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Late school janitor who preserved the history of Princess Keʻelikōlani receives recognition

princess ruth keelikolani middle school.png
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Kamakana Aquino, left, and Marbeth Aquino, right, stand in front of Keʻelikōlani Middle School in Honolulu. The school was renamed last year from Central Middle School to Keʻelikōlani Middle School to recognize Princess Ruth Keanolani Kanāhoahoa Keʻelikōlani's royal palace.

For more than a century, teachers and students at a middle school in downtown Honolulu had no idea their institution was constructed on the grounds of Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani’s grand royal palace.

But one man — the school's janitor — had collected photos and research material on the princess for nearly two decades, in hopes of one day sharing that history with the world.

Rogelio Aquino spent nearly 20 years as the school's janitor. But he did more than just clean.

Marbeth Aquino at the renaming ceremony
Marbeth Aquino
Marbeth Aquino at the renaming ceremony. Last year, the school invited the Aquinos to the campus for a ceremony renaming the former Central Middle School in honor of the princess.

HPR's Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi met Kamakana Aquino, Rogelio's son, on the grounds of downtown Honolulu’s Keʻelikōlani Middle School.

"Dad would sometimes have an assembly out in the field or in the auditorium in 'B' building, where he would do a presentation on Princess Ruth, the significance of her and the school and where the school currently occupies was once her home, Keōua Hale," Aquino said.

Kamakana's mother Marbeth said it all started with an assignment from the school's principal.

"He told me 'I get homework.' I said 'what you mean homework?' They like me do report on Princess Ruth. I went 'Oh my gosh, here is a custodian who got tasked with researching Princess Ruth,'" Marbeth laughed.

It soon became a family affair. Marbeth spent weekends at the state archives, and Kamakana and his brother helped their father build a display case for all the photos and research they uncovered.

Princess Ruth Keanolani Kanāhoahoa Keʻelikōlani was a high-ranking aliʻi born on February 9, 1826. She was known as a staunch defender of Hawaiian traditions, customs, and language.

"Her being very kūpaʻa, standing firm, being staunch in her ways.... We can learn a lot from her by being kūpaʻa in the things that we believe and do," Aquino said.

Last year, the school invited the Aquinos to the campus for a ceremony renaming the former Central Middle School in honor of the princess.

"It was time, and I'm glad that it did happen. Although I wish Dad was here to see it happen," Aquino said.

Rogelio Aquino died in 2015. His research is still on display in a glass case at Keʻelikōlani Middle School.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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