For a hundred years, the peninsula settlement on the northern coast of Molokai was a secret to the world outside the islands.
Kalawao, and later Kalaupapa, were the final stops for sufferers of leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease.
Recently, there was an important anniversary celebration of the company devoted to educating the public on the plight of the patients.
Getting to the settlement in Kalaupapa has never been easy. For decades, visitors have ambled down the mule trail or flown in and landed on the tiny airstrip.
But once on terra firma, the first friendly face was almost always that of the late Richard Marks, resident historian and tour guide. While most patients shunned attention, Marks basked in it, eloquently sharing stories of his early years in the settlement.
“People could see I had some kind of illness because of my features,” said Marks in 1977.
This dark period of Hawaii’s past was the syllabus of his tour lectures and no visitor left Kalaupapa without a full understanding of the travails of the 8,000 people once exiled to the peninsula.
His business was called Damien Tours and, in the beginning, tickets were just $5, barely enough to cover gas for the tour bus.
But the objective of the tour was education, not dollars. Marks felt the residents, past and present, should not be remembered for the affliction they had, but for their courage and the place they hold in Hawaii history.
Richard marks died eight years ago and his wife Gloria took over the business and promised to take Damien Tours into its 50th year.
“For tonight, I owe a lot to my husband,” she said. “We came a long way.”
“This mission has allowed us to eliminate stigma across the world,” said granddaughter Nicole Caroll. “Grandpa and Grandma have been doing it for 50 years and I think we can do it longer.”
Father Lane Akiona, St. Augustine by the Sea said “I’m so grateful that for 50 years, they have been able to educate so many people, not only about Damien, but Marianne and the plight of the patients and their rights today.”
There are only 13 patients remaining at Kalaupapa, but each has a story. Granddaughter Nicole has the company reins now, and promises to see Damien Tours into the next 50 years, sharing her grandparents’ memories of pain, hope and redemption.