Remembering Buttons Kaluhiokalani

posted by / Blogs, Photos / November 5, 2013

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

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

The barrel prowess that was emulated by a generation. Photo: Dan Merkel/SURFING Magazine Archive

The barrel prowess that was emulated by a generation. Photo: Dan Merkel/SURFING Magazine Archive

…And the power that was emulated by a generation. Photo: Dan Merkel/SURFING Magazine Archive

…And the power that was emulated by a generation. Photo: Dan Merkel/SURFING Magazine Archive

Buttons, right at home. Photo: Don King/SURFING Magazine Archive

Buttons, right at home. Photo: Don King/SURFING Magazine Archive

Rest in peace. Photo: SURFING Magazine Archive

May he rest in peace. Photo: 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

Michael Ho:
“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.”

Makua Rothman:
“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.”

Jay Adams:
“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.”

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  • Mik

    The immediate feeling that any photo of Button’s evokes is happiness…

    And full-on physical ability.


    His happiness is unbounded now.

  • WillisBrothers

    On behalf of the Willis Brothers and their families, we wish to extend our deepest sympathies to ka ohana Kaluhiokalani. We will see you at the paddle out! Love and Respect God, Milton Bradley Willis, Michael Clebert Willis,

  • tracy

    i will always miss ,, you… you meant so much to me as a kid surfing back in that day never saw such a wonderful person,,, my heart hurts.. always be in my dreams forever ……………..i cry……. i wish you the best.. God bless you….

  • Sean S.

    Rest in peace Buttons. When i was a kid growing up in the late 70’s early 80’s, you were my inspiration. To this day, 30 some years later. I can still remember watching you do a switch stance layback in the tube (Backdoor) in the surf movies back in the day. I have never seen such a cool manuver since. I will always respect what you brought to our sport. You will be missed.

  • StonerOhana

    What an inspirational human being. As someone said …true Aloha, unlike a lot of Hawaiians who demand respect but are simply angry trash.

  • Terry

    I was living on Maui when Button’s and Bertlemann were already Surfing way better than anyone else. The Aussies tried to lay claim to being the best Surfers, but Buttons made them look like fools.

  • Ken Compton

    The Malibu paddle out was really nice, beautiful day flat and blue Ocean, great turnout and vibes. Music, fire boat with the stream made rainbows, Family & Friends all remembering him. He sure will be missed, it was well worth the drive from San Diego.

  • Bob Carroll

    Thank You Uncle Buttons for all you did for Mauli Ola, Hope you and all that went first are partying it up!

  • dwight randolph

    I wish to pay condolences to buttons and all those who loved him 1n 1979iwent to Hawaii fell in love with surfing and it was buttons his smile his moves his childlike expressions and joys that changed my live as he knew how much I liked him and whike shy and all he was really cool to me at Waikiki and ill never forget it god bless Hawaii god bless surfing and god bless you button for the love and aloha and just pure happiness was in you face every minite RIP

  • Michael Clebert Willis

    Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani March 30, 1959 — November 2, 2013.
    Malibu, Surfrider beach paddle out

    In honor and with big love and respect an official ceremony and paddle
    out was held for legendary, truly iconic surfer, Buttons Kaluhiokalani.
    Kaluhiokalani a Hawaiian native son was known and respected world
    wide in the surfing community for his “supernatural” surfing skills
    and ability. In addition to his surfing prowess, a flamboyant
    personality, chiseled physique and rouged good looks caused him to stand
    out like no other. Buttons personal life was a roller coaster of highs
    and lows that he not only survived but he later overcame and flourished.
    Buttons passing is the passing of one of surfings all time greatest.
    He will be deeply missed and always remembered for his passion, love
    and aloha. The following is a true eyewitness account of the November
    9th 2013 paddle out for Buttons Kaluhiokalani at Malibu Surfrider Beach
    in Los Angles County, California.

    Milton Willis and I, Michael Willis – the Willis brothers arrived at
    Malibu Surfrider Beach for Buttons paddle out slightly after sunrise.
    We weren’t the first though, someone before us had taken chalk and
    written, “We love you Buttons” and drew a big heart on the walkway. In chalk i added “Ua
    mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono.” The sky was clear the temp warm and
    the air electric.

    Paying deep respect, amongst the first to arrive was Alan Sarlo, King of Malibu,
    who himself is a notable surfer with strong Hawaiian and
    California roots. Sarlo, one of the Bu’s best surfers ever, joined
    Milton and I slightly up the beach where we were playing tribal drum
    beats for Buttons. Milton had brought a conch shell, which Alan picked
    up raised his head to the clouds and sounded off for Buttons.

    Moments later, as if on queue, people began showing up and the official
    ceremony was about to begin. Beautiful women and rough looking, well
    tanned, muscled and tattooed men abounded. Cameras were everywhere, it
    could have been a scene in a James Bond movie but it wasn’t, it was
    Buttons posse coming to pay honor and respect. Though it felt surreal
    it was very real.

    Cory Whitlock, from the Whitlock surfing family, demonstrated his love and
    respect for Buttons by having “Love like Buttons” t-shirts printed up.
    Bless the Whitlocks for demonstrating some Californians have aloha.
    Proceeds from donations went to help Buttons family.

    Troy, from Kaau Crater Boys, along with his daughter provided the
    opening music. The crowd went completely silent when they sang Israel
    Kamakawiwaole’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Buttons had actually
    played harmonica with the Kaau Crater Boys. Somehow i felt Buttons
    looking down soaking in the California love. Chicken skin.

