Aloha A Hui Hou E Lorene Ruymar!
By John Ely
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of our HSGA club founder, Lorene Lillian Ruymar, at age 89 this past June 9. There would surely be no HSGA were it not for Lorene’s lifetime of devotion and dedication to our instrument and the countless hours she put in, organizing and promoting the club, producing it’s newsletter, maintaining the club database and all that goes along with keeping an association like ours afloat.
This from HSGA President Frank Della-Penna: “The passing of Lorene Ruymar is a tremendous loss to the world of Hawaiian music. In addition to founding HSGA, Lorene has two books to her credit. Her major publication, The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and Its Great Hawaiian Musicians, is a landmark book about the history of the Hawaiian steel guitar. The cover photo shows legendary steel guitarist Sol Ho‘opi‘i hold-ing a National Tri-cone Hawaiian steel guitar. It is full of history, photos of instruments and musicians. (This book is still available online.)
“The second publication is an instruction manual using the A major tuning. Lorene told me she felt that the A tuning was an easy way to teach chord structure because the first three strings reflect the first, third, and fifth tones of the scale.
Lorene always enjoyed writing in a folksy style and was eager to engage in discourse with anyone who wanted to know about Joseph Kekuku, inventor of the Hawaiian steel guitar. Lorene will be missed by all who appreciate her efforts to support the Hawaiian steel guitar and showcase the music we all love.”
Lorene’s Early Years
Lorene was born on April 6, 1931 on a farm in the Canadian prairie of Saskatchewan. As Lorene wrote so colorfully in the Fall 2010 HSGA Quarterly, “I was second in a family of four girls. Mum completed the whole project in five years, but our dad needed boys to run a farm. Darn it! So we two oldest had to be the boys, harnessing the horses and driving them three-and-a-half miles to our one-room schoolhouse and back each day. Plus cleaning the barn, and tending the cows, horses, turkeys, ducks, chigs and pickens. Well, I guess dad and mum did do a little of that, too. No skating, swimming, or downhill sledding, because the land was so flat we could watch our dog run away for three days. Seventeen dirt road miles to the nearest town, so we only went there for church on Sunday in summer.”
At age four Lorene got hooked on steel guitar. Writes Lorene, “In the darkest days of winter, mum knew how to pick the crystal set to get radio waves coming up from Council Bluffs, Iowa to hear a Hawaiian music show. Mum was hooked, too, and found that a teacher in a nearby school would teach us. She bought a wooden steel guitar with picks and bar for $7 from the Sears catalog and then loaded the four of us up and drove to that school.”
Sadly lessons for Lorene would have to wait as her mom and older sister were the “first in line.” She learned much later that it was David K. Ka‘ili who played the steel guitar on that Des Moines, Iowa radio show.
When Lorene was twelve years old, her dad sold the farm and the family moved to Regina. Lorene writes, “What a change that was! Pop found a studio where a young lady taught steel guitar. Yes! At last I was the one who got the lessons. But after a year, that one moved away, too. I kept banging away at it, buying Oahu Publishing stuff in the music store. That’s where I spotted the first electric steel guitar to hit our city. A beautiful 6-string National New Yorker with amp, all for $149. That got me into a Hawaiian group, the Mauna Kea Hawaiians, and by grade 12, age 16 (yes, that’s correct) I was playing in a classy dance band, the Club Aces. The men in tuxedos and me in a strapless gown every Friday and Saturday night.
“We played strictly from special arrangement booklets. The only spare book they had for me was for Bb trumpet. So I not only sight-read but transposed from Bb to C as well. Plus, I was required to double on rhythm guitar, so I played the barre chords on a Martin acoustic, which has the greatest tone. On Friday night we played until 1 AM and got $7. On Saturday nights we had to quit at 12 midnight (per the Lord’s Day Act) and each of us got $6. Hey, that added up pretty fast! I didn’t have to buy my gowns. Mum sewed them for me.
“I had worked my way up to a great salary at General Motors Acceptance Corporation and at age 22 took the opportunity to transfer to their office in Vancouver, British Columbia. Now that was a really big city! Got married, became Lorene Petersen. Music career stopped. Getting rich was the game. Bought a house for the outrageous price of$10,000 with a suite in the basement to rent, and I was the one who had the $2,500 down payment. Wow! Made our first trip to Hawai‘i in 1954.
