John Rollin Desha (commonly known as ‘Jack’) was born on January 22, 1887 at Nāpoʻopoʻo, South Kona, Hawaiʻi to Senator and Reverend Stephen Langhern Desha Sr and Mary Kaʻalopua (Kekumano) – a descendant of the Desha family of Kentucky.
He was graduated from the Kamehameha Manual Training School in 1903 and from Oʻahu College (Punahou) in 1906. While at Oʻahu College, Jack was a favorite amongst the faculty and administration.
In a letter of recommendation to Secretary John G. Hart at Harvard University, President Arthur F. Griffiths of Oʻahu College wrote:
“The boy comes of the best Hawaiian stock. He is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and of Oʻahu College. In his senior year at Oʻahu College, by a vote of the Faculty and Trustees, he was awarded the Punahou Roll of Honor. This honor goes annually to the student in the school who, during that year, has done the best for the school.”
Griffiths continued: “For a boy with Hawaiian blood to win this in a ‘white’ school, was a single distinction. Moreover, the award was popular among all the students of the school.” (Aki; OHA)
Desha was president of his senior class and president of Hui Pauahi, “a newly organized society for social service among the students and teachers of Oahu College.” (Evening Bulletin, February 3, 1908)
He also captained the baseball team for three years and played football. He excelled in both academics and sports during his time at Oʻahu College.
Desha received his BA degree at Harvard University in 1912; at Harvard Desha was prominent in athletics, being a member of the baseball team from 1911 to 1912. He later attended the George Washington Law School.
He married Agnes Ready at Medford, Mass.; they had two children: Evelyn and Jacqueline.
Desha began his career as secretary to Prince Jonah Kūhio Kalanianaʻole, delegate to Congress, holding this office from 1912 to 1917.
Returning to Honolulu from Washington, he entered the law office of Thompson & Cathcart and was admitted to practice in all of the courts of the Territory in July, 1918.
The following year he became deputy city and county attorney, holding this position from January to June, when he started a law practice in Hilo with his brother, Stephen L Desha, Jr., under the firm name of Desha & Desha.
On April 28, 1920, Desha was appointed second district magistrate of South Hilo. In 1921, he was appointed judge of the Circuit Court by President Warren Harding, taking office in January of 1922 for the first of two four year terms; he would be reappointed to the second by Calvin Coolidge.
Upon completion of his final term in 1927, he returned to private practice. From 1927-1948, Jack held a number of positions in the public and private sectors, eventually returning to public office as second assistant to the public prosecutor in 1946, and acting public prosecutor in 1948.
Throughout his life, Jack “was devoted to Hawaiʻi and to various organizations which kept alive the ways of old Hawaiʻi.” He served as Aliʻi ʻAimoku (supreme head) of the Royal Order of Kamehameha and was also a past president of the Hawaiian Civic Club. (Aki; OHA)
John Rollin Desha died March 11, 1958.