Being the voice of public transportation might seem a bit mundane, but it’s no small accomplishment for a self-described “haole maoli” born in San Francisco and raised in Minnesota. Nogelmeier intentionally mispronounces the phrase as how-lee mau-lee, which roughly translates as “native white person.” It is at once a self-deprecation and acknowledgment of just how far Marvin Nogelmeier—aka Puakea Nogelmeier, Ph.D.—has come.
In 1973 and fresh out of high school, Marvin lost his wallet in San Diego but still made it to Honolulu (these being the days when all you needed to board a plane was a ticket). He did, however, need a passport to get to his final destination, Japan. So he waited on O‘ahu for his birth certificate and money to come by mail.
Nogelmeier didn’t make it to Japan that year, but he did find a home in Wai‘anae.
“There no longer seemed to be a rush to go anywhere,” he says, reflecting on his early wanderlust. “I met really nice people in Hawai‘i, I qualified for unemployment, I was eighteen, and I was having the time of my life. There was no need to cut it short.”
To the young Marvin, Hawai‘i didn’t match up with what he had learned in high school geography. Stopping in a Korean bar after leaving the Honolulu airport—these were also the days when eighteen was the legal drinking age in the Islands—he overheard two locals talking. “I asked my friend, ‘What language is that?’ And he just looked at me and laughed. It was English! Pidgin English! It was radical, fast, laughing—I didn’t understand a single word.”
The first Hawaiian Nogelmeier heard spoken came from Sam Mahi‘ai, a resident of Makua Beach. “Today people would probably call him homeless, but he lived on the beach because he wanted to. He was the second-youngest of twenty-two children.”
Mahi‘ai showed him around the ‘aina. Soon, Nogelmeier was working as a craftsman in a shop at the Makaha Inn. It was the mid-1970s, and the revitalization of Hawaiian culture was happening everywhere. Nogelmeier joined kumu hula Mililani Allen’s classes, and he got hooked.
“I was immediately addicted,” he says. “It was the most remarkable activity, and I learned more about Hawai‘i than I had ever learned. I remember asking her, ‘Do you ever do this to music?’ And she says, ‘You do whatever I say, because I’m the kumu.’”
Next came chanting, and Nogelmeier began learning oli through classes taught by old masters supported by the State Council on Hawaiian Heritage. “They were afraid the masters would pass away and nobody was being trained. So, it was Edith Kanaka‘ole on the Big Island, Hoku Padilla on Maui, Edith McKinzie on O‘ahu. …”