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Dec 18, 2011

A Long-gone audiotape of royal remembrances by the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani is rediscovered By Mike Gordon

As the hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani, Lydia Aholo, recorded on tape starting in 1969, was able to offer rare insights into the personal life of the queen. This portrait was taken during a school reunion by Luryier "Pop" Diamond, official photographer for the Kamehameha Schools from 1953 to 1983. Aholo graduated in 1897.

When Sandee Bonura finally heard the voice on the reel-to-reel tape, reaching out to her from a time when Hawaii was ruled by royalty, she wept.

To hear Lydia Aholo, a hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani, describe her life in the royal household was overwhelming. Everyone Bonura had spoken to — historians, archivists, writers — thought the tape was lost forever and with it an eyewitness account of Hawaii history. Bonura, ...a professor had searched for weeks.

But here it was, playing on a dining room table in Redlands, Calif.

"Her voice filled the room," Bonura said. "It was like she was there."

Bonura's quest for the tape — in fact, how she even wound up in the home of Aholo's oldest descendant vowing to find it — is a narrative touched by zeal and a sense of justice. Throughout, Bonura was driven by a single thought: "This voice just needs to come home."

And so, she wept.

THAT A TAPE was ever made is its own little miracle. Aholo had outlived most of her generation by the time she met Southern California author Helena G. Allen in 1969 at Maunalani Hospital above Kaimuki. Over the course of two years, Aholo allowed Allen to record 30 hours of interviews, which became the basis of a biography, "The Betrayal of Liliuokalani."

Aholo was a living link to an era reserved for history books. In the Hawaiian custom of hanai, Aholo was adopted when her mother died six days after giving birth to her in 1878. She considered the queen, who had no children of her own, her mother and lived with her until the dethroned monarch's death in 1917.

"You can't get closer to Liliuokalani than hearing the voice of Lydia Aholo," Bonura said. "Nobody can tell us about the queen in the way she can. She sat with the queen and ate with the queen in her inner sanctum. She was the only mother Lydia ever knew. It's a sweet relationship."

Aholo died at the age of 101, several years before the book was published in 1982. Allen continued writing and living in California, however, and kept the interviews in her personal files until her death in 2003.

Ever since it was published, Allen's work drew questions. Historians wanted to hear or read an unfiltered version of Allen's interviews with Aholo but had no access to the material, said Barbara Dunn, administrative director of the Hawaiian Historical Society. They complained about the lack of documentation.

"They were serious researchers who didn't want to cite information from her book because it wasn't clear where she got it from," Dunn said. "There was information in that book that people had not seen before. How did she know this?"

But Allen's editor at the publishing house Arthur H. Clark Co., Bob Clark, said the writer conducted thorough research for the book, which nonetheless had to be cut in half. "This work was very close to her heart," Clark said. "Lydia Aholo was very near and dear to her, and she felt a great responsibility to relate the story as Lydia presented it to her."

The trail to the tape had an unlikely beginning.

In 2008 an archivist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., climbed into the attic of the Berkeley, Calif., home once owned by Charles Kofoid, a respected 20th-century scientist who helped found the institution. Deborah Day, a friend and writing partner of Bonura's for 20 years, was convinced she would find historical material in the house, which was about to be sold.

And she did. Hidden behind a support wall were five dust-covered trunks that had been forgotten for more than a century. Four of them contained Kofoid's scientific research, but one of them was filled with love letters, old photographs and student essays kept by his fiancee, who was a teacher at Kawaiahao Seminary in Hawaii from 1890 to 1893.

One of the essays was written by Aholo.

Bonura and Day went on to write a book about the love letters, "An American Girl in the Hawaiian Islands: The Letters of Carrie Prudence Winter (1890-1893)," which will be published in April by the University of Hawaii Press. Bonura didn't discover Aholo's essay until last February, though, well after the book had gone to the publisher. She needed copyright permission from Aholo's descendants — if she could find them. And she desperately wanted to give them the essay.

Because Aholo was among the first young women to graduate from Kamehameha Schools, Bonura contacted an archivist there, who gave her the name of Aholo's 91-year-old great-grandniece, Frances Mahelona.

By June, Bonura was in Mahelona's Kailua home.

"When Frances read the essay, she cried so much," Bonura said.

As they talked, the women discovered that each was reading Allen's biography of the queen. It wasn't long before the conversation shifted to the recorded interviews Allen had made.

