Remembering the Man Who Built the Largest Publishing Empire in the Pacific Rim
In the 1980s, Dave Pellegrin took over a family-run business and grew it to 20-plus publications including HONOLULU Magazine, 90 employees and $10 million in annual revenue by the ’90s. He did it with a dedication to integrity, good journalism and people—those who worked for him and read the magazines. We asked some of them how he made a difference.
Dave Pellegrin, Oct. 2, 1942 – Aug. 5, 2017
photos: brett uprichard
Dave Pellegrin was the editor of HONOLULU Magazine from 1977 to 1981, and owner until 2001. “Ever since high school I knew I wanted to be a journalist,” he said in a 2012 speech to journalism students at Hawai‘i Pacific University, “but the college I went to didn’t have a journalism program. My game plan was liberal arts and Chinese Mandarin, because someday I wanted to be a foreign correspondent in China.” He came to Hawai‘i for graduate school in 1969. After a year and a half, he left to take his first journalism job: writing editorials and, later, reporting for The Honolulu Advertiser.
His father’s company bought HONOLULU Magazine in 1977. Pellegrin acquired full ownership in 1980. “I credit Dave with saving me from toiling over academic prose,” says Dan Boylan, retired UH West O‘ahu professor and former HONOLULU columnist. “In 1978, I taught at a struggling little school then called West O‘ahu College. Dave was working 18-hour days trying to turn a give-away publication called HONOLULU Magazine into a legitimate city magazine.” And he did. In the early ’90s, Honolulu Publishing Co. (as the company was known when it owned HONOLULU, and still is) had more than 20 publications, 90 employees and $10 million annual revenue.
“He was a direct and strategic businessman, but he put his employees first. He had great respect for the fact that his work took place within an island community and economy, and was respectful of its culture and traditions,” says Peter Boylan, a former Advertiser reporter who knew Pellegrin his entire life, “from banging drums at his house as a toddler to beers and Bows basketball at the Stanley. … He gave me my first ever byline, in HONOLULU Magazine, at the age of 12, and regular editorial and other work until I left for college in Iowa.”
By the early 2000s, Pellegrin became interested in buying Hawai‘i Business magazine, which was losing money, and merging it with HonPub’s Island Business. “But a funny thing happened,” Pellegrin said. “It turned out the Hawai‘i Business owner strongly wanted to buy HONOLULU.” So Pellegrin sold HONOLULU to Duane Kurisu at PacificBasin Communications, the magazine’s current owner, now known as aio Media Group, and continued to run a smaller HonPub, with a focus on visitor publications.
Richard Borreca, a longtime political reporter who wrote a column for HONOLULU in the ’70s and ’80s, remembers him fondly: “As Dan Inouye said on the back cover of HONOLULU Magazine’s Hawai‘i Chronicles II, ‘Our daily newspapers may reflect the heartbeat of our city, but HONOLULU reflects its soul.’ Dave knew how to hold the mirror to focus and dig, inspire and prod his writers, and give his readers way more than they paid for every month, and that’s why he was so successful.”
Photographer and editor Brett Uprichard says he’s honored to have worked for Pellegrin and been associated with his publishing company since 1979. “Dave Pellegrin was smart, witty, well-traveled, well-read, well-informed,” he says. “He was a Harvard grad, fluent in Mandarin and spoke some Swahili, played the drums, worked extremely hard, knew how to party and created the largest publishing empire in the Pacific Rim area, with several hundred employees who passed through the doors of Honolulu Publishing Co. over the past 40 years. He touched a lot of lives. He had a lot to brag about and never did.”
EARLY 1980S COURTYARD PAU HANA PARTY AT YOKOHAMA SPECIE BANK BUILDING (PELLEGRIN TOP LEFT).
When Pellegrin died, we received an outpouring from folks who wanted to talk about how he’d affected them. We had to shorten many of them to fit in the printed issue, so we are adding some of the history and longer remembrances here.
If you’d like to add your thoughts, please do so in the comments section below.
A RECENT SHOT OF PELLEGRIN, A BASEBALL ENTHUSIAST, IN HIS LAST HONOLULU PUBLISHING OFFICE.
“Dave was as keen and curious a journalist as you could find. He was a brilliant businessman, a needed attribute for a publisher, but, more than that, he was perceptive, thoughtful and passionate about honestly reporting on our city and state.”
—Richard Borreca, HONOLULU Magazine columnist, 1970s and ’80s
“As a high schooler, Dave fell in love with the craft of journalism, and that love never waned. As a leader, Dave was selfless, egoless but firm. He preferred to let the magazines and the journalists take center stage while he remained behind the scenes, always ready to help if necessary, but never wanting to micromanage or seek the spotlight. Dave had a profound impact on my career. He taught me countless lessons and continued to mentor and inspire me long after he sold HONOLULU Magazine. With his ever-present, infectious smile, he was as comfortable complimenting a story we had published as he was telling me that the idea I had just shared was the dumbest he had heard yet that day. His feedback was authentic and deeply rooted in beliefs he held dear—equity, balance, generosity of spirit, the power of human kindness. What I will treasure most is that Dave, through his actions, also taught me that, like great writers, great leaders widen our minds, touch our hearts and feed our souls.”
