LIHUE — If you’ve spent some time at Salt Pond Park or stopped by the weekly Hanapepe Art Night over the years, chances are you’ve probably seen Louis Almodova Jr. talk story with locals and tourists alike.
If you’re lucky, you may have heard the Hanapepe resident play one of his favorite songs on his ukulele or even sing it out loud.
Almodova, a longtime Westside and South Shore resident and World War II veteran who was known by many as the “Mayor of Salt Pond,” died Wednesday at Hale Kupuna Heritage Home in Omao after a brief illness. He was 97.
“He loved talking to tourists,” said his daughter Sandi MacDonald.
“He just loved the tourists,” added another daughter, Geraldine Yamamoto. “To me, that’s what kept him alive.”
“You’d see him talking to them every day,” interjected his youngest daughter, Pat Ashley. “He would always be at Salt Pond welcoming people there whether he knew you or not. He would always walk up to them and say, ‘Welcome to Salt Pond. Where are you folks from? How can I help you?’”
And that is the way some family members and residents say they will always remember him.
“When I heard of Uncle Louis’ passing, it really saddened me,” County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Lenny Rapozo wrote in an email. “He truly embodied the aloha spirit and his love for the island really showed, especially to those who visited Salt Pond.”
Even as his health declined over the last two months, family members said Almodova would often show that welcoming spirit at any opportunity he had.
“About two weeks before he died, I was bringing him home from Straub Clinic on Oahu and he was sitting in the first row on the plane,” Ashley recalled with a laugh. “As everyone started boarding, he would see the tourists and say, ‘Aloha,’ but they didn’t respond. They were probably wondering, ‘Whoa. What’s this man doing?’ I had to laugh to myself but I let him do it because that’s what he loved to do.”
Born on Oct. 24, 1917, to a family of 11 children, Almodova began working for the McBryde Sugar Company at 13 years old. Almodova eventually rose through the ranks and became a plantation foreman for McBryde Sugar Company, where he met his wife Alice, whom he married in 1944. He briefly played the tenor guitar in a seven-man band called “The Rhumba Kings” in his early 20s. He was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1940 and served for five years on Kauai.
After retiring from McBryde Sugar Company, Almodova worked as a tour bus driver until he decided to retire for good in his early 70s.
But even during his golden years, family members say Almodova remained active by ballroom dancing with his wife and playing senior baseball — a pastime that he took to heart.
When he was 80, Almodova competed in the Senior Softball World Series as a pitcher and first baseman, helping lead his team to the World Championship in Kansas City, Kansas.
Ashley recalled that her dad was a traditionalist when it came to baseball — he insisted that players wear knee breeches, rather than full-length pants, and lectured people when their caps were turned backward.
“My dad played baseball until he was 85 and he always wore the stockings instead of the long pants,” Ashley said. “He would say, ‘They’re wearing pajamas. They’re not dressed like ball players,’ so if you look at the Waimea High School baseball team, the boys all dress with stockings, but that was because of my dad. He wanted them to dress like ball players.”
But perhaps what he is most remembered for is his love for Salt Pond Park and all the people who visited there.
It is, after all, the reason why he was recognized by then-Mayor Tony Kunimura as the “Mayor of Salt Pond” and why county officials in 2011 named the main pavilion at the Hanapepe beach park after him.
Yamamoto said Almodova would send out about 400 Christmas cards each year to some of the people he met over the years, including visitors from Switzerland, the Bahamas, Japan and Canada, to name a few.
“I remember the days when Dad would handwrite them, but then cards became expensive,” Ashley said.
Kauai County Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa, who grew up in Waimea, said Almodova would regularly stop by his grandmother’s store, Sue’s Snack Shop, in Eleele Shopping Center while he was growing up on the Westside.
“He was amazing,” Kagawa said. “He was an ambassador on the Westside. There’s not a lot of signs about what’s out there on the Westside, so Louie would always be at Salt Pond and talk to all the tourists and tell them about what they can do or whatever. We kind of had a free tourism specialist for many years.”
Kumu Hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin of Halau Ka Lei Mokihana O Leinaala said she remembers first meeting Almodova during frequent trips with her grandmother to see his mother.
“He always made us feel extremely welcome and made sure we ate plenty of his mom’s famous panadeja,” Jardin wrote in an email.
Jardin said she last saw Almodova at her halau’s kachi kachi dance fundraiser, where he “sat with me and talked story.”
“Uncle Louie will be missed, but I hope that his passing brings a reminder to all of us to live with unconditional aloha for our family, friends, kamaaina and malihini,” Jardin wrote. “May his legacy of aloha and hospitality live on through the many lives that he touched.”
Almodova also served as a father figure for many kids growing up on the Westside, and had words of advice to share along with a few jokes.
“I think what Dad told me was, ‘Go to school. Don’t worry about boys — boys will always be there. Go to school first,’” Ashley said. “I think he still says that to kids today.”
Rapozo, who first met Almodova when he returned home to Kauai after college, said the Hanapepe resident was “the last person I know of who knew my Hawaiian grandfather.”
“It was a pleasure to sit and talk to him about my papa, and it was a connection to my childhood,” Rapozo wrote in an email. “Although I will miss Uncle Louis, I am happy that he is now with his beloved wife who he truly loved and missed.”
Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she met Almodova when she made her first run for public office in the late 1970s, and valued his words of encouragement.
“He was an icon and a much beloved figure by both residents and visitors,” Yukimura said. “He just took care of people and made people laugh — he gave encouraging words and told funny jokes. He was very beloved in the community and we’re all going to miss him very much.”
Gale Sagucio, owner of JJ Ohana, said she remembers when Almodova used to sit outside her store during Hanapepe Art Nights on Friday and talk to tourists from all over the world as they walked along Hanapepe Road.
“He was so special to everybody, I think,” Sagucio said. “On Friday nights, he used to come out and play his ukulele and talk to the visitors, so he made them feel welcome with his aloha spirit.”
Dickie Chang said he has known Almodova since he started his “Walaau” television show in the mid-1990s, and recalled how generous and humble he was to everyone, even politicians.
“He allowed politicians, including me, to put their signs in front of his house just because I think he wanted to be helpful to everybody,” Chang recalled. “I don’t think it had anything to do with issues — I think he just wanted to be kind to everybody. He just never said no.”
One of Chang’s most enduring memory of Almodova occurred on the day he died. As Chang drove past Almodova’s home on New Year’s Eve, he recalled seeing a big American flag posted outside of the house — an act his family said he would regularly do.
“He was definitely an ambassador of aloha,” Chang said. “He must have met thousands of people every year who used to come and see him, and if he wasn’t at Salt Pond, a lot of people used to drive to his house. I used to drive to his house just to talk story with him — the door was always open and he was humble to everybody.”
Almodova is preceded in death by his wife, Alice Almodova, who died in 2003 after 59 years of marriage.
He is survived by son Don Almodova of Eleele and daughters Geraldine Yamamoto of Hanapepe, Sandi MacDonald of Cuenca, Ecuador, and Pat Ashley of Honolulu. He is also survived by nine grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
Visitation with family will be held from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Kalaheo with Mass to follow.