LIHUE — Charming, sincere and kind is how friends described Elsie Wilcox Elementary School’s hydroponic gardener, Yoshi Nakao.
Considered an uncle to those he met, Nakao touched the lives of many people across the island.
Although he died Feb. 25 at the age of 80, his friends are keeping his memory and spirit alive.
“He was a wonderful man,” said John Cabello, Nakao’s friend and Pastor of New Hope Christian Church. “He was at the school for over 50 years and he touched a lot of lives.”
Growing up on Oahu, Nakao lost his parents at the age of 6 and moved to Kauai with five brothers and sisters to live with his aunt and uncle. As Nakao grew up on the island, he found happiness with his new family, his friends said.
Years later, Nakao joined what would become his second family at Wilcox school in Lihue as head custodian.
During his time at the school, Nakao worked with staff and students alike, including fellow custodian Susie Gusman.
“As far as working with him, he was a very good supervisor. I learned a lot from him. A friend and a co-worker, someone you could learn from,” said Gusman, who said she still misses her mentor. “I feel a loss because he was a good person.”
In 1998, after Nakao had retired, Wilcox Principal Ernest Dela Cruz asked the custodian to return to run the institute’s hydroponics program.
Nakao was happy to do so. While working with the students in the garden, he planted all sorts of vegetables.
“When you work with someone and you enjoy working with them, everyday’s a good day,” said Gusman.
Nakao also helped around the school with other tasks.
“It’s a loss,” Gusman said. “I know the children feel it at school and everyone else who was connected with him because he was just a part of the school.”
The gentle custodian also touched the lives of Kauai residents Michael and Anette Oda, with whom he lived for more 30 years. He moved in with them after Hurricane Iwa struck the island in 1982 and destroyed the nursing cottages at Mahelona where Nakao was staying.
The Odas treasured their new friend.
“He kind of holds a special place in our hearts,” said Annette. “He’s ‘uncle’ to us. All my children know him as ‘uncle.’”
Anette said one of the best times the couple and their children spent with Nakao was after Hurricane Iniki.
“We were all together putting together the debris and they (Oda’s children and Nakao) made a clubhouse in the backyard,” said Oda. “So he came up with ideas like that for them and took them fishing and kind of helped them adjust.”
Nakao also displayed his kindness by giving Oda’s youngest son a walkie talkie to keep in touch after the hurricane because of the house’s damaged phone lines.
They said they’re sure their friend is resting in peace.
“Knowing that he’s a Christian, knowing that he was baptized, knowing that he’s been going to church at New Hope Lihue and at the Wilcox school cafeteria, I felt a sense of peace because I noticed that he was slowing down,” Oda said of her friend who suffered from diabetes. “He did say that he had difficulty, coughing up blood and he’s the kind of person, very traditional Japanese. He’s very quiet. He doesn’t like to alarm people so even some of his closer friends would ask him, ‘How did it go? What did the doctor say?’ and stuff. The answer was always, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’”
Doug Kozub, pastor of New Hope Church in Kapaa, said Nakao was an amazing man.
“My wife and I, we love him,” he said.
Cabello said Nakao sat next to him in church every Sunday.
“He was very warm and charming,” Cabello said. “He was also caring. Even though he had no family, he took care of us.”