Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Building named for
Hawaiian Volcano
Observatory veteran

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> In 1984, Reggie Okamura, the No. 2 man at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, sat down with U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye in the "computer room" of the old observatory to show him plans for a new building.

Inouye discovered the computer room was a lean-to built on top of a cesspool.

Inouye returned to Washington and obtained money for a new, $5 million building, dedicated in 1987.

Yesterday, Inouye was among dignitaries present to rename that building the Reginald T. Okamura Building in honor of the man who worked at the facility for 34 years.

Okamura died in 1999 at age 62, after retiring in 1992. His years at the observatory had earned him the title "The Voice of the Volcano."

Okamura's job as No. 2 man was crucial since the top official, the "scientist-in-charge," stayed an average of just three years. Okamura served under 11 SICs.

He built a reputation of quiet accomplishment with elements of quirkiness.

His office was noted for a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, which observatory staffer Paul Okubo called "acrid."

His coffee cup was so grungy, Mayor Harry Kim commented, "You didn't know if that coffee cup was going to grow something."

When current Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Superintendent Jim Martin arrived at the park as a young ranger in 1971, he stopped Okamura, having no idea who he was, for speeding more than 80 mph.

Okamura shouted at him: "I can't stop now. The rift is going to erupt," and drove away. To Martin's surprise, the southwest rift did erupt just a few minutes later.

Okamura studied insects at the University of Hawaii.

His versatility was demonstrated when he began work at the observatory as a chemist, switched to drilling in the solidified lava lake at Kilauea Iki, then changed again to study ground deformation, said current scientist-in-charge Don Swanson.

Okamura's younger brother, Arnold, now holds the No. 2 position.

"I was always in his shadow," Arnold said, adding he did not mind it, since he preferred science to administration.

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