Jim Easterwood, who died of natural causes Sunday at age 81 in Nashville, was a sportswriter at the Star-Bulletin for 20 years. He covered just about everything on the Hawaii sports scene in the 1970s and ’80s, but his biggest impact was on high school athletics.
The last seven of his years at the paper were my first seven, and he was my best friend at work despite our age difference and his status as a living legend and mine as a speck of dust. One of the many things he taught me was to always write with heart, even if it seemed like you were stuck with an assignment no one else wanted.
General interest in prep sports was at a low in the ’80s. But that was of no fault of Easterwood, who wrote with an inimitable flair and passion. He was “The dean of the prep writers.” Whenever he called himself that he would laugh (the joke is at least partly a play off of how the coach with the most seniority in a league would often be described by old-time scribes as “the dean.”)
His persona was as unforgettble as his writing.
“One of the great sportswriters in Hawaii history,” said Saint Louis football coach Cal Lee. “He was always straight-up and I liked him.”
“Pancho” was back for a visit in the early 1990s when a guy at Zippy’s says, “Hey, Jim Easterwood! I read your column every day!” That’s “read” present active tense, not “read” past tense. Jim smiled and softly said thank you, adding nothing about having retired to Kentucky and not penning a word for a Hawaii newspaper in over two years.
Now it’s been 30 years.
There are as many great stories about Jim Easterwood as there are great stories written by Jim Easterwood (and, yes, there are those that would say the second list is a very short one, as Jim did not pull punches, especially when he smelled corruption).
As I went through Jim’s work via newspapers.com, I was reminded that he was a tireless advocate for classification and state tournaments. He always described that final football game of the year as the OAHU Prep Bowl, reminding readers that the neighbor-island teams had no access to the championship. He was an advocate for three levels of classification more than 40 years ago.
He pounded away at it, hard … to no avail.
In some of his later columns, it seems he’d almost given up:
“Sure, we may be beating a dead horse but it appears as if classification may be the answer to the city schools’ doldrums. And, at the same time, cure the ill of some other weak sisters in the OIA. …
“There should be at least three divisions … with teams classified according to tradition, coaching, lettermen returning, etc. …
“Will it ever happen?
“Realistically, no, but then one never knows. Times change and so do people. And administrations. People now in power could tumble. One never knows.”
That’s why I was always happy when I could call and tell Jim about the latest miracle, whether it be the leagues finally agreeing on a football tournament, or the various stages of classification that eventually led to the system started this year — three levels of high school football competition that should provide more competitive balance and generate more interest.
The man most responsible for getting decision-makers to agree to these changes is former Hawaii High School Athletic Association chief Keith Amemiya.
Amemiya was decades away from being in a position to do anything about it when he first read Easterwood’s pleas. But he said they planted the seeds.
“Yes, it definitely did,” Amemiya said. “I remember him and his articles. I’m sad to hear he passed away.”
I am very sad. But I smile knowing my friend lived long enough to see what he knew was right and pushed for so long ago finally become reality.
Many in Hawaii will remember Easterwood for his unique persona. But the much improved format of Hawaii high school football we see today is his legacy as a journalist.
Midseason games like Friday’s state championship rematch between powerhouses Kahuku and Saint Louis are only reality now because of the vision and diligence of people like Jim Easterwood and Keith Amemiya. Heck, if not for their efforts, we wouldn’t even be saying “state championship.”