaiian native son was known and respected world
wide in the surfing community for his “supernatural” surfing skills
and ability. In addition to his surfing prowess, a flamboyant
personality, chiseled physique and rouged good looks caused him to stand
out like no other. Buttons personal life was a roller coaster of highs
and lows that he not only survived but he later overcame and flourished.
Buttons passing is the passing of one of surfings all time greatest.
He will be deeply missed and always remembered for his passion, love
and aloha. The following is a true eyewitness account of the November
9th 2013 paddle out for Buttons Kaluhiokalani at Malibu Surfrider Beach
in Los Angles County, California.

Milton Willis and I, Michael Willis – the Willis brothers arrived at
Malibu Surfrider Beach for Buttons paddle out slightly after sunrise.
We weren’t the first though, someone before us had taken chalk and
written, “We love you Buttons” and drew a big heart on the walkway. In chalk i added “Ua
mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono.” The sky was clear the temp warm and
the air electric.

Paying deep respect, amongst the first to arrive was Alan Sarlo, King of Malibu,
who himself is a notable surfer with strong Hawaiian and
California roots. Sarlo, one of the Bu’s best surfers ever, joined
Milton and I slightly up the beach where we were playing tribal drum
beats for Buttons. Milton had brought a conch shell, which Alan picked
up raised his head to the clouds and sounded off for Buttons.

Moments later, as if on queue, people began showing up and the official
ceremony was about to begin. Beautiful women and rough looking, well
tanned, muscled and tattooed men abounded. Cameras were everywhere, it
could have been a scene in a James Bond movie but it wasn’t, it was
Buttons posse coming to pay honor and respect. Though it felt surreal
it was very real.

Cory Whitlock, from the Whitlock surfing family, demonstrated his love and
respect for Buttons by having “Love like Buttons” t-shirts printed up.
Bless the Whitlocks for demonstrating some Californians have aloha.
Proceeds from donations went to help Buttons family.

Troy, from Kaau Crater Boys, along with his daughter provided the
opening music. The crowd went completely silent when they sang Israel
Kamakawiwaole’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Buttons had actually
played harmonica with the Kaau Crater Boys. Somehow i felt Buttons
looking down soaking in the California love. Chicken skin.

As a perfect background, a phalanx of surfboards lined the famous
Malibu wall. Included were actual surfboards Buttons had surfed. There
were also surfboards decades old that featured Buttons label. Included
in the line up were true Willis Brothers surfboards Phazer bottom big
wave guns built in Hawaii. There was even a foam blank which (i
presume) was going to be shaped for Buttons.

Noble Kaluhiokalani, Buttons brother of the same mother was in attendance
and spoke of his brother. He related about how as a youth certain bad
boys would pick on Buttons but Buttons shrugged it of. Buttons was
about love, BIG LOVE. Noble related how Buttons encouraged everyone,
“hate no one, love all.”

Sumo, a childhood friend of Buttons and now a pastor in
California, spoke of how as keikis, Jr. Moapono would bully him.
Moapono ruled Velzyland and would often send Sumo to the beach. It was
Buttons, friend to all, who befriended Sumo and encouraged him to stay
positive. Sumo, with a wry smile and distant gleam in his eyes, spoke of
going to the “dark side” with Buttons. All said and done Buttons had
turned his life around and by all means finally becoming responsible
and successful operating a surf school on the north shore of Oahu
under his own name.

Ben Aipa, true Hawaiian surfing living legend, was represented by his
son Duke. It turns out Buttons and another great surfer Mark Lydell
were his baby sitters growing up! It was a blessing to see the Aipa
family represented, again conformation of Big Love and respect from
surfing’s revered who’s who. Buttons legacy shall live forever.

Strongmen stood with reverent looks on their faces. Women and men
were crying. The crowd of between 500 and 1000 or more was unified not
by personal religion or credo but rather true and unconditional Big
Love. Buttons wife Hiriata stood bravely as did his lovely daughter
Nawaii. Close by a beautiful– beautiful young woman with a white
burka covering her hair let out a steady stream of spirit filled
tears. She was illuminate.

Sumo — a hefty Polynesian man with long hair and beard gave
instructions for the paddle out. He implored us to have a vision
of Buttons in our minds and Big Love in our hearts and spirit. Family,
and those closest to Buttons, would be in the inner circle and the rest
would form an outer circle around them. Truth be told, even the outer
circle was in the inner circle! An important human event and noted
history was about to crystallize.

