ISHOF Honoree: Who was George “DAD” Center?

George “Dad” Center, 1991 Honor Pioneer Coach

ISHOF will be posting some of it’s older, maybe lesser known, but GREAT Honorees this summer to tell their fabulous stories and share their lives.  Special thanks to the Outrigger Canoe Club in Hawaii and Marilyn K, the Historical Manager for the use of this article.  We hope you learn a bit more about the tremendous people and history of our great sport!

Who Was “Dad” Center?

No history of the Outrigger Canoe Club would be complete without inclusion of the name of George David “Dad” Center. He was one of the men who made the Club what it is today. He was a leader and a teacher. But to many of the boys and girls who later matured into Olympic champions, business leaders, and Club stalwarts, he was affectionately known as “Dad”.

Coach, Club Captain, Director and friend of the youth of our Club, he encouraged physical fitness, team effort, sportsmanship and loyalty in all.  Although most often known as a swimming coach, he was thought by many to be the “father of canoe racing” as he tried to revive the sport in the 1930s.

“Dad” was born at Kipahulu (Maui) on Christmas Day in 1886 during the reign of King Kalakaua. On the death of Kalakaua, “Dad” became a subject of Queen Liliuokalani. Next, a citizen of the Provisional Government and Republic of Hawaii with Sanford Ballard Dole as President. The American Flag went up over Hawaii in July of 1898 and “Dad” became a citizen of the United States and the Territory of Hawaii.

Educated in Hawaii and on the Mainland “Dad” distinguished himself as a school boy athlete in many sports. In his active athletic days “Dad” represented the Myrtle Boat Club in swimming, rowing and other sports. During the first half of the 20th century “Dad” was a swimmer, surfboarder, outrigger canoe paddler, canoe sailor, body surfer, fisherman, oarsman, yachtsman, volleyball player, golfer, basketball player, soccer player, track and field man, football player and expert participant in other athletic activities.

“Dad” missed becoming a charter member of the Outrigger Canoe Club by only a few weeks after it came into being in May of 1908, joining in June 1908. His first athletic endeavor for the Outrigger Canoe Club was in July 1908 in the Big Surf Contest (board) as the U. S. Atlantic Great White Fleet looked on.

To even list the contests in which “Dad” Center represented the Outrigger Canoe Club and the Myrtle Boat Club would cover pages. He was a familiar figure in early Regatta Days in Honolulu Harbor and at Pearl Harbor when he rowed for the Myrtles; but he was even better known later as a representative of the Outrigger Club in many sports, particularly in surfing events sponsored by the Club.

OCC Canoe Racing Team circa 1909
OCC Canoe Racing Team circa 1909

As early as Regatta Day of 1907 “Dad” was stroke of the Myrtle Freshman Crew which defeated Healani.  On Regatta Day of 1909, “Dad” swung an efficient paddle (with Rusty Brown, Harry Steiner, Willy “Knut” Cottrell, Edmund Melanphy and Vincent “Zen” Genoves), in Prince Kuhio’s canoe Aa, as it won the six-paddle canoe contest for the Outrigger Canoe Club. And while “Dad” had many early athletic thrills, one of his greatest was to captain the Maile-Ilima Soccer Team which won the championship of the Hawaiian Association Football League in 1909.

Babe Dowsett, Miss Beatrice, Dad Center, Helen Martin
Babe Dowsett, Miss Beatrice, Dad Center, Helen Martin

“Dad” Center coached swimming teams as early as 1912 when Duke Kahanamoku went to the Olympics to return to Hawaii a world champion. Others like Sam, David and Sargent Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe, Gay Harris and Mariechen Wehselau Jackson followed in Duke’s footsteps.

Although his interest was primarily in swimming, outrigger canoeing was his personal love, and many a day he spent taking youngsters, tourists and all who could wield a paddle out to the surf in his koa canoe Miss Veedol.

“Dad” represented the Club in about every sport it took part in. Captain, coach, active-athlete, manager and adviser, “Dad” served on the Board of Directors of the Outrigger Canoe Club for many years. He was as much a part of Waikiki and the Outrigger as is the beach itself.

Dad Center with crewmates.
Dad Center with crewmates.

