Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani dies at 54

Surf legend Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani died on Nov. 2, 2013. Diagnosed with stage IV cancer this summer, this was the last interview he did before getting the news.

Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani, a Hawaiian surfing legend immortalized in one of the sport's most iconic photos, died on Saturday. He was 54.

Kaluhiokalani died in California, according to a post on the Buttons Surf School website, after being diagnosed with lung cancer this past summer.

His place in surfing lore was cemented with a Jeff Divine photo of Kaluhiokalani flashing a classic smile and a peace sign while paddling out at Oahu's Velzyland in the 1970s. The image represented a time of freedom in Hawaii -- free surfing, free-thinking and free living. The shortboard revolution was in overdrive and the surf industry didn't yet have a foothold.


Montgomery "Buttons" Kaluhiokalani died on Nov. 2 from complications from lung cancer.

Along with the photo of Greg Noll standing on the beach with his board watching that first ferocious swell ever ridden at Waimea Bay in 1957, one of a bandana-clad Eddie Aikau holding the rigging of the Hokule'a in 1978 and Tom Servais' classic shot of Tom Curren in mid cutback at Backdoor in 1991, the photo of Kaluhiokalani represented a timeless generation in the sport.

Kaluhiokalani was born in Honolulu in 1959. His father was African-American and in the military. His mother was Hawaiian. He reportedly got the nickname from his maternal grandmother, who called him Buttons for his little buttons of hair he had as a baby.

He learned to surf on Oahu's South Shore, but his talent was apparent at a young age and he wound up turning heads on the North Shore. As a teenager, he was part of a group of surfers pushing aggressive moves on shorter boards. He and surfers like Hawaiians Reno Abellira and Mark Liddell drew inspiration from skateboard films and executed radical changes of direction and spin moves in critical waves.

His competitive record was never his strong point, but he did pocket a few podium finishes at pro events around the world -- most notably in Malibu, Calif., in 1979, and the Peru International in 1981.

Life after pro surfing proved difficult, at times, for Kaluhiokalani. He was an admitted drug abuser, personally recounting at least two times where he nearly overdosed. In 2007, Kaluhiokalani was featured on the A&E show "Dog the Bounty Hunter" for his fall from stardom to addiction. That year, he released a message via YouTube admitting his heroin addiction.


Kaluhiokalani was an icon of surfing's shortboard revolution and the magic of Hawaii.

"It wasn't long before the party was all that I was," he said in the video. "My surfing fell to the wayside. My marriage and family fell to the wayside. I got lost in my own disease. Addiction is a real problem for so many of us."

But Kaluhiokalani found the strength to become sober, and he became an advocate for clean living, speaking to Hawaiian youth about the pitfalls of narcotics.

"I got help, and today, I am facing my addiction one day at a time," he said in the same video. "I have my life back. I'm rebuilding my relationship with my kids, my family, my friends and those who have always loved me. Life is the gift. Start today. Get help."

Most recently, he ran Buttons Surf School, bringing his Hawaiian charm and history to personal surfing lessons on the North Shore. In 2012, he traveled to New Jersey and surfed in the Legends division of the Foster's Belmar Pro in front of throngs of fans. In August, he was given the Oceans of Possibilities Award by a Hawaiian non-profit for his dedication to helping people with disabilities enjoy surfing and paddling.

After he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer (the most severe diagnosis), fundraisers were held in Honolulu and Malibu to aid his mounting medical bills.

Kaluhiokalani is survived by his wife, Hiriata, eight children and nine grandchildren.

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