People touched by the life of John Kuapahi Yoshikawa remembered his selfless, humble, caring and intellectual characteristics Thursday at a fog-shrouded church in northwest Spokane.
They gathered from every corner of the city – a businessman, an attorney, a restaurant owner, a retired submariner, bus drivers and many others – at Community Bible Chapel for a memorial service for the 76-year-old recluse and Navy hero who died in November in the Hillyard storage unit he called home.
A 14-member honor guard of military veterans – the Patriot Guard Riders – stood quietly at attention in the misty fog, lining the walkway to the church before the service conducted by Pastor Danny Green.
“He put his life on the line,” the pastor said of Yoshikawa’s actions in June 1960 that prevented what investigators described as a “major catastrophe” during a fire aboard the nuclear powered submarine USS Sargo. The sub fire occurred in Pearl Harbor, just a short distance from where he was raised by his “hanai family” after the death of his mother during World War II.
“John was a humble and kind person,” Green said, “who enjoyed solitude and reading his books.”
When Yoshikawa moved to Spokane in the 1980s, many of the people he met had a connection with books – book store owners, librarians and readers riding the bus.
“He was a person who was constantly thinking of others,” said former book store owner Will Murray, one of a dozen or so people who offered remembrances of Yoshikawa.
Murray told of a Ukrainian student who lived in Spokane while attending high school and returned to attend Eastern Washington University. Yoshikawa frequently spoke with the young man and encouraged him to pursue intellectual excellence, Murray said.
One day a customer in his store asked Murray if he knew that Yoshikawa had run the Coeur d’Alene marathon in jeans and street shoes. Murray said he asked his friend, but he followed his usual practice of not wanting to talk about himself.
“I said, ‘John, you’re an angel, aren’t you?’ ” Murray said. “He didn’t deny it; he just gave me that little smile, that little laugh.”
Bus driver Teresa Troyer, who helped organize the memorial service with Emiko Collett, owner of the Suki Yaki Inn, recalled how Yoshikawa mowed her lawn and refused payment while her husband was terminally ill.
“We’re here because of who he was,” Troyer said to the crowd of 50 or 60 people who attended.
Collett brought boxes of used books – many purchased from Friends of the Library – to the service. Yoshikawa, always the bookman, stored his gems in a restaurant storage closet, near where he did daily chores, only asking for a bowl of food. In Yoshikawa’s memory, Collett invited those in attendance to take one of her late friend’s books and give it to a child, a shut-in, a homeless person or anyone interested in reading.
Roger Muat, who worked in the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. in the mid-1960s, recalled working with Yoshikawa there.
William Lund recalled meeting the book-loving man he knew only as “John” on “the 20” – the Spokane Transit Authority bus that loops through North Spokane and Hillyard.
Like others he met, Yoshikawa wouldn’t say where he lived, but smiled broadly earlier this fall when Lund told him he would be playing Chief Bromden, the mentally ill Native American character in the Civic Theater’s forthcoming production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
In one of the lines he’s memorizing, Lund said the chief looks skyward, in a soliloquy with his departed father.
“When I play that role and look skyward,” Lund said, “I’ll be thinking of John.”