James Yamamoto doesn’t really like the spotlight.
“That’s not my nature,”the retired teacher said. “That’s not why I’m doing community service. It’s not to be honored for doing something that I want to do.”
Yamamoto, lei piled high on his shoulders, made it clear that while he enjoys helping people and groups, he could do without any recognition for it.
“To be honored, it’s nice. But I’m just doing the community’s work to get things done without payback,” he said.
But that payback came in the shape of praise and applause during Saturday’s Living Treasures luncheon at the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club. Yamamoto was one of seven people and one family honored for their contributions to the island’s past, present and future.
About 420 people, including Gov. David Ige, attended the three-hour affair that was emceed by Sen. Ron Kouchi. It was a joy-filled afternoon of hugs, kisses and standings ovations.
Maryanne Kusaka, president of the board of directors for the Kauai Museum, which put on the event, said it was amazing to witness such a gathering of Kauai’s longtime leaders and contributors to the island’s success.
“Aren’t we proud to live here?” she said.
The Living Treasures of Kauai and Niihau honored were Shirley Akita, Thomas Adam Kaipo Chandler, Dr. Monty Downs, Thomas Hashimoto, Sharron Weber, Peter Yukimura and Walter “Freckles” Jr., Smith and the Smith ohana, and Yamamoto.
“These are really special individuals that are among us in our community and we are just so blessed to have them and to have them share their knowledge with all of us,” Kusaka said. “Today was exceptionally special because of these people.”
Their impact and influence is priceless, she said.
“They bring with them the skills they learned from the past and they share it today,” Kusaka said. “What they leave for tomorrow is immeasurable. We just need to be able to pick it up and just learn from them.”
Each Living Treasure was introduced by a family member or friend who told stories of their lives on Kauai. Some grew up here, others moved here decades ago. During their careers, they operated businesses, hunted, surfed, volunteered, donated, taught, rode horses, saved lives and passed on traditions of the culture.
Each was highly respected for their spirit and dedication to their community and family.
Ige was the first governor to attend the Living Treasures luncheon, which is held every two years. He called it “a terrific celebration of people,” and a “testament to their lifetimes of making Kauai a special place.”
“You leave our community a little bit better for the next generation,” he said. “You’re making Kauai, and the state of Hawaii, a much, much better community for all of us.”
People on Kauai, Ige said, are blessed with sharing core values, starting with family.
“All of us know that it’s really about the future,” the governor said. “It’s about our children.”
Sharron Weber, a two-time world champion surfer and owner of Tire Warehouse, gives back to the community through fundraising and volunteerism and is known for being at nearly every benefit golfing tournament.
“It was a huge honor to be recognized by the Kauai Museum for this outstanding award to be a Living Treasure,” she said. “I’m kind of young to be a Living Treasure but I’m very privileged that they picked me to be one.”
She has operated Tire Warehouse 42 years. Her secret to success? Work hard.
“I go to work every day. It’s just like that,” she said.
Except Sunday, she said, which is “the Lord’s day.”
Lorraine Wichman, a longtime friend, said Weber gives her business the “personal touch.” She changes tires with the boys, greets people in the parking lot and helps stranded motorists.
“I see why her business has grown,” she said.
Walter “Freckles” Smith said the award was “too much.”
“I don’t know how to express it,” he said. “I just have to thank the people of Kauai for all of this.”
At 82, he continues to work at Smith’s Tropical Paradise, inspecting the grounds in his golf cart.
“You gotta keep working or you die,” he said, smiling.
The Smith ohana began their river tours in 1946 with a rowboat and small motor.
“My grandparents, like many families today, worked hard to make ends meet,” said Kamika Smith, general manager.
The family promoted the island and Fern Grotto in their travels, and the business expanded.
“So much of what we enjoy today is because of the visionary risk-taking of the Smith family,” Kouchi said.
Today, the Smith name is synonymous with Kauai’s visitor industry and its luau continues to be a major draw for guests.
“We keep Kauai aloha spirit alive in the midst of all the changes that will come,” Kamika Smith said.
Bob Westerman outlined how Downs, after two drownings in 1991, committed to doing all he could to save lives and making Kauai a safer place. He worked with elected and industry leaders to improve ocean safety and is now president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.
“I truly believe Kauai is a much safer place, thanks to Doc,” Westerman said.
Chipper Wichman talked about Thomas Hashimoto, born in 1934 in Haena.
“For Uncle Tom to grow up in Haena in those years, he had an amazing upbringing,” Wichman said.
The land was full of resources and natural beauty and Hashimoto learned from his father how to live in it. He was raised around traditional Hawaiian practitioners and developed a burning passion and work ethic, and a heart to cherish the ocean and island.
“He saw firsthand things today you would call fairy tales,” Wichman said.
In the military, Hashimoto became an artillery expert and spent 18 years training others in the National Guard.
Other Living Treasures:
w Thomas Adam Kaip Chandler, described as “paniolo extraordinaire.” He spent 34 years working for Gay and Robinson, driving an old Jeep over the mountains from Waipa to Waimea, hunting in Kalalau Valley, fishing and entertaining for Hanalei Plantation Hotel.
His son, Thomas Chandler Jr., described his father as strong and tough, but kind, too.
w Shirley Akita dedicated her life to education. Born in 1935 in Kilauea, she was a teacher, counselor, vice principal and district superintendent for Kauai and Niihau. She is the founder of Kokee Discovery Center Association and past director of the Wilcox Hospital Board.
Education was her life, said her son, Norman Akita Jr. She was a tireless worker and today continues to volunteer.
w James Yamamoto. After 31 years of teaching at Kauai High School, he retired and started decades of volunteer work. He donated his time and talents to teachers associations, humpback whales, the marine mammal response program and Boy Scouts.
Gary Yamato said he looked up to his older brother for direction and guidance growing up in Lihue. He described his brother as serious and focused.
“He was not what you would call a fun guy,” Gary said.
He told a story of being frightened one night, worried something in the canefield was trying to get him, so he got into bed with his brother.
“He kicked me out of the bed,” Gary said, as the crowd laughed. “He’s not taken to illogical thinking.”
w Peter Yukimura was born in Lihue. The successful businessman with a charitable, compassionate heart had a distinguished military service with the Army in the Vietnam War that included two Purple Hearts. He volunteered to serve on numerous boards and accepted government appointments.
Even after Hurricane Iniki reduced his business operations overnight from about $15 million to nothing, he stayed and rebuilt and kept people working.
“I think that’s pretty legendary,” said his daughter, Darcie Yukimura.
She said her father rose early and came home late because he was working hard for his family.
“He always kept his promise to support us,” she said.
Darcie asked her father why, after all these years, he still serves on boards, such as with KIUC.
His answer? “If not me, then who?”