BY J. ARTHUR RATH III – Even though he looked more like a sumo wrestler than a youth, we always called John Colburn “Boy.” He was very Hawaiian—sweet natured, big hearted, and quick with a compliment. During football games, he’d flatten an opposing lineman, then extend his hand to help him the player up. The respect Boy was accorded when he walked into a room rubbed off anyone with him. His persona was like that of the giant healer in the movie based on Steven King’s book, “The Green Mile.”
A few days before graduation, we boys sat in a Kamehameha Schools classroom to settle a matter. Our class advisor said none of us would graduate unless school administrators found out who burned a hole in the seat of a car belonging to a shop teacher.
The school president was serious, post-graduation plans were all at risk as the result of a prank out of control. The new, part-time auto shop teacher had treated some of the boys poorly. A small group of them poured battery acid on the driver’s seat, thinking this would give the mean guy “a hot ass.” It’d be a big joke, and maybe he’d simmer down. The acid burned the seat, not his butt. He wanted vengeance. He demanded that the culprits not graduate.
It was a very solemn time. The class’s greatest joker and clown and his friends were involved; we’d spent five years together and were like brothers. How could we get them and ourselves out of this?
Boy stood up and headed out of the room. “Where are you going?” some of us asked.
“I’m going to tell Colonel Kent and tell him I burned the seat,” Boy answered. Of course he hadn’t, but he was determined to take the rap to save us all.
“It was such a dumb idea that he’ll believe that I’m the one who did it,” Boy answered. Of course he hadn’t, but he was determined to take the rap to save us all.
Some of the top members of our class talked to Colonel Kent and he agreed to let Boy walk onstage to receive a “certificate of attendance” we drew up for him. Colonel Kent kept his word—our confessed but innocent hero didn’t graduate. But the audience didn’t know Boy was handed a creative certificate, not a genuine diploma when his name was called.
In the years to come he remained loyal and never missed a class function. He was known by Hawaii’s governors and top entertainers, he was an entrepreneur.
Through urgings by his classmates and the graciousness of school president Michael Chun, he received an official Kamehameha Schools diploma. It took over fifty years, in addition to the one our classmates created for him.
News came this past week that John “Boy” Colburn has just passed on. He was always smiling, but he wouldn’t play tricks on anyone.
I’ve included this “old days” scene painted by Paul Forney, a reminder of kinds of times we boys shared back then. Boy’s celebration will be held after the Holidays.
(This story is excerpted from “Lost Generations, A Boy, A School, A Princess” by J. Arthur Rath, University of Hawaii Press 2006.)