I could write a book about how different O‘ahu was then. We stayed in a little one-bedroom house at the corner of Liliu‘okalani and Koa for $7 a day. Webley Edwards did his radio show, similar to ‘Hawaii Calls’, but called something like ‘Lunch in Hawaii’ under the Banyan Tree at the Moana Hotel. [On one occasion] he held a ‘ukulele up high and called for a contest. Best player wins it. Nobody took the bait. So I took a chance and won it. Not to make it too easy for me, Webley strummed it, and I had to sing “Little Grass Shack.” I am no singer but I wanted that ‘ukulele. I expected it was just a toy, but no, it was a Kamaka. I still have it.”
Launching a Career in Education
In the early 1960s Lorene attended the University of British Columbia, obtained a degree in education with a music specialty, and began teaching fourth grade at Maple Grove School in Vancouver.
Part of the job was putting together a school band and Lorene’s instincts to “throw away the book” and “do it her way” asserted itself. Writes Lorene, “I played the game differently. I put out the word that all kids no matter what they played were welcome to join the new Maple Grove Orchestra. Well, they turned out with every oddball instrument you could imagine. Kids from grade four to seven. I had to write the arrangements by hand.“
I gave them the songs that were popular at the time. ‘Winchester Cathedral,’ ‘A Swingin’ Safari,’ ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball,’ ‘In The Mood,’ and for comedy ‘Hey Pedro, Sit Down!’ We had about fifty kids in the band. They loved it! And when the parents saw that this was a going thing, they gave the kids lessons on real band instruments. It took about four years for this group to become a real school band. We were the best school band in town!
“I also taught the music classes on the curriculum, in which every kid had a ‘ukulele, read the notes, played the melodies, strummed the chords and sang. So when the band played a concert, each one had a ‘ukulele standing on end by his or her chair. Halfway through the concert, they’d put down their band instruments, pick up their ukes, and show their stuff. As their director, I stepped over to a table where my National New Yorker was plugged in and ready to go, and I led them with some steel guitar solos.”
The Jerry Byrd Connection
Lorene continues, “On one trip to Hawai‘i in the 1970s, I asked a man at the Kamaka ‘ukulele factory if he knew of someone who could give me steel guitar lessons. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘There was a Jerry Byrd in town who could teach.’ Jerry Byrd?? Hey, that couldn’t be the Jerry Byrd, because he’s in Nashville and he plays country music.“
The Kamaka man got on the phone and spoke to this Jerry Byrd and arranged for him to come to our hotel room and bring his steel guitar along because I didn’t have mine. I still didn’t believe it. The Jerry Byrd would certainly not be coming to our hotel room! We sat side by side while he dem-onstrated on his steel guitar (with no amp), and then I showed him what I could do. Yeah. I played E13th in the Club Aces band and that’s all I knew. Jerry’s guitar was tuned to C6+A7. But still, I guess he could see that I did have pretty good skills because he arranged to give me lessons by correspondence. I found out later that Jerry did not teach female students because they are not as dedicated as he’d like, not as free to give long hours to the guitar. Owana Salazar is an exception, too. Jerry mailed me one lesson a month, com-plete with a tape recording of his backup strumming. And he charged me no more than the going rate of the day.”
Setting the Stage for HSGA
In 1981 Lorene’s husband died and she took a leave of absence from teaching. Writes Lorene, “In past years I had heard about the International Hawaiian Steel Guitar Club (IHSGC), which held annual meetings in Winchester, Indiana. I had joined and read their newsletters, but I had not played in public since I left the dance band. Still, I had bought a double-8 Sho-Bud steel guitar from Shot Jackson under Jerry’s direction. I flew to Indianapolis, sat at the air-port for many hours before taking a small plane to Muncie, then a bus to Winchester. All I could carry was my ‘ukulele and the Sho-Bud. I did play both instruments on stage in Winchester and felt so happy to have met those fine people. Later, the club’s president, Charlie Moore, appointed me to serve on his advisory board.“
Through that club, I met this fine fellow named Art Ruymar who also played the steel guitar, was also a Canadian (from Winnipeg) and whose spouse had died. But we lived a thousand or more miles apart. Eventually he had to take early retirement so we could get to know each other. Got married in 1987.”
HSGA Takes Shape
In October 1985 IHSGC splintered off to form a new club, the World-Wide Hawaiian Steel Guitar Music Association (WWHSGMA). This new club would soon become HSGA. It was run by Fred Gagner out of Tuscon, Arizona with Lorene serving as the club’s vice-president.
[ED: For details on the complex history of the clubs that led to HSGA in its current form, see Lorene’s “History of HSGA” series in the Winter 2004-05 and Spring 2005 newsletters.]
