Wright On: We lost one of the good guys in Kelly Leong

  • RICK OGATA photo Along with being UH-Hilo’s first sports information director and later working in the division of student affairs, Kelly Leong liked working in the community, including as a BIIF basketball referee.

As sportswriters, our days tend to be filled with varieties of events, personalities and games that compel us to rush to a lap top to get the stories in early so we can squeeze a couple more in before deadline.

And then there are days like this, when we stall, delay, check the calendar, consider asking for more time or if someone else would rather write the column.

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Hilo, and the Big Island lost one of its best recently when former University of Hawaii at Hilo sports information director Kelly Leong passed away after a tragic fall on campus.

When it all became official, after he was flown to Oahu in an attempt to save him, those of us who knew him gulped hard. These are the hardest stories to write, about someone you know with cared for who died, suddenly and left a hole in your stomach.

Leong was one of the first Big Island friends I met years ago after talking with the newspaper about writing columns on people, places and things that make this spot in the world so distinctive. Have you ever met a person for the first time and after the introduction, felt like you have known him or her all along?

That was Kelly, with his smiling face, handshake or hug, always his first words had to do with you, your wife or family, then the job assignment you might have had that day.

For me, he shared qualities of a couple other towering personalities who were sports information directors. Not everyone in the public is even aware these jobs exist, but every sportswriter in the nation leans on these people for assistance. In more than 40 years, I had never been around one better than Kelly Leong because, like the other bests in the business, he didn’t want to climb up the university structural ladder, didn’t want a more expansive title, wasn’t interested in having more people to oversee.

Kelly Leong just wanted to do his job, one that he pioneered at UHH, one that unequivocally, quite obviously, is more than worthy of a place in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.

His quiet, humble presence belied the work he generated.

“The news hit hard at our place,” said Lance Thompson, former UHH coach of both men’s and women’s soccer in the same season. “The whole family knew him and respected him, he was like a family member, he felt like that.

“I realized the kind of person he was the day after I got there,” said Thompson, now living and coaching soccer in Arizona. “He was the first to volunteer for anything, which I learned later, but after my first day, we had no place to stay, nothing, but on the morning of the second day, I came in and Kelly had already lined up a place for me to stay for three or four months until the house sold. He knew everyone, everyone knew him and respected him.”

Leong was well known for deflecting credit, pointing to assistants who helped when he was congratulated for something because above all else, his humble spirit defined him.

“Kelly helped me transition to UHH,” said former men’s basketball coach Jeff Law, now employed at Kamehameha Schools in Keaau, “he was always keeping an eye out for the program and for myself. Over the years, the respect grew between us.

“Even recently, watching him officiate (basketball), he was working hard for the youth of the community, he will be missed.”

This humble warrior carried himself with a laid-back sensibility that suggested everything was under control, and for decades it was, but in an undeniable way, those times are now gone.

The aloha spirit, once alive and distinctive in the presence of longtime Hilo people in the athletic department, is gone. A new regime came in from the mainland. Immediately purged, were the popular volleyball coach Tino Reyes, then they showed the door to Kelly Leong, and finally business manager Glenn Kagamida, all local people with deep UHH roots, sent away.

The glory days were officially buried.

“It’s different now,” said Reyes, who was fired after five losing seasons in favor of a mainland coach with an unremarkable background who lasted two years before a recent sudden resignation. “Kelly was so helpful in so many ways, just from the way he treated people. In any organization he was a part of, whether it was the athletic department or the officials organization, when he was involved, it became a better organization because he always brought it back to people, not the administrative process.

“Kelly always fought for the people, our athletes, our coaches and trainers, he was our voice.”

Additionally, Kelly Leong was an integral part of the best teams the Vulcans have ever advanced in their athletic department. Former athletic director Bill Trumbo made UHH athletics a source of pride for the school, for Hilo and for the Big Island, with an aggressive, personality driven approach that had Trumbo in the streets, shaking hands, his booming voice making friends in the business community while Leong worked quietly behind the scenes hand with Trumbo, connecting the public to the mission.

The Golden Age of Vulcan athletics can be traced to the time Trumbo and Leong worked in unison to make the department something it had never been, and, now that they both have passed after Trumbo’s death last year, those times are officially relegated to the past, to what the athletic department once was.

The standard has been set. You were aware the school was moving ahead, trying to gain a foothold in athletics, but you no longer hear those aspirational stories because the ohana heartbeat that drove the department no longer exists. There was an ohana, formed and perpetuated by people from here who knew the importance of local culture.

Kelly Leong epitomized that notion, projected it to all he met.

“He was always so gracious, so willing to drop whatever he was doing to help you,” said Thompson, “he was one of those guys that sort of made it look easy, you know?

“But he had a secret. He just outworked a lot of people. I used to have to drop off one of my young ones pretty early at school and it wasn’t far from campus, so I would occasionally run by the office when no one else was in, but Kelly was always there first.

“He probably got more work done by 9 a.m. than most people got done all day,” Thompson said. “He was a special guy.”

The Golden Age of Vulcan athletics is in the rear view mirror. The past is prologue, it’s how we got where we are today with an administration flown in.

It is a sad time for the athletic department and everyone who knew Kelly Leong.

His presence, integrity and humility, was really the important stuff. He couldn’t hide it down there where, as the song says, the spirit meets the bone. He projected it and you could feel it.

His absence left an empty hole in the athletic department, and, for those who knew him, in the pit of our stomachs. Healing will take time.

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May he rest in peace.

Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com for comments or to suggest teams and individuals people should know about

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