Big Island bids Auntie Dottie aloha - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Big Island bids Auntie Dottie aloha

Luana Kawelu Luana Kawelu
Billy Kenoi Billy Kenoi
George Demello George Demello
Charlene Masuhara Charlene Masuhara
Harry Kim Harry Kim

By Malika Dudley - bio | email

HILO (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii is remembering Auntie Dottie Thompson, the heart and soul of the Merrie Monarch Festival.

She died Friday night of pneumonia at 88-years-old.

Born in Hilo, on May 16, 1921, Auntie Dottie's legacy started in 1968. That's when she took over and saved the Merrie Monarch from being suspended.

In 1971, the McKinley High grad made hula the focus of the festival, and launched the first competition. Just nine women's halau participated. Auntie Dottie had to take out bank loans to keep the event alive.

Five years later, she allowed men to compete, and the Merrie Monarch has blossomed ever since.

A day after her passing, many shared fond memories of a loving woman and fantastic athlete who cared deeply about Hilo and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture.

"She will be remembered for bringing back hula to the world," said her daughter, Luana Kawelu.

Kawelu has been working side by side with her mother the last 34 years, elevating the Merrie Monarch from a festival with pageantry and Kalakaua beards, to the world's premiere hula event.

"I have to continue this and do it right because this is her legacy to the state," said Kawelu.

The stories friends told had a common theme - perseverance, integrity, and doing what's right.

"She worked and worked and look what we have today. We'll always remember her for that," said Harry Kim, former Big Island Mayor.

"Something I think she was always so adamant about was Hilo comes first, let's do it good for Hilo," said Sig Zane, a family friend.

She gave several people in Hilo their kick start.

Zane was asked to do a fashion show on the Merrie Monarch stage.


The next day?

"There was a line in front of the shop and we're going what are they doing there?" said Zane.

George Yoshida was inspired to follow in her footsteps and become Director of Parks and Recreation.

"To this day I have nothing but admiration for her because she really helped and guided me and a number of other youngsters," said Yoshida, a co-worker and friend.

And George Demello remembers her as a hanai mom, someone who opened her arms to his children too.

"Whenever they went there it was like 'Auntie! Auntie! Auntie' - that was the typical Hawaiian tutu lady. For a pure Portuguese woman, she was Hawaiian. Her main thing was to keep it family and that's why the prices never raised for years and years and years, it was always 'Do you think the kupuna can afford this?'" said Demello.

To this day, it's only $30 to enjoy all three nights of competition.

Auntie Dottie's last public appearance was at a YWCA function in her honor, naming her 'The Sweetheart of Hilo'.

"Dottie wasn't very well at the time but no matter what she always had that twinkle type of look," said Kim.

Funeral arrangements are pending until after the Merrie Monarch Festival.

"I want the festival to be a celebration, not a time of mourning. I want to celebrate everything she's done both she and uncle and make it a happy occasion," said Kawelu.

"I think that Auntie Dottie planned this well because now we can all get together just before Merrie Monarch and all of her friends will be here from everywhere to share their stories and to say goodbye. It'll be a fabulous Merrie Monarch," said Charlene Masuhara, a close family friend.

"I was kind of relieved in a way, she's resting and that's good. It's okay, she's resting," said Demello.

"I'll always remember that also Auntie Dottie was one of the best athletes that Hilo has ever seen. She was a champion golfer, volleyball player, so it's a real honor to have known Auntie Dottie," said Billy Kenoi, Hawaii County Mayor.

Governor Linda Lingle released this statement on Auntie Dottie's passing:

"The Merrie Monarch Festival will go on this year with heavy hearts, but Auntie Dottie's love and aloha will continue to fill the Edith Kanaka'ole stadium and our state forever."

Auntie Dottie is survived by four children, 18 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.


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