“Dad,” who shared with Duke Kahanamoku the honor of being the Outrigger Club’s “most honored member,” realized that Duke was a “coming champ” about 1910. As “Dad” said later, “I was swimming anchor on the Myrtles in a swimming relay race in Honolulu Harbor against Healani. Duke swam the final lap against me. Duke won by a touch. We knew then that we had a champion swimmer.” And, on August 12, 1911, the day that Duke (of the Hui Nalu) broke world-records in Honolulu Harbor, “Dad” swam second to Duke in the 220-yard race.

“Dad” was one of those who organized the Hawaiian AAU in 1911. Later, he served many years as its president, ending that service about 1939.

“Dad” was swimming coach at Punahou for about thirty years. He also coached water polo teams of Hawaii.

“Dad” coached and ran on the Outrigger track team as early as 1919; organized (with Dr. Paul Withington) and played on our football team; coached the U.S. Olympic Swimming team in 1920, was coach of the Outrigger swimming team and took a team to Japan in the early 1920s.

After a slate of officers were elected to the Club in 1917 who favored an athletic club to a social club, “Dad” was responsible for recruiting and forming winning football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and swimming teams, as well as the surfing and canoe racing that were the Club’s heritage.

“Dad” was also credited with starting the sport of sand volleyball in 1915 on the sandy beach in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club to entertain Club members on a day when there was no surf. He brought out the volleyball, strung the net, and the rest is, as they say, history. Outrigger members competed against each other for many years due to lack of competition, developing intense rivalries in open men and women and mixed tournaments. A century later, sand volleyball is played at high school, college and professional levels, and has been an Olympic sport since 1992.

1920 Hawaii team to Olympic tryouts: Lundy Lunger, Helen Moses, Duke Kahanamoku, Dad Center, Warren Kealoha, Pua Kealoha, Bill Harris
1920 Hawaii team to Olympic tryouts: Lundy Lunger, Helen Moses, Duke Kahanamoku, Dad Center, Warren Kealoha, Pua Kealoha, Bill Harris

George David Center was selected to manage and coach the Hawaii swimmers who were picked to go to the Mainland for the Olympic Trials at Chicago in July, 1920. Eight swimmers won the right to be members of the team to enter the trials. They were: Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Ludy Langer, Warren and Pua Kealoha, William W. Harris, Jr., John Kelii, Harold (Stubby) Kruger and Helen Moses. They sailed from Honolulu in June of 1920. “Dad” liked to tell about this wonderful trip. “Duke was a bigger attraction than ever. People demanded to see him at every place the train stopped—even at small towns—so that Americans could have a glimpse of their famous world champion. People would come right into the train car and get Duke out of his bunk so they could get a peek at him.”

A seven-swimmer team emerged from the Chicago trials to compete on the U.S. Olympic team—Duke, Wild Bill Harris, Warren and Pua Kealoha, Ludy Langer, Stubby Kruger and Helen Moses. They sailed for Europe aboard the SS Princess Matoika. Among the 1,500 athletes parading before King Albert of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, the clerical war-hero, and other world-known notables were “Dad” Center and his comrades. “Dad” had been appointed coach of the entire American swimming team. The Hawaii swimmers did well, bringing home many medals. After shaking hands with King Albert and his Queen, “Dad” and his fellow Americans from Hawaii moved on to visit Brussels, Paris, London and other parts of the world.

Duke Kahanamoku and Dad Center 1920 Olympic Games
Duke Kahanamoku and Dad Center 1920 Olympic Games

Receiving medals on their return to New York, the Hawaii team, on November 9, 1920, was greeted with a royal aloha welcome at Honolulu. During the team’s tour it took part in twenty-six contests and brought back fifty-nine medals and other trophies of their victories at Antwerp, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and way-points. The Honolulu Chamber of Commerce honored the swimmers with a luncheon and each swimmer received a gold medal.

In 1926, “Dad” led a Hawaii swimming team to the Sesquicentennial at Philadelphia. This year “Dad” coached and managed another swimming team that visited Japan. In the following year (1927), “Dad” was coach and manager of a second American swimming team that journeyed to Japan.

Dad Center
Dad Center

In September of 1927 “Dad” Center left Honolulu (as the representative of the Pan-Pacific Union) to urge the organization of a Pan-Pacific Olympiad of Sports, with invitations from the Pan-Pacific Union to have the first meet held in Honolulu in 1929 or 1930. Before sailing, “Dad” told the Pan-Pacific Union: “I believe in swimming as one of the greatest sports in the world and a great developer of mankind, and that is why I am interested in having as many of the countries on the Pacific get together every two years in an athletic contest like this, to develop our swimmers so that we can build up a team to represent Hawaii and America in the Olympics every four years.”

