From parade veteran to grand marshal: Former longtime county band member to lead royal procession

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After marching in 52 Merrie Monarch Festival Royal Parades, Wendell Ka‘ahukane Leite will sit this one out — waving to the crowd in a convertible while his longtime cohorts entertain the assembled throngs lining Hilo’s downtown streets.


After marching in 52 Merrie Monarch Festival Royal Parades, Wendell Ka‘ahukane Leite will sit this one out — waving to the crowd in a convertible while his longtime cohorts entertain the assembled throngs lining Hilo’s downtown streets.

The former Hawaii County Band trombonist, who marched in every Merrie Monarch parade until his retirement from the band in October 2015, is the parade’s grand marshal this year, his reward for 70 years of service.

“He was in high school when he started in the band,” said parade coordinator Missy Kaleohano. “He’s probably logged the most parade miles of anybody on foot.”

“You should have seen him in the Merrie Monarch parade,” Susanella Noble, a flutist in the band, told the Tribune-Herald when Leite retired. “Every other person along the route knew him and said hello. He’s one of those kinds of people.”

Noble described the retired HT&T vice president as “always happy” with “a kind word for everybody” and “very modest, very gifted, so humble.”

Leite will occupy a place of honor in the parade, along with the newly crowned Miss Aloha Hula and the Royal Court, which features real-life husband and wife Eli and Lokelani Kipilii as King Kalakaua and Queen Kapi‘olani.

The parade’s pa‘u marshal and pa‘u queen are the father-daughter duo of Donald Soares Medeiros and Laurie Lewis.

“As far as I know, that’s a first,” Kaleohano said. “After last year’s parade, I was talking to Aunty Luana (Kawelu, the Merrie Monarch president), and she thought it was a first.”

Medeiros is a retired heavy equipment operator and a member of Hawaii Operating Engineers Local 3 with a background in ranching, rodeos and raising his own horses and cattle. He was introduced to his first pa‘u unit in the Merrie Monarch parade by his brother-in-law, John “Johnny” Medeiros Jr., and it has since become a family tradition, one that often includes his sister, Carol Ku‘ulei Hughes-Okada.

Lewis, Medeiros’ daughter, reigns as pa‘u queen. She has represented all eight islands as a pa‘u princess in the Merrie Monarch parade. Her unit, Ka Hui Holo Lio o Ka ‘Ohu Lehua, is comprised mostly of the Medeiros’ ‘ohana, including another Medeiros daughter, Donette Iyo, as an attendant. Rounding out the riders are his grandsons, great-grandchildren, nephews, grandnieces and friends.

“Laurie’s actually bringing in a trolley for the relatives who don’t ride as a way to thank them for their support over the years. I’m pretty sure we’ve never had a trolley in the parade before,” Kaleohano said.

In addition to the pa‘u, a group of Waiakea High School students led by teacher Kawika Urakami will ride the parade route on horseback with a message of special importance to the Merrie Monarch Festival.

“It’s basically their Hawaiiana unit riding with the theme of E Ola Lehua, live life like a lehua,” Kaleohano said. “They’re trying to draw attention to rapid ohia death and also emphasizing the importance of the ohia lehua within the Waiakea ahupua‘a.”

The festival’s hula competition has instituted a voluntary ban on ohia lehua, one of hula’s prime adornments, because of the fungal disease that has devastated Hawaii Island ohia forests.

The pomp and pageantry of a parade strikes a responsive chord with just about everyone, although reasonable people can and do differ about their favorite units. Kaleohano expressed a fondness for the pa‘u, the uniquely Hawaiian equestrian units.

“You know, the bands are great, they’re exciting and they’re important because people want the music coming down the street. But for me, what makes the Merrie Monarch parade different from other Hilo parades are the horses,” she explained. “On Kamehameha Day, you have horse units in Kona and in North Kohala, but in Hilo, we’re the only one with horses.”

Those who favor marching bands and floats needn’t fret, however. There are more than enough of both in this year’s procession to satisfy paradegoers of all stripes.

In addition to the county band, the Pacific Fleet Navy Band will march, as will all three of Hilo’s high school bands — Hilo High, Waiakea High and St. Joseph School — plus Kamehameha Schools Kapalama from Honolulu.

“I can’t remember the last time Kamehameha Schools Kapalama has come. There’s about 100 in the band,” Kaleohano said.

Showcasing the diversity of cultures in Hawaii and the Pacific is Japan’s Hiroshi Okada Hawaiian Music School, which promotes and stars in the annual ‘Ukulele Picnic in Hawaii, which was on Oahu this year, but in previous years has been at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows on the South Kohala Coast.

“They’ll have a float, people on the float and people on foot — 50 people playing the ukulele,” Kaleohano said. “I’m really excited about that with all the ukuleles.”

A perennial favorite is the Hui Okinawa Kobudo Taiko, whose drums can be heard by spectators blocks before the float is visible. Also bringing colorful cultural drumming and dance to the party are the Hawaii All-Nations Pow Wow and Te Maohi, a Tahitian dance company from Hilo.

The Parangal Dance Company of San Francisco, which will perform traditional native Filipino music and dance during the Wednesday night free Ho‘ike, also will participate.

Since it’s Merrie Monarch, there also are the hula halau, including Emery Aceret’s Halau Na Pua O Uluhaimalama of Hilo, defending its title for the top float.

“They’ve won several years in a row. The families of the dancers he has are hooked on it,” Kaleohano said.

And for animal lovers, the horses are just the beginning. A Pahoa man who calls himself “Just Tom” and rides through the Puna village with silky chickens perched on his bicycle, is making his appearance for the second time.

“He toodles around the side of the parade and that’s fine because the kids like to pet the chickens,” Kaleohano said.


Rain or shine, the parade will start at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on Piopio Street, then turn left onto Pauahi Street, right on Kilauea Avenue, continue onto Keawe Street, make right turns onto Waianuenue and Kamehameha avenues, then a final right onto Bishop Street to conclude by the King Kamehameha statute.

Email John Burnett at

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