Mr. Radical Is Now Mr. Reliable

Buttons Kaluhiokalani | Photo from Buttons Kaluhiokalani

Buttons Kaluhiokalani | Photo from Buttons Kaluhiokalani

If he were on the professional surfing tour, his style would be described as progressive and cutting-edge. In the 1970s, he was just plain radical. His name is Montgomery Earnest Thomas Kaluhiokalani. We know him simply as “Buttons.”

“Growing up in Waikiki, I was surrounded by guys like Reno Abellira, Ben Aipa, Larry Bertlemann and other surfers,” says Kaluhiokalani, who was given the nickname Buttons by his grandmother, who thought his curly hair looked like buttons. “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.”

Kaluhiokalani started surfing at the age of 7, and by the time he was a teenager, industry experts knew he was destined for fame. He was considered an “innovator of modern-day surfing” and was one of the first surfers to execute a 360 on film. The master of style, who was blessed with the ability to “switch foot” while surfing, wasn’t afraid to attempt skate-board-inspired maneuvers during surf contests.

“There wasn’t much money back then, so for me it was about having fun and doing different things,” says Kaluhiokalani. “I think I was ahead of my time and I wanted to be different. To me, it was pure fun and it still is.”

Kaluhiokalani dropped out of McKinley High School to pursue his surfing profession, and early on it appeared his decision was the right one. But after several victories, the wild ride came to an abrupt end because of drug abuse. The once rising superstar was on the outside looking in.

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

For the past five years, Kaluhiokalani has been dedicated to sharing the gift of surfing to people with disabilities through volunteering with AccesSurf.

“This is where my heart is – from the first time I saw what they do, it touched me,” says Kaluhiokalani. “I saw the families, the kids and how happy they were. It made me real happy to be able to share my knowledge. God sent me here. It also helps in my recovery and healing.”

Last weekend, AccesSurf honored Kaluhiokalani and longboard legend China Uemura during the organization’s annual fundraiser and inaugural Ocean of Possibilities Awards.

Like Kaluhiokalani, Uemura has given back to the community after a successful professional career. Over the years, Uemura has hosted a number of charitable surfing events, raising more than $200,000 for Hawaii nonprofit organizations. Uemura and Kaluhiokalani will be honored for the contributions to the adaptive surfing community.

“I’m totally baffled and surprised, because I don’t think I deserve this,” says Kaluhiokalani. “I just like doing what I’m doing, and I’m grateful, thankful, blessed and stoked to see the smiles.”

The 55-year-old Kaluhiokalani still surfs three times a week, and he owns a small but successful surf school. He says he’s living proof that you can turn your life around.

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