A Transformative Gift Honors Hawaiian Culture and Outdoor Learning
When Luanna Farden ’56 and Peter McKenney chose to make a gift to Punahou to honor their late son David Ka‘aumoana McKenney ’83, they knew that it would bring certain themes together: land and water, learning, Hawaiian culture and joy. Their contribution to the outdoor learning environments of the 2 – 5 community tells a story that connects Hawai‘i, rural Maine and traditional Polynesian navigation with an educational vision that empowers children to explore the natural world while grounding them in a love of their island home.
Luanna herself is deeply rooted in Hawai‘i. Her grandfather, Charles Kekua Farden (1895) left Pa‘ia, Maui in 1890, to attend Punahou during the reign of Queen Lili‘uokalani. Among his 13 children were Luanna’s father, Carl, who became a chemist and statistician for the Pineapple Research Institute, and her aunt, Irmgard Farden Aluli – a celebrated Hawaiian musician and composer. Luanna grew up within this rich family tradition of scientific respect for the natural world and love of music. Luanna absorbed hula, music and Hawaiian values such as kindness, a love of the land and a respect for lifelong learning. When she was still very young, her parents bought a home in Kane‘ohe when it was still so rural that water buffalo and taro fields were part of the everyday landscape. She fondly remembers a childhood of climbing trees, catching fish in the stream that bordered their property and riding her beloved horse, Zero, in the Ko‘olau hills.
She and her future husband, Peter, met while skiing in the high Sierra. Despite coming from opposite ends of the country, they had much in common, including deep roots in family and place. Peter had been raised on a family farm in rural Maine, where his grandmother taught him to appreciate the woods and nature’s wild beauty. Their two sons, Ka‘au and Greg Hali‘ihau McKenney ’82, were born in San Francisco and the family often spent vacations hiking and camping. They moved to Hawai‘i when the boys were still young. Both enrolled at Punahou.
Ka‘au took instantly to the ocean and grew up surfing, paddling and diving into all types of water sports. When he was 10 years old in 1975, he saw the brand-new voyaging canoe Hokule‘a for the first time and felt an instant connection. Years later, he became a protégé of Nainoa Thompson ’72 and Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug, learning the art of traditional Polynesian wayfinding, navigating to Tahiti in 1995 and sailing on a number of Hokule‘a’s trans-Pacific voyages.
“In front of all of our eyes, Ka‘au excelled,” noted Thompson. “It was the way he behaved in the sea, in nature, on that canoe and his core values that I believe came from family; he treated everybody with compassion and caring.”
Ka‘au was part of the next generation that Thompson and the early leaders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society were grooming – not only to revive traditional navigational arts, but to spread the values and vision of Hawaiian culture more broadly. Ka‘au chose to become a teacher, joining Punahou’s middle-school social studies faculty in 1999. His humor and playfulness, combined with his passion for cultural and place-based learning, was the perfect tinder to light children’s enthusiasm.
“As a teacher, he wanted to impart his joy of the natural world to all, especially his students,” said Luanna. “He understood the benefits of learning outdoors, both for the subject matter and for liberating the soul, opening oneself to true learning. He loved the ocean – its waves and currents – the wind, the soaring birds, the stars, the sun, the moon, the mountains and fresh running streams. He was at home in nature and wanted to share and spread that joy and confidence to his students.”
Outdoor education teacher and colleague David Blanchette described a seventh-grade day camp at Sherwoods Beach in Waimanalo, when Ka‘au, after receiving permission from the other teachers to do so, got on his kiteboard and astonished his students by “pulling the energy of the wind and leaping 25 feet into the air above their heads. The shouts and cheers from the students as they watched ‘the coolest teacher ever’ was thrilling to behold. Perfectly balanced and airborne, Ka‘au flashed an extended shaka and smiled. It was a perfect moment and Ka‘au’s way of teaching all of us about harmony in the natural world.”
Although Ka‘au’s life tragically ended in 2011, his educational vision has lived on through Hokule‘a’s historic Worldwide Voyage, with its focus on sustainability education, and through Punahou’s commitment to nurturing children with a sense of love and stewardship for Hawai‘i. A loving father, his children were precious to him.
Peter and Luanna’s gift will create an outdoor classroom hale and navigational compass for Hawaiian Studies in the 2 – 5 community, next to Ka Punahou, the New Spring. Hali‘ihau and his wife, Molly, enthusiastically endorse the gift, which was made possible through the bequest of Luanna’s family’s property on Maui. Luanna says she was inspired by the founding gift of land that gave rise to Punahou’s educational legacy. “I’m so grateful that so many in our extended family have been blessed to be able to attend, be raised and nurtured here. My kupuna sacrificed to steward family ‘aina that they regarded as priceless. Through this gift, that priceless ‘aina is being transformed to serve future generations of children in lifelong learning.”
A woman of spiritual and emotional sensitivity, Luanna can feel her kupuna smiling at what this gift will make possible. “I can envision future gatherings here with children’s laughter … singing and playing music, having their annual Third-Grade Lu‘au; eating taro and poi from their own lo‘i kalo in the terraces below the hale; in the open air with the sun, the breezes, the gentle rain and rainbows; near our kumu, our source, the springs of Punahou. How our ali‘i of old, who gave us the gift of this land with its spring of fresh, life-giving water, would rejoice that our young ones have come to understand, appreciate and care for the simple lasting gifts of goodness, compassion, generosity, kindness and aloha – the spirit of Punahou.”