It began nine years ago with a parent asking Hawaii dealer Mike McKenna for a $100 donation for a prize at a high school graduation party.

He gave more than expected – a car. That donation set into motion a series of events in which the state’s auto dealers stepped up their support of education and spearheaded advances in state’s public education.

Mike McKenna at U.S. capitol.

First, the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Assn. (HADA) dealers successfully lobbied the state legislature for better standardized testing for grades 3-8 and high school.

Now the dealers are sponsoring a complete overhaul of the state's reading curriculum through a new language-arts program that aims to better educate Hawaii students, who are behind counterparts in most other states.

The dealers’ curriculum improvement project could have major consequences, says David Rolf, the association’s executive director, who envisions it as a potential national model.

It's a $7 million effort intended to move Hawaii students up from the lower levels of reading skills, create an educated workforce and increase the number of college-bound high school graduates from 35% to 75% and higher.

Says Rolf, “Hawaii is beautiful, the weather is great and the economy is booming. But the one thing that could throw a wrench in the works is that our kids score near the bottom in educational performance. We need to change that.

“To some people, it seems odd that dealers are leading that change. What is particularly wonderful is how the story of education reform comes to life when one follows the chain of events that started years ago with Mike McKenna’s donation of free cars to ‘Project Grad.’”

That first donated car led to more. To date, McKenna has given 27 free cars as prizes to high school graduation projects. Meanwhile, he is approaching a personal goal of donating $1 million to Hawaiian schools.

"Education is our paramount goal," says McKenna.

His generosity and the dealer association-backed educational movement he sparked earned McKenna the American Import Auto Dealers Assn.'s (AIADA’s) 2005 dealer of the year award.

“Receiving the award left me at a loss for words – and that’s amazing for a car salesman,” says McKenna, owner of Windward Volkswagen-Mazda and Windward Ford in Kailua, and a Hyundai and VW store in Kona.

Says Rolf, “Everyone in the state association is peacock-proud to have one of our Hawaii dealers named to this high national honor.”

Adds Honolulu Councilwoman Barbara Marshall: “There are among us in our unique community people who devote their lives to encouraging others. When it comes to encouraging our youth through education, few can match the efforts of Mike McKenna.”

Besides the car giveaways for school functions, McKenna donates $100 to schools for every car his dealerships sell.

He has written almost 10,000 checks of $100, each donated in his customers’ names.So far, 350 Hawaii public and private schools have received from $100 to $28,000.

McKenna makes no requirements on the schools. The money has been used for such wide-ranging needs as buying cookies for parent-teacher meetings, helping students from low-income households take field trips and purchasing extra equipment for science labs and books for libraries.

McKenna didn’t realize it at the time, but the dealer-backed statewide educational reform movement traces its beginning to 1996 when Kalaheo High School’s Project Grad Chairwoman Kathie Wells asked him for that $100 donation.

She wanted the money as a door prize for the high school’s annual alcohol-free, drug-free graduation party, sponsored by the school’s parents but not particularly well attended by the students.

Concerned about the low attendance, McKenna said, “What if I give you a car to give away?” He picked one from his used-car lot. Wells couldn’t believe it.

The idea of a substance-free graduation party appealed to McKenna, 72, because he remembers a graduation night in 1948 when he was in a Plymouth with seven friends who had been drinking and racing from one beach party to the next.

At one point someone asked how fast the car could go. “It was a bad question,” McKenna says.

Approaching 90 mph (145 km/h, the car missed a turn, flipped and hit a telephone pole. All the vehicle’s occupants were hurt, no one seriously. McKenna, who was in the backseat, had a concussion and a broken arm.

Attendance at the Kalaheo graduation parties had been running at about 35%. McKenna said he would provide the free car if the class attendance reached 95%. It hit 97%.

Soon other high schools were asking for free cars, too.

McKenna’s response to each:“Sure.” Today, the McKenna free-car door prizes are offered at all four high schools near his Kailua dealerships on the island of Oahu and at a high school near his Kona dealership on the island of Hawaii.

In 1999, while attending a Hawaii Volkswagen Dealers Assn. meeting, McKenna noted that such giveaways increase participation in worthwhile school programs.

He suggested that the VW dealers donate free use of a Jetta for a year as a reward to Hawaii’s teacher of the year. Soon, large numbers of teachers were being nominated for the award.

That encouraged other Hawaii dealers. They expanded the program to offer free year use of cars to teachers of the year at district levels. That was dubbed “Seven Cars for Seven Teachers.”

Those grateful top teachers volunteered to staff a giant curriculum display Rolf had built for the Hawaiian International Auto Show in 2001. It included an 84-ft.-long (25.5-m) “Wall of Words” covering 5,000 words and concepts that students should know by the 12th grade.

The display was a good way to familiarize the general public with the complex issues surrounding core content curriculum, says Rolf.

In 2002, the auto dealers successfully proposed legislation for grade-by-grade general knowledge testing to supplement the state-created tests and provide national-norm information to help evaluate student performance.

