The Sakumas, who lost their patriarch Stanley Sakuma when he drowned after saving several school children 22 years ago, are Julie Kojima, JoAnn Hee, mother Leatrice Sakuma and Steve Sakuma. Stanley Sakuma is being remembered in Lee A. Tonouchi's drama "Gone Feeshing."

Homage to heroism

The death of Stanley Sakuma
in 1982 is remembered in
a Kumu Kahua play

Jan. 27, 1982 was an unusually hot winter day. It was the kind of day that makes a person feel like jumping in the water. The kind that makes it nearly impossible to concentrate, much less stay awake in history class. That's where JoAnn Sakuma was stuck, until she felt a sudden chill. She was shivering so much that her teacher suggested that she sit in the sun to warm herself.

Soon afterward, she learned her father had died about the time she felt the chill pass through her body.

STANLEY SAKUMA was, by his family's account and those who knew him, a good man who worked hard, preached kindess, and most of all, loved the water. He was a humble sort who never made waves, so when he died, there was less written about him in the newspapers than about the way he died, although to those whose lives he touched, he was a hero long before.

He had volunteered to chaperone his youngest daughter Julie's two-night, three-day Waipahu Intermediate School campout, and the first adventure upon their arrival was an easy reef hike to Chinaman's Hat at low tide. Over the years, many had successfully completed the trek that makes people appear to be walking on water, but this time was different. Gray clouds rolled in with the sudden rising tide and freakishly large waves. The children -- half unable to swim -- had been holding hands in single file to cross the reef, but before anyone realized what was happening, some children were falling into cracks in the reef, struggling to keep their heads above water; others were swept a mile out to sea. After saving his daughter, Stanley swam off to rescue other children. And then he was gone. He was the only casualty that day.

The family of Stanley and Leatrice Sakuma are Stuart Hee (son-in-law), left back row, and wife JoAnn Hee (daughter), Julie Kojima (daughter) and her husband Kevin Kojima carrying their daughter Jennifer, Dee Sakuma (daughter-in-law) and her husband Steve Sakuma (son); front row from left are Shawn Sakuma, 9, Kelli Sakuma, 16, Lexi Hee, 6, Leatrice Sakuma, Jackie Kojima, 7, and Randy Sakuma, 16.

His widow Leatrice heard the news from a teacher through a phone call and reacted with disbelief. "He was a good swimmer, so how could he have drowned?"

"For a couple of years afterward, a girl kept calling our house," she said. "She kept saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.' And I said don't be sorry because there wasn't anything anyone else could do."

To this day, a $500 scholarship is offered annually at Waipahu in Stanley Sakuma's name. Even so, Sakuma's deed might have been relegated only to memories of those who knew him and library clip files if not for a scene in Lee A. Tonouchi's drama "Gone Feeshing," playing at Kumu Kahua Theatre in an extended run through June 20 (call 536-4441). A small dedication in the playbill honors Sakuma's memory.

Tonouchi's father was a friend of Stanley's, and although Lee was only 10 at the time of Sakuma's death, he had a vague recollection of hearing about it from his dad, when he met Leatrice Sakuma at Honolulu Community College. He was signing up for a Japanese language class and, as a record clerk there, she recognized his name and started talking to him.

"Wen I went home, I had to ask my dad again, 'Leatrice Sakuma, who's dat?' " Tonouchi said, "and he told me the story and it stayed with me some more because if I lost my dad I don't know what I would do."

"That's what his life was about, sacrifice, and when you think about it, he made the ultimate sacrifice" --JoAnn Hee, speaking of her dad, Stanley Sakuma, shown.

Tonouchi wrote the play in 1997 and sent it to Kumu Kahua, where, he said, "It sat on da loser pile" until 2003, when it was rescued by Dennis Carroll. Although Tonouchi is known for his pidgin humor, the work has been drawing tears as well as laughs, which he feels is a victory for pidgin. "It makes me happy wen people tell me they cry because dey tink pidgin is only fo' make people laugh, wen it can express a range of emotions."

