Journey Across America: The '47 Rover Boys

Department: Athletics
“Starry-eyed reaction to the splendors of nature is an invaluable experience for everyone ... .” Ansel Adams

In the summer of 1947, Frank Belding, Punahou director of athletics and social studies teacher, led a band of boys on an 11-week camping trip across America. The Rover Camps of Hawai‘i was an epic, pioneering experiment in outdoor education. Belding wanted the boys, ages 12 to 16, to experience the grandeur of America's national parks and hone their sense of responsibility. The boys traveled 11,000 miles, toured 14 national parks and seven national forests, and traversed 30 of the existing 48 states, with stops in Mexico and Canada. It was an amazing adventure.

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“Rover Boys” gather in the parking lot of Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

Sixty-one years later, in April 2008, seven of the original members enjoyed a first-time reunion at Alumni House. (The original 37 "Rover Boys" included 30 students from Punahou and boys from Lili‘uokalani School and St. Louis, ‘Iolani and Roosevelt High Schools.) Wendell Marumoto '52 said he had discovered some color slides from the trip and decided to gather the group to reminisce. The men, now in their seventies, were joined by the widows of Jack Mullen '50 and Jim Hutchinson '49. They talked story, viewed a slide show and listened intently to an oral history of Belding, who passed away in 1999, recount highlights from the journey.

"I've never forgotten it for the rest of my life," Ben Baldwin '50 said of the trip. Like many in the islands, Baldwin had never ventured beyond Hawai‘i. The $1,100 per-student cost was a hefty investment for families, and more than triple the Academy's $325 annual tuition.

The journey kicked off on June 15, 1947 as the group boarded a Pan Am clipper headed for San Francisco. Hawai‘i was a U.S. territory, so the boys were excited by the prospect of an all-America tour. Across the country, citizens were emerging from the turmoil of World War II.

In San Francisco, Belding picked up two school buses and a station wagon. With gas averaging 15 cents a gallon, the mini-caravan clocked an average of 150 miles a day over often neglected stretches of road (the construction of America's national highway system was a decade away). Seven staff, including three counselors, assisted Belding and his wife, who fortunately was a registered nurse.

On the second day of the trip, Marumoto came down with the mumps. This turn of events could have spelled disaster but Belding creatively decided to turn one of the buses into a "mumps bus." "Every 18 days thereafter, several more boys developed the mumps," Ginny Munn Howard, mother of David Howard '49, wrote in a memoir. "Those who already had them rode in the front of the bus. Those who were just coming down with them rode in the back. All in all, there were 14 cases of mumps out of the 37 boys aboard."

While discomfiting, the periodic outbreaks did little to contain the boys' enthusiasm. "Everywhere we went, our eyes just popped out of our heads; it was all just awesome," raved Hugo Van Platen '52, as he described seeing Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Canyon. They also toured Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, Carlsbad Caverns, Niagara Falls, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Boulder and Grand Coulee Dams. The popular mania for touring national parks had not yet taken hold, so the boys enjoyed uncontested views and wide-open roads.

They reveled in city life as well. "We saw Jackie Robinson play at [Chicago's] Wrigley Field!" enthused Ken Nakagawa '49, a sales representative. Robinson, the first African-American to play major-league baseball, was in his debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

On the road, the group slept in YMCA gyms and put up tents at campgrounds, cooking over an open fire. "Work was divided into three groups with chores changing each week," wrote Ginny Howard. "One group was to help cook and wash dishes, another to erect tents and clean the campgrounds. The third was to unload and reload the buses."

Hugo Von Platen '52, the owner of Huggo's Restaurant in Kona, laughed about getting lost in Livingston, Mont. "I walked around the block, came back and the bus was gone!" he exclaimed. "The sheriff picked me up and took me back to his house. When his wife found out I was from Hawai‘i, she said, ‘Hawai‘i? Here, sit down, eat!' I knew I was gonna be all right." The sheriff later dropped Von Platen off in the next town to rejoin the group.

Not all the encounters were as benign. In Anadarko, Okla., Eddie Kam '52 described how he and Herb Zukerkorn '51 got into a tussle in the public municipal pool. "We started to trade punches and we were yelling to each other in pidgin," said Kam. The police hauled the two boys to jail, where Belding retrieved them. They later discovered the reason for the arrest. "They thought we were Indian [Native American]," said Kam. "And in Oklahoma at that time, Indians from the reservation were not allowed in the public swimming pool."

The men's overriding memories, however, are filled with the joy of discovery. "This trip took me to places I never knew existed, like Mount Rushmore and Carlsbad Canyon," said Marumoto, a retired attorney. The group returned to Hawai‘i in the early morning of Sept. 2, weary but triumphant. "This trip was really a dream for my father," said Belding's son Richard, who attended the reunion with wife Jeanne and son Jake '13. "He was really proud of it and proud of how the boys grew up and turned into successful members of the community."

The boys took up an array of careers. E.J. Greaney '49 became a business reporter and editor for the Honolulu Advertiser; Jim Hutchinson '49 served as senior vice-president at First Insurance and was a long-time Punahou assistant track coach; Ed Kenney '51 shone in entertainment; David Linn '50 worked as an insurance executive; Jack Mullen '49 was the Hawai‘i manager for Union Oil; Leigh Sakamaki '51 maintains a practice as a child psychiatrist; Yukio Tokioka '52 retired as president and chairman of the board of City Bank; Vernon Zane '52 worked for Matson; and Bob Young '50 became a photojournalist.

After the reunion, Eddie Kam said the Rover Camps taught him, then a seventh-grader, to consider the welfare of others. The former associate professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law added: "It matured me quite a bit."

Rover Camps of Hawai‘i was never repeated due to difficulties in financing. Frank Belding regretted not being able to continue the project, but said: "Everyone should have some dream they hope to accomplish and make every effort to make that dream come true. And if it fails, that's O.K."

Because of Belding's dream that summer of 1947, the "Rover Boys" will always have the memories, friendships and sense of wide-open possibilities born of their amazing journey across America.

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