Akaka, the quiet statesman who believed in the power of aloha, dies at 93

(Image: Facebook)
(Image: Facebook)
(Image: Facebook)
(Image: Facebook)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Daniel Kahikina Akaka, the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate and a fixture for decades on Capitol Hill, where he became known as the "ambassador of aloha," died Friday due to organ failure. He was 93.

Akaka died around 5 a.m. at The Villas at St. Francis, where he had been in hospice, his daughter Millannie Akaka said. He had been hospitalized since November.

Son Gerard Akaka told Hawaii News Now his father "was wired" to see the best in others and to offer kindness, caring — and hugs — everywhere he went.

His warm, humble demeanor was despite a series of tough tests early in life that would test him, including suffering from what he later realized was post-traumatic stress disorder after getting back from World War II.

"He wasn't fancy. He was humble and, yes, the word is aloha. He would say time and time again, Hawaii has something to share with the world and it's aloha. He embodied it," his son said.

Many others remember Akaka for his warmth and aloha spirit, too, including Jesse Broder Van Dyke, who served as Akaka's press secretary and communications director from 2006 to 2013.

"He really exemplified the spirit of aloha and he tried to teach the people of Washington, D.C. and Congress a little bit about aloha, treating others the way you'd want to be treated, sharing love to everyone," he said. "There aren't too many U.S. senators giving people hugs."

Political analyst Dan Boylan also remarked on Akaka's "kindness" and "humility."

"He embodied aloha, he was aloha, the strongest side of our world recognition of Hawaiian aloha was embodied in Dan Akaka's attitude to the world," Boylan said. "He was a humble man. He had trouble talking about himself."

Late last year, after the release of his memoir — "One Voice" — Akaka said he wanted to inspire others to follow in his footsteps of public service and caring for others. When asked what he hoped his great-grandchildren would remember him for, he said, "I want them to know that I believe and used my life as an example of aloha."

Akaka served in the U.S. Senate from 1990 to 2013, and was instrumental in the passage of the 1993 Apology Resolution, which acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the U.S. overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

At his retirement, Akaka said while he was proud of his accomplishments in Congress, he considered it among his greatest failures that he was never able to secure the passage of an iteration of the Akaka Bill, or the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.

"I've never been able to get that bill to the floor of the Senate," Akaka told Hawaii News Now in 2012. "And the reason is that there's always one objection. Just one, and it's out."

The bill would have provided a manner in which the United States could have formally recognized a Native Hawaiian governing body, akin to legislation recognizing Native Americans.

"It is long past time for the Native Hawaiian people to have the same rights, the same privileges, and the same opportunities as every other federally-recognized native people," Akaka said.

Akaka was the youngest of eight children born to Kahikina and Annie Akaka in the family's Pauoa home. As a child, Akaka recalled listening to his parents speak Native Hawaiian in whispers, concerned about a territorial law that allowed children to be punished if they spoke the language in school.

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A graduate of the Kamehameha School for Boys in 1942, Akaka was a 17-year-old high school senior on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Two years later, having joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Akaka shipped off to war and served in several areas across the Pacific.

When he returned to Hawaii, Akaka suffered from what he'd later come to realize was PTSD. In interviews with Hawaii News Now in 2012, Akaka credited the G.I. Bill with helping him get a degree in education as a way of coping with PTSD.

After the war, Akaka met his wife, Mary Mildred Chong, at the Hawaiian Junior Civic Club. The pair married on May 22, 1948, and Millie, as she was known to her husband, frequently accompanied Akaka to his offices on Capitol Hill. The couple had five children together.

Akaka entered the political realm in 1976, winning the seat in Washington, D.C. to represent Hawaii's second congressional district. He served in the House for the following 14 years, leaving only to switch chambers when then-Governor John Waihee appointed him to serve in the U.S. Senate following the death of Spark Matsunaga.

In 22 years as Hawaii's junior senator — the late Daniel Inouye, born just four days before Akaka, was the senior senator for nearly their entire tenure in Washington — Akaka was most widely known as an advocate for veterans' affairs and a staunch supporter for the rights of Native Hawaiians.

"It is long past time for the Native Hawaiian people to have the same rights, the same privileges, and the same opportunities as every other federally-recognized Native people," Akaka said in 2012.

When Akaka, then 88 years old, gave his retirement speech from the Senate floor in 2012 after spending 36 years in Congress, he compared serving in Washington to paddling a canoe, saying that his fellow legislators, Republicans and Democrats, alike would need to work as one to accomplish their goals.

"The work of the United States Congress will never end," Akaka said. "But careers come to a close. Like the great men whose names are etched here in this desk, I am humbled to know I have left my mark on this institution."

Just days after he retired, Akaka became the first recipient of the Aloha Order of Merit, an award that was first established by the State Legislature more than 20 years earlier, but was never awarded to an individual whom lawmakers had deemed worthy.

Akaka is survived by his wife, five children, 15 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Services have not yet been set.

This story will be updated.

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