—Scott Schumaker, president of aio Media Group, which now publishes HONOLULU Magazine
Midweek cover, 1987, by Jeffrey Helberg, shot by Brett Uprichard.
“I remember the winter 1989–’90 City and Regional Magazine Association meeting in New York City where Dave was presented with a CRMA Lifetime Achievement Award. Also honored at the formal dinner that night were San Diego magazine founder/publisher/editor Ed Self and Clay Felker, a living legend in the journalism world. Felker’s list of career stops included The New York Times, Life, Esquire, Time and Sports Illustrated. He founded New York magazine, where as editor he published some of the greatest “new journalism” magazine pieces ever. Later, he owned The Village Voice and Esquire. In the magazine biz, Clay Felker was a superstar.
“So that evening in New York, Pellegrin, Self and Felker were to receive Lifetime Achievement Awards, and each would give an acceptance speech. Well, guess what—Dave’s speech was better than the other two. Much better. He talked about the magazine medium that we all knew and loved so well. But he also talked about the future of magazines; he foresaw some of the challenges that are upon us today. Yet he expressed rock-solid optimism and enthusiasm. Like any terrific piece of writing, his speech ended strong. We stood and applauded; he had hit a home run.
“It was always understood by those of us who worked for Dave at HonPub that we’d be active in the community. He didn’t formally put it on a job description or list it as an employee “goal and objective.” Instead, he and all of us simply lived it. We served on panels and committees, we spoke to classes, we were members of professional organizations, we judged contests, we hosted parties, we sponsored events, we contributed to worthy causes, we led tours of our publishing facility inside our amazing Yokohama Specie Bank Building [at the corner of Merchant and Bethel streets]. And we had a great time doing every bit of it.
“Sometime in the mid-1980s I decided, as editor of HONOLULU Magazine, that we would include the macrons and glottal stops in Hawaiian words. We would print the Hawaiian language correctly, with the same attention to detail as we did the English. I got buy-in from our three typesetters—Janice, Rodney and Verna. After all, this was before the full-on digital age, and it was the typesetters who would have to carefully and by hand make sure we got those macrons and glottal stops correct. I then went to Dave and pitched my plan. I had barely started in on my rationale for doing it when he put up his hand to stop me and said, “Do it. It’s a tremendous idea.” We were the first major publication in the Islands to do Hawaiian in full and correctly. It made us all, but especially Dave, proud. After all, HONOLULU’s forerunner publication is Paradise of the Pacific, founded in 1888 under charter from King David Kalākaua himself.
“I loved Dave Pellegrin. At HonPub, he was my mentor and boss, but always—and most important to me—my friend. But he knew when to be boss, and I knew when to be employee.”
—Brian Nicol, worked for HonPub from the late 1970s until July 1990; editor of HONOLULU magazine from 1981 until 1990
PELLEGRIN, PUBLISHER TED STURDIVANT AND JOHN ALVES.
“A piece of my heart is gone, Dave Pellegrin’s passing is the culprit ... At the office, you could count on Dave to give it to you straight—good or bad, always constructive. If he had laced into you over some bone-headed mistake, you could bet that he would stick his head in the office to make sure he let you know things were OK between us, the past was past, and things were pono.”
—John Alves, former president of PacificBasin Communications, now known as aio Media Group
“I’ll always remember Dave’s penetrating gaze. He was such an intelligent, engaged man, and nothing got past him. He was the one who reshaped HONOLULU into what it is today, and his stamp on the magazine remained a constant, years after he no longer owned it. It really felt like we had a spiritual adviser in him, and his advice and perspective over the years had a real influence on the magazine, and on me.”
—Michael Keany, HONOLULU Magazine, 2004 to 2017
“It may not have been the experience of everyone who worked for him, but the fact is—for many of us, especially on the editorial staff in those early years in the late 1970s and early 1980s—he was downright intimidating. When you got called into his office and he asked you to close the door, the temperature in the room would rise several uncomfortable degrees.
“The barometer to Dave’s mood was a Nasty Vein near the corner of his right eye. It wasn’t exactly the temple vein. It was lower and seemed to be part of a scar. I always thought it was a remnant from a motorcycle accident he had suffered when he was the drummer for a rock group traveling through Africa in the 1960s. When you screwed up, the vein turned Extremely Nasty. It bulged and it got big and red.
“It’s been a lot of years since I’ve seen The Vein. In fact, I’m pretty sure it disappeared about 15 years ago. Dave Pellegrin created a publishing empire because he was thoroughly professional. He worked hard, he made sure we worked hard and he let us play hard. He also mellowed over the years, tempered by several factors, including the downsizing of Honolulu Publishing when he sold HONOLULU Magazine to Duane Kurisu.
