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Happy 175th Birthday, Punahou! These 9 Quirky Facts Might Surprise You

Plus, be part of a worldwide toast and find out what President Obama just wrote in a letter as the school celebrates its 175th anniversary this weekend.


The Old School Hall in 1882. 
Photo: Courtesy of Punahou School

Alumni of Punahou School are gathering this month in a series of events celebrating the school’s 175th anniversary. But if you can’t make it to campus this weekend and still want to raise a glass? Good news, Punahou is organizing a worldwide toast for this Saturday (June 11), using the power of online social media. It’s scheduled to happen at 18:41 local time, wherever you happen to be in the world. (The school was founded in 1841, get it?!)  Click here for a full set of instructions for joining in.


In the meantime, we dug up a few fun facts you might not know about Punahou School:


1. Punahou had to deal with an annoying rail system.

One of the school’s most iconic landmarks is the buff ’n’ blue dome atop Pauahi Hall. Did you know it was originally designed as an astronomical observatory? It even housed a telescope, briefly, but the rumbling of trolley cars on nearby Punahou Street caused too much vibration, so the school moved the telescope elsewhere on campus.


2. We’re two years away from the 60th anniversary of Punahou Carnival malassadas.

Photo: Kelli Bullock 


They’ve become an essential part of the school’s annual fundraising phenomenon, but malassadas first made an appearance at the carnival in 1958, when math teacher Francis “Miki” Bowers set up a malassada and corn-on-the-cob booth with his homeroom class. He reportedly got the recipe from his friend Minnie Marciel, then manager of Punahou’s cafeteria, but whatever the origin, the malassadas became a hit. In 2016, Punahou fried up 124,000 of the sweet treats (not to mention 32,000 burgers and 3,600 gallons of Portuguese bean soup).


3. Punahou athletes have made it to the Olympics, at least one of them while still attending the school.

In all, 25 Punahou graduates have competed in the Olympic Games. The earliest was at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Belgium: swimmer Warren Kealoha. He was just 17 at the time, and would go on to graduate from Punahou in 1925.


4. Some of Punahou’s foliage has been growing on the campus since before the school was founded.

When you see—or smell—the school’s hedges of night-blooming cereus, you’re encountering a tradition that goes back to 1836. It was then that Sybil Bingham, the wife of one of Punahou School’s founders, the Rev. Hiram Bingham, planted the first night-blooming cereus near Punahou’s front entrance. And the cacti that also also dot the area by the entrance are said to have been brought to Hawai‘i by a traveler aboard a sailing vessel returning from Mexico in 1831.


5. Punahou School started small.

The first class, in 1841, comprised just 15 students. In 2016, the school’s senior class numbered 431.


6. The school was old by the time of Queen Lili‘uokalani.

Photo: Courtesy of Punahou School


In 1891, Lili‘uokalani attended Punahou’s 50th anniversary, sharing in the large celebration on campus. (In the photo, Lili‘u is the one in the thick, white lei, seated on the left of the image.)


7. The school helped out during World War II.

In the midst of the war efforts of the early ’40s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers occupied the Punahou campus and students were relocated to the Teachers College at the University of Hawai‘i.


8. The presidential letter. 

You probably did know that President Barack Obama attended Punahou School from fifth grade to his 1979 graduation (photo attached). You likely don’t know what he said this week in a letter to his old school because it just arrived:

Photo: Courtesy of Punahou School

“I am pleased to join in marking the 175th anniversary of my alma mater, Punahou School.

Embracing a young boy with a funny name, the educators at Punahou taught me that I had something to offer the world. Through their encouragement and the challenging questions they posed, I learned that education is not a privilege for a few—it is the right of anyone who finds themselves lost in a book, mesmerized by an equation, or fascinated by how our world works.

In this great country of ours, our rights come with serious responsibilities, including thinking critically, speaking out, and engaging in constructive debate. When we enable individuals to recognize the power they have to reach for the future they know is possible—no matter who they are or how old they may be—we move forward as a country and prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead. I still hold onto the Aloha Spirit and think of the lessons I learned at Punahou every day as I lead our Nation. And I know that, like me, America’s future doers and makers will look back on their time at this school as the foundation upon which they were able to contribute to building a better and brighter tomorrow.

As you come together to mark this special milestone, please know I wish the students, staff, and faculty of Punahou School the very best.”


9. Punahou students are keeping up with the times—even graduation ceremonies are an opportunity for memes.

Check out this choreographed performance by the graduating class of 2016.



Video: Courtesy of Punahou School


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