It’s ironic. As Waimea residents experience the annual ritual of watching our cherry trees come into stunning full bloom, and then too quickly becoming a cherished memory, the community is also being reminded of the fleeting nature of all life – its richness and preciousness — with the recent passing of Tetsuro Wakayama just days before his 94th birthday.
Born Feb. 3, 1920, Wakayama died Jan. 14, surrounded by loved ones at Queen’s in Honolulu after a long healthy life and brief illness. His was a remarkable life, and the community is invited to celebrate with his family at 12 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 16, on the lawn where his father once operated I. Oda Store – a thriving general store, theater, gas station and garage. A private family service is planned the day before by his wife, three sons and their families, including five grandchildren.
For many, Wakayama was a quiet though always smiling presence as he focused on the heavy lifting involved in day-to-day operations of the family’s popular Kamuela Liquor Store which, despite his lifelong non-drinking habits, he started as Waimea’s first liquor store in April 1946.
Wakayama’s mother and father, Jitsuji and Chiyo Wakayama, were Issei – first generation immigrants who started I. Oda Store next to Kamuela Liquor Store. The senior Wakayamas held education in high regard and made sure their seven children attended school, which was quite unusual at the time. So Tetsuro Wakayama attended Waimea school to eigth grade, then Konawaena, graduating in 1938. While in school at Konawaena, he boarded weekdays at the nearby Hongwanji, paying for room and board by cleaning the graveyard. He’d come home to Waimea every weekend to work in the family store and soon was drafted to transport Waimea farmers’ produce either to Hilo or Kawaihae, and on the return run, carry goods back to his dad’s store.
After graduating from high school, he was sent to Honolulu for an apprenticeship in business, then returned to Waimea where his experience with transporting goods morphed into a new business, T. Wakayama Transfer.
Life changed in many ways in Waimea during the war years. His father was briefly interned – one of only two residents of Japanese ancestry who experienced this. His father was well educated and frequently helped other Japanese families communicate by letter with families back in Japan, which caused suspicion with the American military.
The war also resulted in a portion of the family compound at I. Oda Store being confiscated by the military, electrified and used to show movies to marines stationed here at Camp Tarawa. But for Wakayama, his produce shipping business and ownership of a truck – a valuable service for military purposes – resulted in him not being drafted.
With the war over, and a liquor license in hand for his own business, Wakayama married Yukie Morifuji and life as a dedicated father began, ultimately sending his three sons to first rate colleges and also helping with the grandchildren.
Wakayama Was best know for three things — his physical strength and stamina from hand carrying all the produce and supplies for the transfer business, he rarely wore a jacket and he also walked four miles a day, only slowing down to about a half hour in the recent past.
His granddaughter, Kayla, who was very close to her grandpa and who spent many hours with him, especially during the final weeks at Queen’s, says he was always thinking about others, never worrying about himself but, rather, if everyone else was OK and getting their rest.
“His mind was fine and his room at Queen’s was filled with love,” said his wife of 67 years. And there was humor, even teasing hospital staff by asking, “Where have you been?” of a nurse who had been off duty for several days but recognizing her immediately on her return to work.
“He was holding my hand … then very gently his grasp loosened and he was gone,” Yukie Wakayama said.
But his caring presence, twinkling eyes and smile are still felt, including his great love for his nearly 50-year-old forklift. So his sons, Alvin, Clyde and Dean, and grandchildren and family friends decided to honor him by parking the well-used forklift on the lawn, adorning it with cherry tree cuttings and other flowers, favorite family pictures, a can of his beloved Coke and his reluctantly accepted walking stick, carved by son Clyde from the branch of a guava tree.
“He refused to use a cane or walker,” said Clyde Wakayama, when handling the simple walking stick used on daily walks on a path cut in the grass near his home.
The community is invited at 12 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 16. In lieu of flowers or gifts, a donation to North Hawaii Hospice is suggested.