John C. Kay grew up in the rougher parts of Chicago. Standing over 6 feet tall, Kay had many opportunities to play football throughout high school and college. However, his love of biology brought him to the shores of Hawaii
to study the island's fisheries while attending the University of Hawaii for a master’s degree in science. In the early 1960s, he was hired by ‘Iolani and began his 52-year career as a biology teacher.
Dr. Carey “Doc” S. Inouye ´66, Dean of Instruction, Registrar and Physics teacher, was just a student when Kay began teaching.
“I didn’t have him as a teacher: I missed him by about one or two years, but he became very involved with students,” Inouye said. “He formed an oceanography club where he and his students would just go fishing.”
After graduating, Inouye came back to ‘Iolani as a science teacher under the mentorship of Kay.
“Every morning we would meet, drink coffee together and talk. And he would impress upon me that whatever you do, whatever decision you make, whatever happens while you’re a teacher, you always do it for the students,” Inouye said.
Over Kay’s many years of teaching at ‘Iolani, he became known as “Papa Jack” due to his kind actions and strong desire to provide opportunities for his students to experience science outside of the classroom. In his last 10 years of teaching at ‘Iolani, many of Kay’s former students wanted to give back to Kay for how he had inspired them. By working with ‘Iolani, they helped with the construction of the Research Science Lab in the Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership with pledges and monetary donations. Kay himself donated over $200,000 to fund the Kay Fellowship, a program allowing students to research independently on subjects of their choice.
Every summer, many ‘Iolani high school students apply for the Kay Fellowship scholarship. After proposing their individual research topic, students are chosen to conduct their research under the Fellowship program. These students are then introduced to experts who help them conduct their tests and collect data. While most conduct their research in the Research Science Lab, some have worked in the laboratories at the University of Hawai`i, updating their advisor on their progress weekly.
‘Iolani students studied and proposed theories on problems in Hawai‘i this past summer, with topics ranging from viruses affecting insects to the effect of varying water heater settings.
“In class during the school year, you mainly stick to a regular routine of textbook lessons and pre-designed labs,” Madison Kai 2020 said. “As a Kay-fellow, you have to discover the answers yourself and figure out how to design your own experiments. It’s a completely different experience.”
Students can choose to continue their research during the school year or tie up their work. Those who choose to continue have opportunities compete in divisional, statewide, national, and international science fairs.
Thanks to Jack Kay and his vision to provide students with every opportunity possible, students are able to find their passions for science and experience work as true scientists. The efforts of Kay have led many to discover their passions and leave a long lasting legacy.