This year, the state dealer association, aided by national education experts, proposed what Rolf calls a key element needed for improving student achievement – the grade-by-grade core content curriculum.

It focuses heavily on reading skills. It also focuses on sequential learning, with what is learned in one grade built upon in the next. That may seem obvious, but it’s not always done, says Rolf. Instead, teaching sometimes comes down to what a teacher personally is interested in or thinks the students are most interested in.

“Our school system in Hawaii is a little too laid back,” says McKenna. “We need to get aggressive. Part of the problem was that teachers weren’t paid enough, and too many good ones went to the mainland to work. Now we’re getting wages up, so that helps.”

Several dealers have been involved in the curriculum movement. They include four who have headed the state dealer association since the effort got started: Charlie King, Joe Nicolai, John Hanley and Eric Fukunaga, the current president.

Rolf was put in charge of the effort after a roundtable meeting of 17 dealers, representing 80% of Hawaii vehicle sales, decided the association should commit to improving the state’s educational system.

“It was a radical idea for dealers to lead such a significant curriculum change,” says Rolf. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy nor without some opposition. The dealers at the roundtable were asked if we should do it. There was silence. Then a dealer asked me what it all meant.

“I said, ‘It means teaching kids how to read and understand what they read.’ The dealers said, ‘Let’s do it.’ They knew it was big. They knew they had to wrap their arms around it.”

The auto dealers suffered a setback when a request for $1 million state funding for the project made it through this year’s legislative session, but was eliminated by House and Senate conference committee members at the last minute. State Speaker of the House Calvin Say has offered to help dealers continue the funding effort. The Hawaii Department of Education may allocate some of its own funds.

Meanwhile, McKenna has traveled to Washington to solicit support for the effort. Hawaii Congressman Ed Case proposed earmarking $5 million in federal funds for the cause.

Dealers are working with education expert and author E.D. Hirsch, who has studied the decline of literacy. He partly blames TV and other media that detract students from reading. He also targets educators for failing to insist on basic cultural literacy.

He calls for an increase in the quantity of literature and history that students must master to become "culturally literate" and properly educated.

“If (the funding) passes and the program is used, we can expect a new era in our nation’s education, one in which Hawaii will have led the way,” says Hirsch.

It all stems from a parent’s request for a $100 donation and an auto dealer’s willingness to help.

“You just never can tell what will happen when people in the community work together,” says McKenna.

“Because my own education was lacking” is one reason McKenna is so interested in helping students advance today. He quit school at age 16 and joined the Marines in 1949.

McKenna is a fourth-generation Hawaiian. But he didn’t immediately return home upon his military discharge after serving in the Korean War. Instead he went to California looking for work.

He soon showed the entrepreneurial spirit that has made him a successful dealer.

He got involved in various ventures. He owned an auto race course. He started an Orange County newspaper in 1955, serving as publisher but also contributing stories because “I had a flair for writing.”

He first started working at a dealership as a mechanic. Then he became a showroom salesman. In 1969 he was asked if he were interested in acquiring a dealership franchise for Datsun, Nissan’s original name.

“My first reaction was, ‘What’s a Datsun?’”

He ended up running two Datsun stores in Whittier and Lakewood, CA.

Over the years he has bought and sold about 15 dealerships. “We’d buy troubled stores, turn them around and then sell them for a profit,” he says.

His son, Danny, learned the car business as a boy from his father, a single parent. In 1984, the son was working at a family dealership in California when “I threw the keys to the store to him and said, ‘I’m going back to Hawaii,’” says the elder McKenna.

He went there to attend to family real estate holdings. But in 1985, Volkswagen of America’s James Fuller (who three years later would die with 269 others in the Lockerbie plane crash) persuaded McKenna to take over a failing VW store in Hawaii.

“It was losing $100,000 a month,” says McKenna. “When we sold it, it was making $100,000 a month.”

He now owns three stores on two Hawaiian islands.

There are 67 dealerships in Hawaii with total new-car revenues of nearly $3 billion. That’s 12% of the state’s total retail sales, says the HADA.

“It’s not a big state, and a lot of business is done through friendships,” says McKenna. “We use the ‘Aloha’ approach. We’re honest, we don’t lie and we develop relationships.”

He says Hawaii dealers are noted for their community involvement, as evidenced by their current educational reform efforts and donations to school projects.

“All of Hawaii’s auto dealers are very involved in helping their communities,” he says. “It’s something we auto dealers feel a need to do for having been given the privilege of operating businesses in Hawaii.”

Rolf says of McKenna, “He’s one of the most generous businessmen I’ve ever met, and one of the most interesting.”

Honolulu Councilwoman Marshall says McKenna is known for “giving, giving and giving.”

McKenna also is known for driving around in his Harley-Davidson limited-edition Ford F-150 pickup truck, carrying a cigar and wearing a baseball cap and Hawaiian shirts.

He bought a white dress shirt and tie to wear at a Washington D.C. awards ceremony where he was named the AIADA’s dealer of the year.

“It’s the only white dress shirt and tie I own,” he says.