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Mel Paoa: A Legacy of Humility and Humor

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Uncle Mel sharing his love of the Hokulea with Molokai keiki in 2013. Photo by Catherine Cluett.

Last week, Molokai lost a beloved waterman, paramedic, Hokule`a captain, mentor and family man. Melvin “Mel” Paoa, Jr., who dedicated his career to saving lives as the island’s first certified paramedic, was known around the island and the world for his quiet, aloha spirit.

Shortly after noon last Saturday, Molokai firefighters responded to a report of a boat floating unattended near Kamalo Wharf. Witnesses said they last saw Paoa, 62, tying up his 26-foot-catamaran in the area, according to fire officials. Rescue crews found him unresponsive, floating about 300 yards offshore and downwind from the wharf. After unsuccessfully trying to resuscitate him, he was  transported  to Molokai General Hospital, where he  passed away.

Police say the cause of his death won’t be known until after an autopsy.

“Nobody really knows what really happened, he was found floating in the water,” said Fire Capt. Henry Lindo. “No one witnessed him fall off…. To work with him for so many years, and find him and pull him out, was really hard.”

Having grown up on Molokai, Paoa met his wife, Donna, in Waikiki, where she had moved from Colorado to work as a lifeguard. They moved together to Molokai, where they raised their children. Donna became a college professor, while Paoa worked as a paramedic.

When he retired in 2013 after 35 years, Paoa was the longest-serving paramedic in Maui County.

“He was the first [paramedic] from Molokai,” said fellow American Medical Response employee Scotty Schafer at Paoa’s retirement. “He’s the one who broke the barrier.  All the other guys that went to [paramedic] school, we all owe it to him.”

Under difficult and stressful emergency situations, Paoa was known to keep his composure while working skillfully with patients and families, according to his co-workers.

“This is not a job, this is a love for the community and the people,” said Paoa in 2013. “It’s really hard to work on Molokai because half the people you’re related to, the other half you know,” he joked.

Friends said one of the things they’ll miss is Paoa’s humor.

“He would crack jokes and could bring light into dark situations,” recalled Lindo. “He did everything out of love…. We’re going to miss him big time. It’s hard to fathom.”

After her retirement last December, Donna said she was looking forward to spending more time with her husband. Paoa joked that they were working to get to know each again.

“It’s hard having to look at each other 24 hours a day,” he had chuckled mischievously, his signature papale flopping low over the loving twinkle in his eye.

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Mel Paoa and his wife Donna. Photo by Noe Yamashita.

Paoa’s passion for the ocean and the voyaging ohana  led him to become the designated Molokai captain on the Hokule`a. He told Molokai Middle School students last year that he first touched the legendary double-hulled voyaging canoe in 1977 and never let go. As a diabetic, Paoa was told to discontinue sailing on Hokule`a for health reasons, but he never let his condition stop him. In 1985, he did his first open-ocean sail on Hokule`a at the age of 32 — 12,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti to French Polynesia and finally the Cook Islands.

“I didn’t take [doctors’ advice]…I decided to go on this journey no matter what,” Paoa said to the students.

Despite concerns that he would not be able to finish the voyage without his diabetes getting out of control, Paoa learned to manage it, and went on to successfully complete that first sail.

“Don’t let anybody discourage you or say, ‘no you can’t go or do that,'” he advised youth. “You have to challenge yourself.”

After overcoming his own health challenges, Paoa dedicated his life to inspiring young people never to give up on their dreams.

While traveling around the world on the Hokule`a and recently as part of the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage, Paoa’s humble and easygoing demeanor exemplified aloha.

“He was the epitome of what aloha is,” said Kawika Crivello, a Molokai paddler that Paoa took under his wing in 1994. “I was very fortunate to have him as a mentor and teacher.”

Crivello said he trained under Paoa over thousands of miles and hundreds of hours, and has gone on to do ocean crossings on the Hokule`a, and carrying on, with others, the legacy Paoa shared.

“He’s touched many people, you can see it in every place he went to — he’s spoken of so highly,” said Crivello. “He’s quiet and humble, but wherever he went he really left that mark of aloha…. People speak of him and their eyes light up.”

Before leaving last year to join the Malama Honua leg from American Samoa to New Zealand, Paoa told the Dispatch that no matter where he goes, he keeps his eye on Molokai.

“Everywhere I sail, I always look to see what direction Molokai is so I know where home is,” said Paoa. “I always look.”

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