“Dad” had much to do with the creation and dedication of the First World War Memorial (Natatorium) at Waikiki in 1927. Duke Kahanamoku returned from California for this dedication and declared, “I can see Dad Center’s hand in it,” and that “with such men as Dad Center there is no reason why Hawaii should not hold a high place in the swimming world.”

“Dad” Center coached the Hawaiian swimmers who participated in the Olympic trials at Detroit in 1928. Only Buster Crabbe qualified for the American team to compete at Amsterdam (Holland). Duke Kahanamoku did not try for the team.

“Dad” was also the person responsible for the Club acquiring its famed koa canoes the Leilani and Kakina in 1934. He was an employee of Theo H. Davies and had been sent to Kona to oversee the take-over of a bankrupt lumber yard. He found the canoes sitting in a shed there and asked the Club if they wanted them. The Club agreed and began a fund-raising campaign to purchase them. “Dad” loaded them on a barge and they arrived in Honolulu Harbor along with a third canoe, the Malie (later renamed Malia).  OCC chose the Leilani and Kakina to take home, and “Dad” took the Malie home and kept it in his yard until Waikiki Surf Club was formed and they bought the canoe from him years later.

Dad Center stroking.
Dad Center stroking.

“Dad” was known as the “father of canoe racing”. It was through his efforts and others that the 1933-1935 canoe races in Kona were held, giving canoe racing a jump start after it had nearly died out in the 1920s and early 1930s. He coached the OCC girl’s crew which entered. Local canoe races started up after the Kona races, giving rise to Outrigger’s 4th of July races in the late 30s and the Walter J. Macfarlane Regatta on July 4, 1943.

All his life “Dad” was the friend and teacher of thousands of boys and girls of Hawaii—particularly those who wanted to learn how to swim and surf. He could be seen nearly every day at the Outrigger Canoe Club, where he enjoyed volleyball and giving the kids a helping hand around the canoes and surfboards.

On May 1, 1950, “Dad” after almost fifty years with Theo. H. Davies & Co., Ltd., retired with appropriate ceremonies. He retired from business but “Dad” never retired from helping those who wanted and needed aid on the beach at Waikiki.

To all who had the honor and pleasure of knowing him, “Dad” Center is remembered as a shining example of what the Outrigger Canoe Club stood for. A quiet, modest man, “Dad” had the leadership that inspired all of his charges to do their utmost, not only for the Club and themselves, but for “Dad”; and for them the greatest reward for winning was a “well done” from him.

The Outrigger Canoe Club didn’t just happen. Dedicated men of “Dad” Center’s ilk have played important roles in the success of our Club.

“Dad” passed away in October 1962.

In 1979 fellow Winged “O”s Mark Buck and Tom Conner and Archie Kaaua believed that women were able to paddle longer distance races and started the first woman’s long-distance canoe race. They named it for the man who contributed so much to Outrigger sports: the George “”Dad” Center Memorial Canoe Race. The initial race course was from Hawaii Kai to the Outrigger Canoe Club Beach and was won by the OCC women. The course has been extended and the race now starts at Kailua Beach Park and ends at the Outrigger. The race is held every August and draws nearly 50 entries each year.

There are three perpetual trophies for the race: one for the first place finisher, the first koa crew to finish, the first junior crew, and the first masters crew. The trophies may be viewed in the Trophy Display Case in the OCC Lobby. Naming the race for “Dad” Center was a fitting tribute to the man who meant so much to the men and women athletes of the Outrigger Canoe Club.

“Dad” Center remains a fixture of the Outrigger Canoe Club. His photo and paddle are placed prominently behind the bar in the Ka Mo`i Boathouse. Members, old and young, toast him on a daily basis to say thanks for making the Outrigger Canoe Club the sports club that it is today.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

Thank you very much for this article! I've forwarded it to family members, as Dad Center was my great uncle. He was called "Dad" because his father died young, so young George went to work to support the family and became "Dad" to his 5 siblings, and it stuck for the rest of his life.
I'm connected to ISHOF also through my husband, the wonderful Steve Clark!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x