Mahelona wanted to hear the voice of her beloved "Tutu Aholo." Bonura looked at Mahelona and told her she would find them. When she thought about it later, it seemed impossible.

Without a bit of luck, it would have been just that.

Research archives in Hawaii and on the mainland didn't have them. Bonura couldn't find Allen's adopted son. And even though Allen taught English and writing at the University of Redlands, not far from her Victorian home, there were no detailed records available.

But an archivist at Redlands knew the name of the executor of Allen's estate — Phil Livoni — because both of them shopped at the same store. Bonura called every Livoni she could find in California, Arizona and even in Florida.

When she found him, she couldn't believe it. Livoni was living in Allen's old home in Redlands. He told Bonura he had a box of Allen's research material: books, photos, papers and a single 5-inch, reel-to-reel tape in a box labeled "Miss Lydia Aholo Original Tape Maunalani Hospital 1969."

At Livoni's home in early August, he questioned Bonura for three hours before he allowed her to hear the tape, she said.

"I'll never forget when he pushed the button down on this old reel-to-reel tape recorder," Bonura said. "It was two worlds colliding. A voice from the 19th century. How often do we get to hear that? How often does our research talk to us?"

Bonura asked Livoni what had happened to the remaining 30 hours of interviews the author had specifically identified in her book. He told Bonura the single tape was all he had — and he would not let her have it.

"I was fuming when I got home," she said. "I called him again. I emailed him again. I said, ‘If you have a fire the house will burn down, and you will lose Lydia's voice.'"

LIVONI, a 54-year-old court reporter who is considered a textile expert in Redlands, did not respond to repeated Star-Advertiser requests for comment. But Bonura's pleading, as well as a letter from Aholo's descendants, ultimately persuaded him to give the tape to Kamehameha Schools so its archivists could make it available to the public.

Candace Lee, an assistant archivist at Kamehameha Schools, hand-carried the tape to Hawaii in September. The recording, which appears to be 90 minutes long, will be digitized and transcribed for wider use — possibly by the middle of next year, she said. It's in "quite good shape" for one made 42 years ago, she said.

"Tapes do last, but it depends on the wear and tear and how many times it was used," Lee said. "Right now we are looking at the condition of the tape to see how it can be best digitized without damaging it."

Not long after Bonura found Livoni, she also found Allen's hanai son, a 53-year-old part-Hawaiian college instructor who teaches business law and history at Bay de Noc Community College in Iron Mountain, Mich. Randall Allen had been in the room when some of the conversations were recorded.

On the phone with Bonura, he shared a bitter tale.

While elated at the discovery of the tape, which he long thought was lost, Randall Allen had long ago severed his relationship with his hanai mother. He still won't say why, but he's highly critical of the book.

"I always knew growing up that what Helena said tends to be more fiction than fact," he said. "Helena is an embarrassment to researchers."

The tape and its raw transcript are the real story, he said.

"What I hope happens is that a true, qualified researcher puts the true story of our queen to the public," he said. "This is a treasure and it belongs to everyone."

Aholo's descendants are overjoyed the tape has been returned, said Kepa Maly, whose wife is Aholo's great-great-grandniece.

"Her spirit is in there," he said. "It was incredibly important to bring this home. It is not someone's voice; it's her voice, Tutu Aholo, telling her story, sharing her memories of events and her relationship with her hanai mother, Queen Liliuokalani."

Bonura's success is almost too amazing for words, Maly said.

"It was meant to be," he said. "On many occasions Sandee reached what looked like a dead end, and then things would open up."

WHEN BONURA first met Mahelona, she wondered whether her motives would be questioned. After all, she wasn't Hawaiian and she wasn't from Hawaii. She was a professor of counseling at Chapman University, a mother of two grown children who had married a geologist.

Bonura didn't even view herself as especially smart.

But she made a promise that day. When she thinks about that, Bonura can still see the smile on Mahelona's face.

"That was my whole reason, to get this back to her," Bonura said. "I did this so Frances could hear the voice of her Tutu Aholo."

And Mahelona has.

Bonura made her own short recording while listening to Aholo's voice that first day in Redlands, and she played it over the phone for Mahelona. At first, Bonura feared it would be too painful to hear. But on the other end of the line, the voice she heard was full of wonder.

"That's my tutu," Mahelona said. "There she is."