Digging the dirty work: Hospitable St. Joseph alum climbed the corporate ladder but never forgot his roots

  • George Carter, Harvey Chong, Keith Vieira, Duane Rapoza and Rod Cambra – members of St. Joseph’s class of 1974 – still get together, including last year when Margaret Cambra turned 99.

  • Keith Vieira and his wife, Jo Anne, traveled to India and visited the Taj Mahal last year.

If you Google the name “Keith Vieira,” the first thing you’ll learn about is his generosity. Last year, he donated $1 million to UH-Manoa’s Shindler College of Business to provide kamaaina kids scholarships to eventually work in the hotel industry.

Before he spent over three decades at Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Hawaii, Vieira was a 1974 St. Joseph graduate, who learned from his father, David, to work his way from the bottom to the top.

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What he remembers most is the friendships made during his St. Joe year, being a member of the “Brotherhood of 1974,” which included basketball teammates and life-long friends Rodney Cambra, Dr. Harvey Chong, Duane Rapoza, and George Carter.

They were on the last Cardinals basketball team to win a BIIF Division I title back in 1974. That distinction will likely be forever because St. Joseph dropped down to Division II when statewide classification was introduced in 2007.

In the Curious case of where are they now?, Vieira, 64, is the principal of KV & Associates, a hospitality consulting firm. He also lectures at UH, visits with his old St. Joe teammates almost every year, and enjoys travel destinations with his wife, Jo Anne, and son, Kekoa.

Vieira calls it a funny story on how he landed in the tourism business and it brings back fond memories of his late dad, who worked as a general manager for Hilo motors. His late mother, Bertha, worked in retail and sold household products.

“My dad was old-school. He believed that you worked from the bottom up and got me a job at Big Island janitorial,” Vieira said. “Back then, there were no (latex industrial) gloves, so you stuck your hand down the toilet. I made $1.75 an hour, and my dad took half my paycheck for savings.

“The summer of my junior year, my brother was in Honolulu and asked if I wanted to be a tourist escort. I figured it was better than cleaning toilets.”

Vieira quickly discovered there was more money to be made showing tourists around. He took a bunch of tourists to Akaka Falls and made $350 in two hours, a considerable bump from cleaning toilets, and he was hooked.

“That was my start in tourism,” he said. “It’s funny. I remember like it was yesterday.”

After he graduated from Shindler College, he started at Starwood in 1980, working his way up from jobs like tour bus driver and bouncer. What he remembers about his Starwood days are the free meals.

“In the late 1970s and early 80s, the hotels were pushing for more local management. Prior to that, general managers were brought in from Europe and the mainland,” he said. “I was at the right place at the right time when I worked for them. The biggest thing was the free meals at the hotel. I would work 18 hour days, and it was great. I had 17 promotions in 34 years.

“I traveled to 56 countries and had 7,000 employees. I worked hard. I was never the smartest guy in the room, but I made sure I was the hardest worker.”

Those were the life lessons from his dad. But it’s basketball that’s the lifetime bond that connects the “Brotherhood of 1974.” His favorite moments are from a childhood filled with hanging out with his friends.

“In Hilo, basketball was everything. My two older brothers played. There was no Waiakea, and St. Joseph generally was second to Hilo,” he said. “We played together since we were 7 years old at the boys club. 1974, we beat Hilo for the championship. It hadn’t happened since 1965 and hasn’t happened since.

“The five of us are best friends for life. We basically spent every day together every summer. We’d spend nights over at each other’s house. The biggest takeaway is we’re lifelong friends. We talk or text each other every day.”

They used to pool their money together and buy five hamburgers for a $1 at the Haili store. They would go the Hilo Boys and Girls Club and play pool or Ping-Pong until it was time for their parents to pick them up.

“My mom (Margaret) and his dad were classmates,” Cambra said. “It’s that bond we have, and we’re still close. We’re proud of Keith. He’s done a lot to help me out when I was the athletic director at St. Joseph. He’d put us up in a hotel and give us donations. He’s always given back to St. Joe.”

The best advice Vieira has for recent graduates is to land internships. He refers to his son, Kekoa, as a good example. He played water pool and baseball and swam at Punahou. Kekoa is now a senior at Pacific Lutheran and has been an intern at Bank of Hawaii. Now he wants to work in the banking business.

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Vieira wanted to make sure more local kids can follow in his footsteps. He noted sometimes graduates will head off for mainland colleges, not knowing there’s a great option in their own back yard.

That’s why the Keith Vieira Endowment for Kamaaina Student Scholarships was born from a fellow local, who worked his way from the bottom up.

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