Rather than focus on the tragedy, Tonouchi's centered his tale on two estranged brothers, played by Squire Coldwell and Moses Goods III, who, during an afternoon spent fishing, reexamine their past, and their relationship with their father (Wil Kahele) to find out where and how their paths diverged.

For Leatrice and JoAnn, the little homage to Stanley's heroic act was enough to bring closure to that period in their lives.

"When I found out about the play I was really excited," said JoAnn Hee, now a teacher at Waianae Intermediate School, who was 16 at the time of her father's death; Julie was 13 and her brother Steve was 18. "I felt so blessed that someone else would remember my father; that he had touched at least one other life, because I've sometimes wondered, do people appreciate what he did?"

Seeing the play "brought healing and comfort in my heart because my dad and I were really close," she said. "When I'm at weddings, or graduations, all kinds of events, I cry and people think it's because I'm happy but it's because of my dad. I just feel the loss."

SUDDEN DEATH IS often accompanied by survivors' disbelief, and for 2- 1/2 years after Stanley drowned, Leatrice kept thinking he would return home.

JoAnn says, "It was a trick of the mind. We'd wonder 'where is he?' It felt like it didn't happen because he did shift work at Kaena Point Tracking Station so it was normal not to see him one whole day, then not see him the next because he was sleeping. The days rotated so we never knew when he would be home or not. He'd put Oompahs, candy, under our pillows, and that's how we knew dad was here!"

Stanley's drowning was not the first time the Sakuma clan had experienced tragedy. JoAnn said her grandfather's brother was a drowning victim, as was Stanley's brother Walter, a stellar athlete who drowned at age 16 in 1961 while crabbing with friends to celebrate the last day of school at Waipahu High.

THE FAMILY was well aware of Stanley's aim to live long enough to retire to a little shack on the beach. "He said, 'I just want an old shack which I can afford and where I can fish all day,'" Leatrice said. "If he only knew what it costs today for a seaside shack!"

Even so, because other family members had died tragically, Stanley acknowledged his mortality. JoAnn remembers, "He always talked about ways he didn't want to die. He said he didn't want a longtime death in the hospital. He always said we could pull the plug. He didn't want to die while driving, so we asked, 'How you like die then?'

"He never mentioned the ocean. I sometimes wonder about the ocean," said JoAnn, who says "My brother and I love the water, but to this day, we don't tell our grandpa when we go to the beach."

The tragedy had the impact of giving the Sakuma clan a great appreciation of life. "He gave us a good life and a lot of good memories," said Leatrice, who was married to Stanley for 23 years when he died. She never remarried. "Sometimes, I listen to the kids talk to each other, and they'd ask, 'Remember when dad did this, and that?'

"I never thought much of it at the time. When there's a camp or cookout, you just go, yeah? Sometimes you don't even want to go because you're too tired, or it's too much work, and now those memories are all they have to carry them through."

JoAnn remembers that kids loved to hang out at her house because of her father. "When he cleaned the yard the neighborhood kids would help because they knew dad would give them a treat afterward. He would pile everyone into the station wagon and take them to the park to fly kites. Things like that.

"We didn't have a lot of money because my mom didn't work. He wanted her to stay home and raise us, so we hardly had any gifts, but he didn't take little things as little. He always said show appreciation, even if we didn't like a gift. He said, 'You fake it because that person spent their hard-earned money on you.'

"That's what his life was about, sacrifice, and when you think about it, he made the ultimate sacrifice," JoAnn said. "His motto was 'Concern, compassion, forgiveness.' He wanted people to make time to help one another, because without concern for others, someone could fall down next to you and you would just keep traveling your own way.

"I think he knew he was dying, but that didn't stop him. I think that if a child had died that day it would have killed him anyway. He never would have forgiven himself, thinking 'If only had done this, or that.'"

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