Julian Ako’s journey in life took a transformation when he was accepted into Kamehameha Schools as a seventh grader in 1955. Since then, he has embraced every experience from his days as a student in his dress blues to his final moments leading up to his retirement this past May as the po‘o kumu (principal) of the Kapālama campus’ high school.
“My family was not well off,” said Ako, who graduated from Kamehameha in 1961 ranked first in his class, “but the foundation and experience I got from Kamehameha was an important building block for many of the positive experiences throughout my life.”
That same “Kamehameha” foundation and experience got him accepted to colleges like Stanford, Northwestern and Occidental. However, his ROTC experience at Kamehameha, including serving as cadet colonel his senior year, secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which was later pulled because of his history with childhood asthma. With little scholarships available at the time, a post-high education seemed unattainable.
“At that point, I didn’t have anywhere to turn,” Ako said. “Col. Harold Kent, Kamehameha Schools’ president at the time, asked his friend DeWitt Wallace of Reader’s Digest if he would be willing to pay for my college education.”
Fortunately, Wallace agreed, but on one condition, Ako had to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. The small college held a special place in Wallace’s heart because his father, James Wallace, had served as the president there.
Ako’s experience while attending Macalester led to a new passion for exploring cultures abroad.
“The fact that I went to Macalester enabled me to spend a summer in Poland, and that influenced my graduate studies in Slavic and Soviet Studies at Kansas University,” added Ako.
After Macalester, Ako taught social studies at Richfield High School in Minnesota and spent his summer breaks in Hawai‘i working as a flight attendant for United Airlines. After a few years, he left Richfield and United to enter graduate school at Kansas University. While in the graduate program he received a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Poland again and attend a university in Poznan for eight months.
Ako returned from Poland ready to work towards his Ph.D. While doing his course work, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to return to Poland to do his dissertation research. As a result, he and his family moved to Warsaw, Poland, to live for a year and a half.
“We returned to Kansas and I started the dissertation, but the reality of having to support a family was such that I had to take a full-time teaching position at Lawrence High School in Kansas,” Ako said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t complete the dissertation.”
He worked as the head of social studies department at Lawrence High for four years before returning to Hawai‘i in August 1979 with the full intention of working at Kamehameha Schools. However, with no job lined up, he worked as a model for Kathy Muller Modeling Agency to bring in income.
“That’s when Fred Cachola KSK’53, who was head of extension education at Kamehameha, hired me to be his assistant and I began working at my alma mater in November 1979,” recalls Ako.
Ako would go on to serve Kamehameha Schools in various roles throughout his 36 years of service. This includes time as a teacher and chair for the social studies department, extensive work on developing the school’s 2000-2015 Strategic Plan, a move to Kawaiaha‘o Plaza to serve as the senior education administrator, and his final position as po‘o kumu of the Kapālama Campus’ high school.
His time at Kamehameha included a faculty study trip with the student concert glee club in 1991 to the Cook Islands and Tahiti that opened his eyes to his own culture and its importance in his life, as well as the world.
“I was embarrassed because the people of the Cook Islands and Tahiti spoke their native language, and here I am as a Polynesian who didn’t know his own language,” Ako said.
Ako came home from that trip motivated to learn ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. He enrolled in classes first at Windward Community College, and then at UH Mānoa. This new passion to gain knowledge of his culture included studying hula, as well as composing Hawaiian music. In fact, two of his songs, “Māpu Mau Ke ‘Ala” and “Pili Kāpekepeke,” received Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards for Haku Mele (Composer of the Year).
With Ako’s time at Kamehameha Schools coming to an end, his immediate plans are to travel, of course, but being the servant leader that he is, he wants to continue to support the students. He recently created the Global Studies Fund at the Pauahi Foundation to help with travel cost for students at the Kapālama campus during school trips abroad.
“Having experiences abroad has impacted my life and how I view both myself and the world,” said Ako. “I really don’t want students’ economic circumstances to prevent them from having similar experiences elsewhere.”
Since being established, the fund has generated over $9,000 in donations. The Foundation has added a $5,000 to the pot to help grow this endowed fund. Ako’s goal is to reach a minimum of $20,000 in donations by December 31, 2015.
“By becoming globally-minded, our students will be able to have a profound impact on the world by virtue of who they are as Native Hawaiians and the education they receive at Kamehameha,” said Ako. “The world has a lot to learn from Hawai‘i and a Hawaiian world view, and our students are going to contribute to the world learning from us.”
One goal for the Kapālama campus is to develop students who are globally-minded servant leaders. It is doing so by offering student study trips to countries in Asia, Europe, and all over the Pacific. In fact, Ako will be coordinating a student program in Beijing, China this July. In addition, the high school plans to send a few students to the Philippines in the fall for the APEC Voices of the Future Program.
If you would like to donate to the Global Studies Fund, please visit www.pauahi.org/giving.