The club’s first newsletter was published in January 1986. That same year Fred Gagner made a deal with DeWitt “Scotty” Scott to host the club’s first convention three days ahead of Scotty’s huge annual Labor Day bash at the Clarion Hotel in St. Louis.
Writes Lorene, “Our convention started normally, but as more and more pedal steelers arrived for Scotty’s event we knew we’d be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. So one evening I called a meeting. If we were to change location, what place would be suitable? Frank and Donna Miller lived in a neat town, not too big and not too small. It was Joliet, Illinois, about 55 miles out of Chicago where an international airport, O’Hare, is situated. They could do all the arranging and setup for us. Excellent! We took a vote and decided that our 1987 convention would be at the Joliet Holiday Inn, [our convention home for many years].“
In addition the name of our club didn’t sit very well with our members, so during that same discussion we bounced a few names around and agreed on ‘HSGA’, the name we use today. We also set our Joliet convention dates for the last weekend of August so people could go from our convention to Scotty’s in one trip. In 1996 we had to move the Joliet date to October [to avoid the higher summer hotel rates], so we lost that connection, unfortunately.”
Birth of the Hawaiʻi Conventions
Lorene continues, “In 1986 Jerry and Kaleo Byrd came to see Expo ‘86 in Vancouver, and were guests in our home for over a week. I’d been taking lessons by correspondence from Jerry for several years [by that time] and we were already friends.“
Jerry asked us not to tell anyone so he could truly relax and for a short time not be the Jerry Byrd. We got to be close friends that way. And we found out he loved to cook and always took his cookbook with him. We had great fun together. He’d been very supportive of us and the work we did forming the new club, so one day sitting around the table after lunch, he proposed that HSGA should hold a convention in Hawai‘i. Wow!! What an idea! It had never been done by steel guitar clubs of the past. Jerry knew the right people and made the arrangements for us to hold the first ever steel guitar club convention at the Waikīkī Plaza Hotel during the first week of May 1987.
“We had a great turnout. We had some high-profile people turn out, like Scotty; industrialist Isao Wada of Japan; Chuck Norris, president of the Texas Steel Guitar Association; and Clay Savage from the Pedal Steel Guitar Association. Clay and Lois Savage became our official club photographers. When Clay passed away, Paul Weaver took over. “We played steel guitars at the Sunday service in Kawaiaha‘o Church, a noon-hour concert at Tamarind Park, at the Poi Luncheon at the Willows, and at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). The Tau Moe Family gave us a tour of the PCC and then invited us to their home to hear Tommy Au play steel.
“We did a steel guitar get-together at the old Bandstand in Kapi‘olani Park. I had sent out letters to all the island steel players I knew of, asking them to come play for the mainland steel players. I wasn’t smart enough to keep record of their names. Many came who we’d say are not “big names” but beautiful players and so nice to get to know. But it’s for sure that Billy Hew Len, Buddy Hew Len, Kamaka Tom, Greg Sardinha, Peter Dillingham, Andy Cummings, Fred and JanJoy Barnett, and Bobby Black were there to play for us. I suspect Jerry pulled a few strings for us, because the Deputy Mayor of Honolulu turned up at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand and presented to me (as acting president of the club) a Proclamation declaring it to be the Week of Steel Guitar in Hawai‘i.“
It was decided to hold a convention in Hawai‘i every other year on odd years. But, the Waikīkī Plaza Hotel wasn’t the perfect location, so after all the hoopla was over, Art and I walked the length of Waikīkī Beach checking hotels to see which ones had ballrooms and what they charged. Like, $1000 per day, back in 1987?? So weren’t we lucky to find the Queen Kapi‘olani Hotel, which had a much better location and charged zero, zilch, nothing per day for the use of the Ākala Room, provided we have the buffet luncheon served to us there. Perfect! And the rooms only half-price. What luck! Although we only held conventions every other year in Hawai‘i, a good number of us went on the ‘off-year,’ too, so the Bandstand show at Kapi‘olani Park, the Ho‘olaule‘a and other events were kept up as annual events.”
HSGA Registered as “Nonprofit”
As HSGA grew over the years, Charlie Moore folded his club. And starting in 1987, Fred Gagner assumed a lesser role in the club. In June 1989, Lorene became president of HSGA and registered the club with the IRS as a nonprofit social club under code 501(c)(7). Then Lorene and board members got busy drafting the required by-laws.
The 1989 Steel Guitar Centennial.
In 1989 HSGA was set for its second Hawaiʻi convention, the first one to be held at the Queen Kapi‘olani Hotel. Lorene figured out that it was around one hundred years since Joseph Kekuku invented the steel guitar, so why not use that information to get publicity for the instrument?
