We dug through our back issues to find photos of Buttons, and here's our tribute to the legend. Photo: Dan Merkel/SURFING Magazine Archive
About five years ago, back when I was a fledgling surf writer, Hawaii’s FreeSurf Magazine gave me the opportunity to do a feature on Buttons. Intimidated, green and scared shitless of the pitbulls on his street, Buttons couldn’t have been any warmer to me in his home. He had that magnetic, perpetually youthful quality about him, that I’ve come to find, everyone knows him by. An ambassador not only for Hawaii, but for the entire surf world, his smile and energy will be missed. Take it from three guys that knew him well — Buttons’ influence is unmatched. —Beau Flemister
“He’s been my inspiration, that’s for sure. He’s one of the only few surfers that surfed goofy foot as well as he surfed regular. Like, a lot of guys could switch-stance, but that guy was cutting back, actually surfing. So innovative, his ability was unbelievable. His attitude was amazing, too. We surfed in so many heats together over the years and we never had to take it to the beach, you know? The guy was just tops. I’m baffled he’s gone. [pause] Even the stuff he was doing with the Mauli Ola Foundation, he was incredible. An A+ human.”
“First and foremost, Buttons was my uncle. Someone that I loved, who took care of me like a son, even. There’s been times where he’s stood up for me when I was a kid. So, he’s not just an idol, he was a protector. He taught me to do what I wanna do, not what everyone else was doing. To ‘not follow the donkeys’ [laughs]. He was also the happiest Hawaiian, always smiling, a true ambassador of Aloha.
People do moves today that they call “modern day surfing,” but I swear, Buttons was doing most of those moves back in the day, from 360s to rebounds to fins-free stuff. He is the innovator of modern day surfing, the guy that was trying those moves before anyone.
But I guess the waves were firing up there and Andy called down to him, ‘Time to surf your heat, brah! Eddie Aikau, Duke and everybody is waiting for you, time to surf your heat!’ [laughs] Something like that.”
“In my opinion, Buttons and Larry Bertlemann were the two most important guys that changed modern surfing. Basically, what we were doing in the skateboarding world, they were doing in the surf world. But we copied those guys and those were the young Hawaiians changing the old into the new. They were the front of progression in the 70s in surfing. Those guys were busting down the doors before the Aussies did, that’s for sure. [laughs]
But Buttons influenced a whole lot of surfers. He took the style from the 60s and progressed it and made it agro. And he was the humblest, coolest, most aloha-filled guy you’d ever know. I’ve never seen him get mad at anyone in the water, he just let his surfing do the talking; that’s how he got his respect. No one was happier than Buttons and that’s something to admire.”