One may have thought most of the paddlers would be mostly surfers,
however Buttons world was most expansive. Artists, musicians, models,
businessmen, actors, along with prominent surfers, mothers, fathers
and whole families grabbed their surfboards and paddled out. Famed Dog
Town skater Jay Adems and his girlfriend were amongst the first to
paddle out. Popular Los Angeles musician Billy Wilson showed up as did
famed surfboard shaper Jeff Ho, Big Love. And the beautiful young
woman wearing the white scarf on her head — she paddled out
wearing baggy blue trunks and a t-shirt and yes the white scarf!

Milton and I waited until the majority of paddlers had positioned
themselves before entering the ocean to join them. We paddled in
unison, both holding flowers soon to be tossed in honor, respect
and Big Love. We arrived to perhaps the middle of the outside circle.
Noting that the other side of the circle seemed to need shoring up I
began paddling. By the time i was half way there the other side had
filled in. Though perhaps the furthest from the inner circle something
told me that i was right were i was supposed to be. Buttons perhaps?

Sumo led the charge, flowers were being tossed, ocean water reverently
splashed and loud shouts for Buttons filled the air. Adding to the melee, an
official L.A. county lifeguard boat soon appeared firing a water cannon and
sounding a siren. On board were two of Malibu’s top lifeguards along
with Noble Kaluhiokalani and six or seven very beautiful women.

As fate would have it, the lifeguard boat parked less than 10 feet of
where i was sitting. The steady stream of water enveloped me and with
the sun at just the right angle a rainbow appeared. As if possessed by
the holy spirit, a fully clothed Noble Kaluhikalani dove head first from the boat into the chilly waters. A gracious man on a kayak close by began
unstraping and offered his kayak to Noble. Noble turned to me and
commanded — take me to the center.

Somehow i felt Buttons spirit working together with God, orchestrating
the whole event. With honor and humble pride i shouted “Noble coming
inner circle!” Moments later, task completed, i returned to my original
position. The ladies on the boat were blowing kisses to the crowd. I reached out
and caught one, said a prayer and released it. Shortly after the royal
send off, surfers began making their way to the surf break to catch a
wave for Buttons.

Milton, myself, Jeff Ho and Sumo were amongst the last to leave. Upon
reaching the lineup i saw Hiriata on a very large surfboard. The
waves were between six inches and perhaps two feet high. Hiriata
seemed to have a little difficulty finding the right wave to surf. A
small wave came by and despite a gentle push from behind by another
surfer, she had a wipe out. Hiriata got back on her surfboard just in
time to catch the following wave.

Most of the waves ridden were surfed by 5 or more surfers, this one
had only one other surfer and it was Milton! With deep respect and
love Milton rode in watching Hiriata make it safely back to the
shore. Again i suspected Buttons somehow had a hand in it, God did for
sure. They say behind every good man is a great woman, Hiriata is
credited with being the great woman behind Buttons. God bless

The good book tells us all is vanity, and for the most part this is true. i say
for the most part because all is vanity except love. True love is
unconditional, ever constant and perfect.
God made the world we live in, God made the lives we live. Buttons
legacy will go on, but perhaps years from now he will be remembered
less for his surfing exploits and more for being a great surfer who
said, “Hate no one, love all.” Big Love.

Blessings and Respect,
Michael Clebert Willis


Keahau Jardine November 25, 2013 at 11:24 pm

Hi Michael,
I am Keahau, Buttons and Noble’s sister who was on the boat wearing a pareu and blowing kisses to everyone. It was such an awesome touching feeling of love that filled the ocean and sky with the love that came from everyone in the ocean, on the beach, on the pier and those who were there in spirit, including Braddah Buttons! His love was there with everyone and I tell you, love is so beautiful especially when I saw everyone in the ocean cheering, all for Buttons. It was such a joy to see and meet all the wonderful people in California. The prayers and speeches touched everyone. I have never experienced so much love at one place at one time. It was phenomenal! You all expressed the “Big Love” and it could be felt all the way back here to Hawaii Nei. Mahalo nui loa and Much Aloha to You All from Buttons and the Kaluhiokalani Ohana. Sista K. kjardine@hdcc.com


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