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Keaukaha leader dies at 86


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Kwai Wah Lee, former president of the Keaukaha Community Association and founder of a pilot program at Keaukaha Elementary School that resulted in kupuna (elder) volunteers helping in elementary classrooms statewide, died Aug. 25 at his Keaukaha home. He was 86.

As president of what was then known as the Keaukaha-Panaewa Community Association, Lee was instrumental in getting Hawaiian Homes lands exempted from county zoning ordinances. In 1968, the council passed an ordinance that put parts of Keaukaha and Panaewa in an industrial zone. In the early 1970s, Lee spearheaded an effort that successfully exempted homestead lands from county zoning.

“The county wanted to do away with the residential area because we’re close to the airport and the Port of Hilo,” Lee’s daughter, Deborah Lee, said on Saturday, adding that her father found his inspiration in a law book he’d rescued from a trash bin. “My father read that law book and found that nothing can supersede an act of Congress. That’s how he was able to save Keaukaha with the help of his association board members.”

Hawaiian homesteads were created by the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920.

“If it weren’t for Mr. Lee, Keaukaha today would be a light industrial area,” Keaukaha Community Association President Patrick Kahawaiola‘a said. “He is the one who kept Keaukaha Keaukaha. If he did not raise his voice, if he did not object, we would no longer be Keaukaha. And that would be a shame.”

Andy Levin, a former state senator, was a young legal aid attorney who helped the community association with the zoning battle and recalled Lee as a humble and thoughtful individual.

“My main recollection of him is his kindness in accepting me, as a newcomer, and allowing me to help in the Hawaiian cause,” he said.

Another daughter of Lee’s, Denby Toci, noted that her father started the Imua Project, which later turned into the DOE’s Hawaiian Studies Kupuna Program, with elders helping teach students in all public elementary schools. Lee said he enlisted the late Hawaiian scholar and kumu hula Edith Kanaka‘ole to interview kupuna in Keaukaha for the program.

Lee, who was born in Hilo, was a retired foreman for the former Wailoa Tire & Recapping Co. and a dispatcher/safety representative for the former HT&T Trucking Co. He was also a member of the Kaloko-Honokohau Study Advisory Commission and longtime member of Haili Congregational Church and Kuhio Chapel.

“He was a very strong advocate of education and a staunch Christian,” Deborah Lee said. “He was very supportive of Haili Church in many different roles — as a church trustee and moderator, deacon, Sunday school teacher, so many roles.”

Lee was also historian of Ahahui O Opukahaia. His wife, Elizabeth “Peka” Lee, who died in 2011, was a relative of Henry Opukahaia, the first Hawaiian convert to Christianity who was instrumental in starting the missionary movement in Hawaii before dying of typhoid fever in Connecticut at age 26. Deborah Lee enlisted her parents’ help to repatriate Opukahaia’s remains from Connecticut to Kahikolu Church in Napoopoo on Aug. 15, 1993.

“My mother and father were the first to help with the funding by using their personal credit cards and making loans … at a high interest rate just so we could get the project started,” she said. “… He kept all the documents as well as pictorial documents intact. Twenty years later, we still have them, so if there is a future museum or anything regarding Henry Opukahaia, those things are in safekeeping.”

Kahawaiola‘a said that he and the Keaukaha community are blessed because of the family’s “direct genealogical relationship to Henry Opukahaia.”

Toci said her father was “big on righteousness” and added: “I have the best dad in the world.”

Lee, who was one of 10 siblings, was also the brother of the late Rev. Tuck Wah Lee, a stevedore on the Hilo waterfront who survived the April 1, 1946 tsunami and later became a prominent Congregational clergyman.

Lee is survived by his son, Darren T.W.M. (Cynthia) Lee of Hilo; daughters, Deborah L. (Daniel E. Kihe) Lee of Hilo, Drusilla Hualalai (Karl) Johsens of Santa Cruz, Calif., Derede Pikake (Kevin) Kimata of Honolulu and Denby L.Y.K. (Gerald) Toci of Hawaiian Acres; brother, Kin Wah (Florence) Lee of Kailua-Kona; sisters, Miu Chee Matsumura of Hilo and Miu Lin (Billy) Sibayton of Keaau; sister-in-laws, Margaret Lee, Patricia Lee, May Grover and Elizabeth Hoomanawanui of Hilo, Martha Kamai of Honolulu; numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.

Visitation is 5-7 p.m. Friday at Dodo Mortuary Chapel with a wake service at 7 p.m. Visitation again 8-10 a.m. Saturday at Haili Congregational Church. Funeral service at 10 a.m. Burial to follow at 1 p.m. at Homelani Memorial Park, section 7. Aloha attire is requested.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-


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