The Berdon’s celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with their family in Las Vegas in 1999. Back row from left are children Val, Leo Berdon, Alfred “Butch” Berdon Jr., Connie “Tootsie” Weller and Charmaine. Pictured in the middle is one of the Okinawan trainees with his wife, who considered Sonny Berdon his Hawaiian “papa.” In the front row is Bernice and Alfred Berdon. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BERDON FAMILY)
The Berdon’s pose in an undated photo. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BERDON FAMILY)
Alfred at Ho’onani Place, an adult day care facility in Waimea he enjoyed attending later in his life. (PHOTO COURTESY OF KARYN CLAY FOR NHN)
Berdon rides in a parade in Waimea. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BERDON FAMILY)
Alfred Berdon, left, joins other members of Kupuna CrossFit at CrossFit AllStar in Waimea. (PHOTO COURTESY OF KARYN CLAY FOR NHN)
The Berdon family poses for a photo in 1990, before the other 32 grandchildren were born. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BERDON FAMILY)
Alfred “Sonny” Berdon Sr. was one to lead by example. He lived his 84 years to the fullest, leaving a rich legacy for his children and progeny.
Born in 1929, Berdon was the eldest of nine children and grew up in Kawaihae at a time when life was less complicated. His parents, Domingo and Mary Vierra, owned three sanpan fishing boats, and Berdon grew up in the fishing life. Everyone who knew Berdon remembers him as being an extremely hard worker, and his passion for work began when he was a child.
“One of my father’s first jobs was selling turtle jerky,” said his daughter, Connie “Tootsie” Weller. “As a native, he was allowed to catch turtles, so he would go with his uncles and he would sell his share of the turtle jerky.”
After he completed the ninth grade, Berdon’s father asked him to help with the family fishing business. Berdon dropped out of school and it was his job to ice down the fish after the boats docked, then travel around the entire island distributing fish.
When he was 19 years old, Berdon’s father died from pneumonia. Berdon’s responsibility grew as he became the “man of the house,” and helped his mother raise his eight siblings, the youngest being only 9 months old at the time.
“My father had met Bernice Kauhi when he was 18,” Weller said. “So when he was 20 years old, he married the love of his life, and it was hard for his mother to let him go.”
The Berdons helped raise many of his siblings while raising their own children. Together, they had five children of their own: Leo, Val, Charmaine, Butch and Tootsie.
Weller explained that Bernice’s father, Joy Kauhi, was a taro farmer and a kahu, and responsible for influencing Berdon’s life in a big way.
“Papa (Joy Kauhi) taught my father so much, including patience and kindness,” Weller said. “I really believe it was because of his teachings that my father was such a compassionate and kind man.”
As his family grew, Berdon took a job with the County of Hawaii and for 13 years he became a grader operator.
“He used to share stories of how when the tsunami hit, he had to drive his grader all the way to Hilo to help with the cleanup,” said Weller.
In 1957, the family moved to Waimea’s Pu’ukapu homestead land and began farming vegetables on the land. Eventually, they cultivated 90 acres in Pu’ukapu with an additional 10 acres in Kawaihae. During the 60s and 70s, Berdon won numerous awards for his farming, including first place for Outstanding Young Farmer of Hawaii. The family also participated in an Okinawan Farmer Training program in which one young man from Japan would stay with the family for six months and learn how to farm.
“My father was a mentor to these young men and shared all his knowledge with them. We had a total of six trainees stay with us over the years,” said Weller. “All of these men started their own successful businesses and later in life, my parents got to visit them in Japan.”
Very supportive of his wife’s endeavors, Berdon helped Bernice start her first flower shop, Bernice’s Florist, in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center when it opened in the early 60s. He cultivated the flowers needed to fill the flower shop.
Bobby Nakamoto remembers when his own father Kaz partnered with Berdon to farm land.
“He was such a giving man,” Nakamoto said of Berdon. “He always helped everybody — he had such a big heart.”
One of Berdon’s dreams was to own a fishing boat, one that would handle Hawaiian waters well. He started out by opening Kamuela Marine Supply in 1971, selling glass-ply Olympic boats from the mainland. Two years later, he opened Ali’i Kai Boat Builders and designed custom boat molds. Pete Hendricks, who helped start Kohala Divers said the first boat they purchased for the business was an Ali’i Kai 19.
“Berdon changed the angle on the bottom of the boat,” Hendricks said. “He built a better bow for rough waters and was able to incorporate new ideas with old styles.”
Ultimately, Berdon built more than 1,200 boats, and people who own Ali’i Kai boats hang onto them. Weller said that for her father, building the boats was not about the money, but about making people happy. At the annual Ali’i Kai fishing tournament, he was happiest watching 60-70 of his boats enter the waters of Kawaihae.
Rose Spencer, Berdon’s younger sister, said she is number seven in the family. She remembers how “Sonny” encouraged each of his siblings to start their own businesses and work for themselves.
“He didn’t finish high school, but he was so akamai (smart),” Spencer said. “And he put so much love into his boats. Once at the beginning of a fishing tournament, I stood next to him and asked what he was feeling. He told me, ‘Each of these boats is like a child to me, and it is awesome to see them go out.’”
Spencer said what she admired the most about her older brother, is that he was so calm and collected.
“He (Berdon) never got upset,” Spencer said. “One time his boat shop was robbed. I told him I was so sorry and he answered that it could’ve been worse, that they only took reels and rods, not the boats. He was amazing.”
A lot of Berdon’s time was spent helping and encouraging others to become self sufficient. Harry Fernandez, who repairs fishing boats now, said all of his knowledge was taught to him by Berdon.
“He was like a stepfather to me,” Fernandez said. “He was a gentleman and a scholar and though I only spent 10 to 15 years learning from him, I feel that was short. All of the fisherman will miss him.”
In the early 70s, Berdon was one of the founders of the Kawaihae Canoe Club, and worked alongside Manny Veincent. Weller recalls how exciting it was.
“We all paddled back in the day when there were only three canoe clubs,” Tootsie said. “It was a new sport and so much fun for us.”
In 1973, Berdon and Bernice founded the Waimea Homestead Farmers Market along with four other couples. It is now run by Weller and Roen Hufford — the next generation of Hawaiian farmers.
Berdon was also responsible for bringing the 4-H program to Waimea, considered then to be a big thing for such a small town.
Weller said her parents took care of each other until the end. For the last couple of years, Berdon was cared for by Karyn Clay and her team at Ho’onani Place.
“It was always a delight to have him,” Clay said. “He would come in and greet everyone every day. He was extremely proud of his family and their accomplishments, and he was so full of love.”
Services for Alfred “Sonny” Berdon will be at 9 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 14, at St. James Church in Waimea.