    As a perfect background, a phalanx of surfboards lined the famous
    Malibu wall. Included were actual surfboards Buttons had surfed. There
    were also surfboards decades old that featured Buttons label. Included
    in the line up were true Willis Brothers surfboards Phazer bottom big
    wave guns built in Hawaii. There was even a foam blank which (i
    presume) was going to be shaped for Buttons.

    Noble Kaluhiokalani, Buttons brother of the same mother was in attendance
    and spoke of his brother. He related about how as a youth certain bad
    boys would pick on Buttons but Buttons shrugged it of. Buttons was
    about love, BIG LOVE. Noble related how Buttons encouraged everyone,
    “hate no one, love all.”

    Sumo, a childhood friend of Buttons and now a pastor in
    California, spoke of how as keikis, Jr. Moapono would bully him.
    Moapono ruled Velzyland and would often send Sumo to the beach. It was
    Buttons, friend to all, who befriended Sumo and encouraged him to stay
    positive. Sumo, with a wry smile and distant gleam in his eyes, spoke of
    going to the “dark side” with Buttons. All said and done Buttons had
    turned his life around and by all means finally becoming responsible
    and successful operating a surf school on the north shore of Oahu
    under his own name.

    Ben Aipa, true Hawaiian surfing living legend, was represented by his
    son Duke. It turns out Buttons and another great surfer Mark Lydell
    were his baby sitters growing up! It was a blessing to see the Aipa
    family represented, again conformation of Big Love and respect from
    surfing’s revered who’s who. Buttons legacy shall live forever.

    Strongmen stood with reverent looks on their faces. Women and men
    were crying. The crowd of between 500 and 1000 or more was unified not
    by personal religion or credo but rather true and unconditional Big
    Love. Buttons wife Hiriata stood bravely as did his lovely daughter
    Nawaii. Close by a beautiful– beautiful young woman with a white
    burka covering her hair let out a steady stream of spirit filled
    tears. She was illuminate.

    Sumo — a hefty Polynesian man with long hair and beard gave
    instructions for the paddle out. He implored us to have a vision
    of Buttons in our minds and Big Love in our hearts and spirit. Family,
    and those closest to Buttons, would be in the inner circle and the rest
    would form an outer circle around them. Truth be told, even the outer
    circle was in the inner circle! An important human event and noted
    history was about to crystallize.

    One may have thought most of the paddlers would be mostly surfers,
    however Buttons world was most expansive. Artists, musicians, models,
    businessmen, actors, along with prominent surfers, mothers, fathers
    and whole families grabbed their surfboards and paddled out. Famed Dog
    Town skater Jay Adems and his girlfriend were amongst the first to
    paddle out. Popular Los Angeles musician Billy Wilson showed up as did
    famed surfboard shaper Jeff Ho, Big Love. And the beautiful young
    woman wearing the white scarf on her head — she paddled out
    wearing baggy blue trunks and a t-shirt and yes the white scarf!

    Milton and I waited until the majority of paddlers had positioned
    themselves before entering the ocean to join them. We paddled in
    unison, both holding flowers soon to be tossed in honor, respect
    and Big Love. We arrived to perhaps the middle of the outside circle.
    Noting that the other side of the circle seemed to need shoring up I
    began paddling. By the time i was half way there the other side had
    filled in. Though perhaps the furthest from the inner circle something
    told me that i was right were i was supposed to be. Buttons perhaps?

    Sumo led the charge, flowers were being tossed, ocean water reverently
    splashed and loud shouts for Buttons filled the air. Adding to the melee, an
    official L.A. county lifeguard boat soon appeared firing a water cannon and
    sounding a siren. On board were two of Malibu’s top lifeguards along
    with Noble Kaluhiokalani and six or seven very beautiful women.

    As fate would have it, the lifeguard boat parked less than 10 feet of
    where i was sitting. The steady stream of water enveloped me and with
    the sun at just the right angle a rainbow appeared. As if possessed by
    the holy spirit, a fully clothed Noble Kaluhikalani dove head first from the boat into the chilly waters. A gracious man on a kayak close by began
    unstraping and offered his kayak to Noble. Noble turned to me and
    commanded — take me to the center.

    Somehow i felt Buttons spirit working together with God, orchestrating
    the whole event. With honor and humble pride i shouted “Noble coming
    inner circle!” Moments later, task completed, i returned to my original
    position. The ladies on the boat were blowing kisses to the crowd. I reached out
    and caught one, said a prayer and released it. Shortly after the royal
    send off, surfers began making their way to the surf break to catch a
    wave for Buttons.

    Milton, myself, Jeff Ho and Sumo were amongst the last to leave. Upon
    reaching the lineup i saw Hiriata on a very large surfboard. The
    waves were between six inches and perhaps two feet high. Hiriata
    seemed to have a little difficulty finding the right wave to surf. A
    small wave came by and despite a gentle push from behind by another
    surfer, she had a wipe out. Hiriata got back on her surfboard just in
    time to catch the following wave.

    Most of the waves ridden were surfed by 5 or more surfers, this one
    had only one other surfer and it was Milton! With deep respect and
    love Milton rode in watching Hiriata make it safely back to the
    shore. Again i suspected Buttons somehow had a hand in it, God did for
    sure. They say behind every good man is a great woman, Hiriata is
    credited with being the great woman behind Buttons. God bless

    The good book tells us all is vanity, and for the most part this is true. i say for the most part because all is vanity except love. True love is
    unconditional, ever constant and perfect.
    God made the world we live in, God made the lives we live. Buttons
    legacy will go on, but perhaps years from now he will be remembered
    less for his surfing exploits and more for being a great surfer who
    said, “Hate no one, love all.” Big Love.

    Blessings and Respect,
    Michael Clebert Willis