Writes Lorene, “I asked Elizabeth Tatar at the Bishop Museum to authenticate the date (and she did), then I got busy and invited all the other steel guitar clubs I knew of to join with us in celebrating the centennial in 1989.” Despite doubts among some of these clubs concerning the authenticity of the Kekuku claim, HSGA celebrated the event and presented a plaque in a steel guitar concert at Kamehameha School where the invention took place when Joseph was a student there. The state governor and Honolulu’s mayor declared 1989 to be the Year of the Steel Guitar.
HSGA Highlights Under Lorene’s Leadership
Under Lorene’s guidance HSGA continued to grow by leaps and bounds. The Scholarship Fund was created. The club funded steel players to go into Hawaiʻi schools and play for students. Funding from the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts allowed Barney Isaacs, John Auna, Henry Allen and others to teach steel guitar. Jerry was the sole teacher for the HSGA Scholarship Fund.
To promote the steel guitar in Hawai‘i, Lorene came up with a “Compliment and Complain” plan. Writes Lorene, “The way it worked was, you’d phone a lū‘au show, and say you want to book 24 guests for tomorrow night. You’d ask, ‘By the way, who is your steel guitar player?’ And when they give the inevitable answer you’d say, ‘Well, in that case can you direct me to a lū‘au that does have a steel player?’ Or, you go to a live show and see no steel player. You ask to speak to the manager and complain that the signature sound of Hawai‘i was not there. If there was a steel player, you ask to speak to the manager just to compliment. Hey, we did have some kicks in those Good Old Days. Are we getting too old now, or where has our spirit gone?”
In 1990 HSGA produced an educational video with Jerry doing the teaching and Fred Barnett doing the [production work]. Hundreds of copies were sold until the cost of producing it was recovered. It was then given to Jerry as his property for future sales.
Lorene writes, “Our Honolulu ‘off-year’ May Day performance in the park was extra exciting that year because Bob Brozman brought a cameraman to film the Tau Moe Family playing and singing for the finale of the Tau Moe Story film he was producing.“
In 1991 we started the procedure of taking the group to a ‘neighbor’ island after the formalities of the Honolulu convention were over. A big group of us went to Kona on the Big Island. John and Ginger Auna arranged many playing venues for us, including a lū‘au at Hulihe‘e Palace. In 1993 we went to Kaua‘i (after hurricane Iniki), in 1995 to Maui. In 1997 we stayed on O‘ahu and visited the far side of the island. In 1999 we began the cycle again in Kona. There was a day trip to Moloka‘i in there somewhere, too. John Auna did all the organizing so there’d be places to play and back-up equipment waiting for us on the other island. Those were the fun days!”
HSGA Moves to Hawai‘i
By the end of 1992, Lorene had been writing the newsletters, working with the HSGA Board, and making all the arrangements for the Hawai‘i conventions. Writes Lorene, “We had a great team working in Joliet to run the conventions, but it was pretty much my job in Hawai‘i, and I had not yet gone on the Internet so ‘email’ was not in my vocabulary yet. Hey, the old way is the hard way, licking stamps and all.“
From the time we started the club we had maintained a mailbox and a bank account in Bellingham, Washington, which is a 55-mile drive from our home in Vancouver. That meant driving down there once or twice a week to pick up the mail, taking it out to our cabin on Toad Lake, and sitting there until 2 AM, Art doing the accounting work on membership checks and me answering letters by hand. Next morning we’d head back to Bellingham to do the post office and the bank, then scoot home. In summer that was okay, but not so good when the roads were slippery with ice. When there were newsletters to mail, it was tricky. We produced them in Vancouver, packaged and labeled them according to U. S. Postal Service’s bulk mail requirements, and then carried them in our car across the international border. We never knew if that was legal or not, and since they didn’t ask us, we didn’t ask them.“
In 1993 our club membership was 535, and Art and I felt we’d done our job, and if any further growth were to be achieved, the club would have to be more authentic. So we moved the club to Hawai‘i, with Alan Akaka as the new president. My last newsletter was April, 1993. Then I was free to spend more time writing [my] book.”
Lorene’s Book and Steel Course
After seven years of research, Lorene finished work on her book The Hawaiian Steel Guitar And Its Great Hawaiian Musicians, published by Centerstream Publications in 1996. In the year 2000, she designed an instruction course for use in the Hawai‘i schools. Writes Lorene, “I’m still working at bringing steel guitar into the music curriculum of the Hawai‘i high schools. It’s never been done before. I directed all proceeds of my book (and then some) toward circulating courses to schools on all the islands. Whether any of the courses are being used, I do not know.”