“I have been honored to work for Dave and to be associated with his publishing company since 1979. Those who have passed through these doors all have some incredible memories from those years. We had a lot of laughs and an occasional tear. The best of those memories will live on, even if the image of The Vein pops up occasionally to remind us that life at HonPub has always been real.”
—Brett Uprichard, Honolulu Publishing editor since 1979
Wife Kathleen and Pellegrin with family pets for a Christmas card, photographed by Gary Hofheimer.
“One thing he always did say, and it was tenet of his basic life philosophy, and although good, truth and beauty have been associated with Plato, and even earlier, with the Bhagavad Gita, he felt it was also a part of him.
To seek the good, the true and the beautiful;
To master the art of being kind;
To do the best under all circumstances;
To think the best of others in spite of their faults;
To forgive and hold no grudges in the heart;
To trust in the ultimate decency of things.”
—Kathleen Pellegrin, Dave’s widow
“Dave took me under his wing when I became HONOLULU’s editor in 2013. He invited me to a get-to-know-you-better lunch, and hooked me on his straight talk, journalism savvy, wit, warmth and absolute passion for the magazine. More than a decade after he’d sold the magazine, that vibrant man still inspires me to do our best while caring for those around us.”
—Robbie Dingeman, HONOLULU Magazine editor, 2013–present
“Mayor Frank Fasi was challenging incumbent Gov. George Ariyoshi. Early polling had the Mayor with a 30-point lead over Ariyoshi. A colleague at West O‘ahu urged me to attend a district campaign rally for Fasi in Kaimukī. I went and listened to Fasi address maybe 35 people. A week or so later, I attended a campaign rally for Ariyoshi in Aloha Stadium; 20,000 other Oahuans turned out.
“I called Dave the next morning and told him there was a story in those numbers: No matter what the polls showed, Fasi was not going to take the Democratic nomination from Ariyoshi. Said I, ‘You gotta send somebody out to get that story.’ Dave replied, ‘I haven’t got anybody to send out. You write it. We’ll publish it.’ So I did, and produced something Dave entitled, ‘The Wizard of Wahiawā: How Bob Oshiro Turns Lost Causes into Victories.’
“Dave got the nickname Stretch from Honolulu Publishing’s entry in the Media Softball League with his 6-foot-5-inch height. He played first base, where a long stretch was invaluable.
“HONOLULU Magazine in its early years under Dave Pellegrin was simply a wonderful place to be. Talented people were to be found in every part of the building—people like Stretch himself, a good editor and canny businessman; writer and editor Brian Nicol; associate editor Vic Lipman; artist Jill Chen; photographer Brett Uprichard.
“The building was the old Yokohama Specie Bank. Dave was looking for a place that would give the magazine a physical identity. The bank building was perfect. With financial incentives from Historic Preservation grants, old vaults became offices, one of which housed Publisher Pellegrin. Second-floor offices opened on a balcony that overlooked a lovely carpeted lobby. In the rear of the building was a courtyard where employees, advertisers and at least one contributing editor enjoyed frequent pau hanas. Libations flowed freely. Uprichard basted the evening's roast with beer. A smiling Pellegrin presided over them all.”
—Dan Boylan, retired UH West O‘ahu professor and former HONOLULU columnist
Three generations of HONOLULU editors: Pellegrin, David Eyre and Brian Nicol.
“I grew up with Uncle Stretch—knew him my entire life, from banging drums at his house as a toddler to beers and Bows basketball at the Stanley. He liked to hear stories of the newsroom and what was going on with politician A’s position on B. And always wanted to know what was going on with your love life! He gave me my first ever byline, in HONOLULU Magazine at the age of 12 and regular editorial and other work until I left for college in Iowa. He was a former reporter who cared deeply about solid, consistent, hard news reporting and he supported my career as a reporter and as a government worker. Between high school and now I rarely made an important life decision without asking his opinion. He was someone I trusted for advice because I knew he was looking out for my career and my soul.”
—Peter Boylan, former Advertiser reporter
“I remember Dave hosting two or three CRMA meetings in Hawai‘i. Dave and his staff were always gracious hosts who wanted to make sure we got the most out of our time there. The meetings were always well organized with great content and he made sure the networking and leisure time were equally as good. It seems that Dave was into custom publishing before a lot of us were. We got to see firsthand the types of publications he was doing and bring some great ideas back to the Mainland.”
—Rob Martinelli, publisher, Today Media, Delaware
A celebration of his life is set for Oct. 21.
King David Kalākaua commissions a magazine called Paradise of the Pacific
Paradise of the Pacific becomes HONOLULU Magazine
Johnson Hill Press, owned by George Pellegrin, buys HONOLULU
Dave Pellegrin acquires full ownership of Honolulu Publishing Co.
HonPub sells HONOLULU to PacificBasin Communications, now known as aio Media Group