Sun sets on ‘Waimea Cowboy’ Ernie Cruz

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The Rev. Ernie Cruz, patriarch of one of Hawaii’s greatest music families and former pastor at New Hope Puna and Pahoa Assembly of God churches, died May 14 at his home in Glendale, Ariz. He was 76.


The Rev. Ernie Cruz, patriarch of one of Hawaii’s greatest music families and former pastor at New Hope Puna and Pahoa Assembly of God churches, died May 14 at his home in Glendale, Ariz. He was 76.

Cruz, known as the “Waimea Cowboy” for his signature song of the same title, was an old-school country singer and yodeler who had a knack for connecting with a lyric and an audience. Born in Modesto, Calif., Cruz was a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran who settled in the islands, first in Honolulu and later on the Big Island. His uncompromising music and love for the local people and culture made him a Hawaii favorite.

“I know that he genuinely loved this island. He’d leave and he kept coming back,” said Cruz’s first-born, Ernelle “Doodie” Downs. “The first time I came to this island, I was celebrating my 13th birthday and my dad sent for me to come up. It was really important for him to see all these places on this island and why he really loved this place.”

Cruz had been in declining health for awhile, suffering a heart condition for the past decade of his life and a stroke about 3 1/2 years ago, which left him having to re-learn to walk, talk and sing, according to his wife of 33 years, Maggie Cruz.

“Ernie had just a huge heart,” she said. “While all of this was going on, all that he thought about or cared about was that I was OK and his children were OK. He never complained; he never felt sorry for himself. He was all about everybody else from the day that I met him.”

The Cruzes met in Las Vegas, where he was performing at the Union Plaza (now the Plaza) Hotel’s casino.

“I looked around and it was as if, all of a sudden, somebody told the whole casino to stand,” Maggie Cruz recalled. “Everybody in the casino stood up and started coming forward to the stage area where he was singing. I worked for the entertainment company that booked him there and the owner of the Union Plaza called and said, ‘We can’t have that. When he sings, everybody stops gambling and we don’t want that to happen.’”

The thrice-married Cruz had 10 natural children and informally adopted two of Maggie Cruz’s daughters. Most of them sing, play and/or write music — including Ernie Cruz Jr., John Cruz, Guy Cruz, Tony Cruz, Downs, Desiree Cruz, Marissa Meredith, Tiffany “Tiffa” Garza and Connie Rincon. The latter three are known collectively as “The Cruz Sisters.”

A local entertainer, who asked that his name not be used, said, “Ernie could show up at any of his kids’ gigs, strum three chords, yodel and steal the show.”

“That’s true; he’s done it,” Guy Cruz said, and laughed. “Even though my parents were divorced, my dad always had time for us.”

He said the roots of his father’s music were “always the same.”

“He’d change from country to gospel, but you could always tell it was Ernie Cruz,” Guy Cruz said.

Added Downs, a songwriter best known for her brother John’s hit, “Sittin’ Around”: “It was always heartwarming for me whenever my dad would show up at any of my brothers’ gigs and other musicians would enjoy listening to his music. He was embraced, really embraced. He was a really good entertainer.”

She said she loves “Waimea Cowboy” because it honors the Big Island’s paniolo tradition with the line ‘Cowboy second to none.’ I really love country music and listening to my father sing. He could really move people when he sang country music.”

Cruz’s children play a diversity of music styles and all who spoke said he encouraged their music, regardless of style.

Daughter Desiree Cruz, a former Miss Hawaii, is a jazz vocalist.

“I moved to Hilo 25 years ago and almost every single day someone has asked about him and they’d say how much they loved his music and loved him,” she said. “He had an old-style country-western voice like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. When I or any one of his kids are singing you can definitely hear his vocal style come through.”

Hilo services will be late next month on a date still to be determined.

Cruz is survived by wife, Maggie Cruz; daughters, Ernelle “Doodie” (Bill) Downs, Desiree M. (James O’Connor) Cruz, Stephanie (Bruce) Tyrin, Sarah (Rances Galindo) Cruz, Marissa Meredith, Tiffany (Imua) Garza and Connie (Eddie) Rincon; sons, Ernie (Kaheli) Cruz Jr., David (Kelli Heath) Cruz, John Cruz, Tony (Tricia) Cruz and Guy (Jon Lawrence) Cruz; 12 grandsons, seven granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.

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