The Joseph Kekuku Statue
Much of Lorene’s work in honoring the steel guitar art form centered around the establishment and commemoration of Joseph Kekuku as inventor of the instrument, an endeavor that was impetus for her book and led to the Centennial celebration described earlier. One of her dreams was to have a Kekuku statue commissioned, created and then placed prominently in some venue in Hawaiʻi. Writes Lorene, “It started when the Hawaiian government considered naming the ‘ukulele as Hawaiʻi State Instrument, and all of us who give a hoot put up a big protest, reminding them that the honor should be given to the Hawaiian steel guitar. Well, I guess we have been heard. They have hired a man to build a statue of Joseph Kekuku, [which will assume a prominent place] at the entrance to the Polynesian Cultural Center on O‘ahu.”
The statue, created by New Zealand-born sculptor LeRoy Transfield, was unveiled on April 27, 2015 with many dignitaries on hand including Lorene herself and representatives of the Ke-kuku ‘Ohana, including Ka ‘i wa Meyer, grandniece of Joseph Kekuku. Well done, Lorene!
By now readers who did not know Lorene personally should have a flavor for this “one-woman wrecking crew,” our fearless founder, who with love, enthusiasm and dedication launched our club and relentlessly pushed it for-ward, navigating many a mine field along the way. And it should not surprise readers that we left out countless stories of Lorene’s contributions and personal sacrifices on behalf of the club and the greater steel guitar world. We’ll close with another classic Lorene Ruymar quip: “Art and I have been a musical duo much in demand in senior care homes around Vancouver where Hawaiian music is loved. He plays steel and I play backup, then we switch and I play steel while Art plays backup. We are known as ‘The Couple That Would Rather Switch Than Fight.’ They say that playing a musical instrument keeps Alzheimer’s away.”
Remembrances from Members
From Robert Padwick:
“I met Lorene and Art a handful of times. The first time was to pick up a copy of her instructional manual at the Jade Rabbit restaurant, now shut for a number of years, where a few steel players would meet to jam a bit and celebrate birth-days. After a bit of time practicing, I stopped by their house once to demonstrate my new-found skills (they survived through the ordeal). Lorene had infectious enthusiasm for the steel guitar, and both she and Art were very welcoming and helpful as I got going. Last week I started flipping through her manual and picked ‘Yellow Bird,’ something I had not tried before.
RIP Lorene, and condolences to Art and the family. Thanks for the music, and thank you for helping some stranger get going on the steel.”
From Wally Pfeifer:
“So sad to hear that our good friend Lorene has passed. We have been friends since the first time she and Art came to the Joliet conventions. We also spent lots of time in Hawaiʻi together, especially in Maui. If you’ve never heard her play ‘Yellow Bird’ on her steel, you sure missed out. You all probably know that she was instrumental in getting the Joseph Kekuku statue made and placed at the Polynesian Cultural Center.”
From Chris Kennison:
“I met Lorene twenty years ago when I attended my first HSGA convention in Joliet. I had her book and took it with me—she was so nice to talk to me and sign the book. She had a huge passion for Hawaiian steel and worked hard on events and programs to showcase the music and get more young people interested in steel, especially in Hawaiʻi. Often spending her own money to buy guitars and lessons for kids. As years went by I always made time to talk to her at conventions and eventually I was on the HSGA board and got to work with her for a short time. I have missed seeing her and Art. RIP Lorene. You made a difference.”
From Mike Neer:
“I was very sorry to read this. [Lorene] was a colossal figure in the Hawaiian steel guitar world as an ambassador, historian and academic. She will be missed even by those of us who never had the pleasure to meet her.”
From Chuck Lettes:
“Sorry to hear this news. Lorene was a great friend to the steel guitar community and I will miss her.”
From George Rout:
“[This is] very sad news. While I never met Lorene in person, I feel as though I’ve known her and husband Art for many years thru our active correspondence. Lorene really made her mark on the Hawaiian steel guitar in many ways, all very interesting. Life is so fragile. On behalf of my wife Faye, I send condolences to Art and the family.”
From Mike Perlowin:
“Sad news. I met Lorene at Scotty’s one year. She was a very gracious lady and a terrific Hawaiian steel player.”
From Don “Kona” Woods:
“The Hawaiian steel guitar family has lost a valued member. I can attest that Lorene was one of the major players in organizing the Hawaiian steel guitar community. She founded HSGA and was its first president. She was a friend for over 30 years. I will miss her.”
From Bob Stone:
“A huge loss to the Hawaiian steel guitar community. She will be missed.”