BEFORE it gave rise to the nation's No. 1 high school athletic program, this fertile patch on the island of Oahu endured a prolonged dry spell. A lack of rain, legend has it, made life a struggle for an old couple living at the base of Rocky Hill in Manoa Valley. But on successive nights, one and then the other had the same dream: If they pulled up the hala tree near their home, they would find water to fill their gourds. ¶ The tree was uprooted, revealing ka punahou—the new spring—whose waters pour forth to this day at the center of the Punahou School campus, a palm-lined, 76-acre citadel of academic and athletic excellence where Aristotle meets Duke Kahanamoku. Founded in 1841 by Congregationalist missionaries who could no longer bear the thought of shipping their children to New England to be educated, the school's first class consisted of 15 students.
Today, with a K--12 enrollment of 3,760, Punahou is the largest single independent school in the U.S. It is also the oldest in the country west of the Mississippi, and seemingly the most overachieving. Since 1958 the Buff 'n Blue have racked up 368 Hawaii championships—a state-record 16 this school year alone, including eight in the past two weeks.
THE NEW spring—could there be a more serendipitous name for a place of learning?—now feeds a lily pond over which Thurston Chapel was built. It was there in 2004 that a noted alum told seniors not to sweat it too much if their motivation wavered once in a while or if they fell behind in their college applications. "I didn't reach my full potential until after I left Punahou," confided Barack Obama, class of '79 and a reserve on the state-champion basketball team that year. "In fact, I was kind of a pain in the butt when I was here."
Beyond the pond and across Rice Field, on which soccer and softball are played, sits Dillingham Hall, the 600-seat theater where student musicians Dave Guard and Bob Shane delighted audiences at Punahou's annual Variety Show in the early 1950s. (A few years later they invited another guy to join in, then called themselves the Kingston Trio.)
Up the hill is Waterhouse Pool, in which Buster Crabbe trained before starring at the 1932 Olympics (he won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle) and, later, on the big screen (as Tarzan and Flash Gordon, to name a few roles). Renovated in 1981, the pool is a sparkling 50-meter gem—one of the gleaming facilities that are very much the norm on this Athenian campus.
With one notable exception.
To stroll down Punahou's Hall of Champions in the physical education center is to be awed by the rich athletic tradition of the Buff 'n Blue. ("Buff" represents the color of sand, "blue" the ocean.) There's a photograph, circa 1965, of a smiling Charlie Wedemeyer in his too-short basketball shorts; reputed to be the best all-around athlete Punahou has produced, he also starred in football and baseball. (He now helps coach the Los Gatos, Calif., High football team as he battles Lou Gehrig's disease.) A grainy black-and-white from the early '70s shows running back Mosi Tatupu, the future New England Patriot, a nanosecond before annihilating a would-be tackler from Iolani School. There's a shot of ripped goalie Chris Duplanty ('84), who would play on three U.S. Olympic water polo teams, lunging to make a save.
Koa wood plaques celebrate Interscholastic League of Honolulu (ILH) and state titles. Yet the Hall itself is tucked into a charmless, windowless corridor. Its gray carpet is dull and worn, and there are cracks in some of the ceiling panels.
Punahou's endowment is north of $180 million. Would it bust the budget to drop a few bucks on, say, frames for pictures, some track lighting, maybe a new trophy case or two? Not here. Not where ha'aha'a—Hawaiian for humility—is a cardinal virtue. Punahou goes out of its way to avoid even the appearance of rubbing opponents' noses in the islands' red dirt. That's one reason Hemmeter Fieldhouse is not festooned with championship banners.
Buff 'n Blue athletes are taught to savor the journey to a championship more than the triumphant moment itself. "If you make winning your be-all, end-all and then you lose, what do you have left?" asks boys' volleyball coach Rick Tune.