LIHUE — Raymond Sato, a former state comptroller and longtime manager and chief engineer for the county Department of Water and Honolulu Board of Water Supply, died on Feb. 10 after a brief illness.
He was 75.
Sato, who was born and raised in Kakaako on Oahu, worked as an engineer for the California Department of Transportation before deciding in 1974 to return home to Kauai, where his wife, Jean, was born and raised.
It was then that Sato began working for the County of Kauai as the operations manager at the county Department of Water. He worked his way up the ranks and later took the helm of the department in 1980 after then chief engineer and manager Walter Briant resigned.
Maryanne Kusaka, who served as mayor from 1994 to 2002, said she first met Sato in 1987 while she was working as the administrative assistant for late mayor Tony Kunimura.
“I truly believe he was one of our best water managers,” Kusaka said. “I think he helped to resolve some of the more difficult issues regarding water.”
Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa, D, Koloa-Niihau, agreed and recalled first meeting Sato when she started working for the County of Kauai in 1975.
“I think what stands out in my mind the most is how well he ran the Department of Water during the time he was there,” Morikawa said. “I know that his employees got along very well with him and there was never anything negative coming out of that department — it’s like they were a family.”
Perhaps his biggest challenge, however, was helping the island recover after Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki, which devastated the island in 1982 and 1992, respectively.
With the emergency help crews from water departments statewide and Kauai residents, Sato and Department of Water employees were able to put all water systems on Kauai, except for those at Kokee and Polihale State Parks, back into operation within two weeks of Hurricane Iniki’s landfall, according to American Water Works Association records.
“I think his most important accomplishment was being able to restore water to all of our residents,” said Sen. Ron Kouchi, D, Kauai-Niihau, who was serving on the Kauai County Council at the time. “At the time of Iniki, I think it was one of the costliest hurricanes in US history, so at a time when the island was devastated and the residents were in a difficult position, the fact that we could get our water restored was critical.”
Sato later moved to Honolulu in 1993, when he was chosen as deputy manager of the Honolulu Board of Water Supply under then manager and chief engineer Kazu Hayashida. After Hayashida was named director of the state Department of Transportation one year later, Sato assumed the role of manager and chief engineer for Board of Water Supply before joining then-Gov. Ben Cayetano’s cabinet in 1998.
“It’s not the easiest thing because you’re coming from a small island, but his reputation preceded him and he was appointed, so we, on Kauai, were very proud of that,” Kusaka said.
Sato retired from his state comptroller position in 2001 and returned to Kauai to become the vice president of island operations for SSFM International, Inc., a Lihue-based engineering consultation firm, for the next four years.
Those who know Sato say his talents weren’t limited to engineering. Kusaka recalled evenings when he would stop by Kunimura’s office after work around 5:30 or 6 p.m. and sing on the late mayor’s karaoke machine.
“He loved music and he loved singing,” Kusaka said with a laugh.
He is survived by his wife, Jean Sato, of Wailua; brother, Warren Sato, of Kailua; daughter, Stephanie (Noa Char) Sato, of Kauai; and two grandchildren.
A celebration of life is scheduled to be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 at Garden Island Mortuary.