Billy Kenoi, former Hawaii County mayor, dies after lengthy battle with cancer

Updated: Jan. 27, 2021 at 8:59 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - William “Billy” Punapaiaala Kenoi, the former mayor of Hawaii County who gained followers around the state for his tell-it-like-it-is style, an endless love for the place he called home and as an inspiring orator, died Tuesday at home after a lengthy battle with cancer.

He was 52 years old.

Through a statement, his family expressed appreciation for an outpouring of aloha from the community. Services for Kenoi are pending.

Friends, colleagues and loved ones remembered Kenoi as a dedicated public servant who continued to serve the community, even while struggling with his health.

[Read more: Local lawmakers, colleagues remember Kenoi for his passion for public service]

“Billy Kenoi was the embodiment of a true Big Island boy and a pillar of our community,” said Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth, in a statement.

“His time as mayor and the accomplishments made under his direction were just a small glimpse of the man he was and the aloha he had for this community.”

US Rep. Kai Kahele called Kenoi a mentor and said he “knew how to make everyone feel special.”

“Throughout his life, and especially as a leader of the people, Billy always had the attitude that anything is possible,” Kahele said, in a statement.

“Billy showed us, by example, the importance of investing in our communities. His imprint and contributions are seen throughout the County of Hawaii and will be felt for generations.”

Former Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho said no one will be able to replicate Kenoi’s “style of presence and style of delivering his message. He just had that gift.”

Gov. David Ige said flags will fly at half staff on the day of Kenoi’s memorial service.

“Billy Kenoi was an energetic and inspirational leader who had a knack for bringing people together,” Ige said, in a statement. “His death is a huge loss for our community.”

In 2018, Kenoi revealed publicly that he was battling a rare form of leukemia and undergoing aggressive treatment on the mainland. He said he had actually been diagnosed with myelofibrosis in 2015, while serving his second term as mayor.

Kenoi was elected to serve Hawaii County for the first time in 2008.

Back then, he was just 39 ― the youngest person ever to serve in the post.

To the job he brought an authenticity many found refreshing in Hawaii politics. Whether connecting with constituents or addressing the county council, he would weave in stories about his humble upbringing and his love for Hawaii Island.

It was the lessons he learned from his parents and from his community, he often said, that guided him in leading the county.

As mayor, Kenoi was praised for his efforts to “unite” the Big Island, spending almost as much time in Hilo as in Kona and stressing the unique needs of a sprawling county with rural communities.

But Kenoi’s political star seemed to dim overnight in 2016, when he was indicted for theft in connection with the use of his government credit card. He would be acquitted on all counts in the felony theft trial.

Kenoi apologized publicly after the scandal and at his trial said he never meant to hurt the community. “My parents taught me simple values growing up,” Kenoi said. “Me and my sisters were taught to be respectful. Treat everybody with aloha. To look out for people less fortunate than yourself.”

Kenoi is survived by wife Takako, daughter Mahina and sons Justin and Liam.

This story will be updated.

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