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Fire victim led studious, simple life

Sun., Nov. 23, 2008, 3:21 p.m.

Most people who met this quiet, intelligent man – and there aren’t many – knew him only as John.

He was small, with a graying ponytail. He usually carried a sack or box, riding the bus downtown nearly every day from Hillyard. He’d be seen walking everywhere. He would show up Monday through Friday, usually in the late afternoon, to flatten boxes and do clean-up chores, hidden away in the basement of a downtown Japanese restaurant. He refused pay at the Suki Yaki Inn, happy to slip away in the night with a small box of freshly cooked food.

He was the man who bought new and used books wherever he could find them, whenever he could afford them, hoarding the volumes, even storing them in his basement closet at the Suki Yaki.

He rode the bus every Saturday to Airway Heights to pick up his mail, which may have included a veterans or Social Security check, from a post office box, and to shop at a Yoke’s supermarket – but only if his favorite cashier was working.

As a hospice volunteer, he helped a Spokane woman with yardwork when her husband was dying of cancer. Then he showed up at the funeral to grieve with the widow.

He also competed in three Bloomsday races and perhaps a marathon, wearing jeans and leather street shoes.

He almost never talked about himself, his past or where he lived, even with those who finally learned his last name.

He also was the 76-year-old man whose body was found last week by firefighters – tucked among piles of boxes, cardboard and books that filled a 20-by-25 garage stall in a run-down Hillyard warehouse that was once an auto-body shop. One neighboring businessman said the man who rarely talked had lived there for more than a decade.

John K. Yoshikawa died from smoke inhalation after a woodstove started an adjoining rental garage unit on fire about dawn on Wednesday, the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Friday.

Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said he’s never before seen such unusual living conditions: “The only way you could get around is through a series of tunnels.”

Williams and two battalion chiefs who viewed the scene “just couldn’t believe the amount” of cardboard boxes – some apparently full of books and others flattened – in the small garage next to the railroad tracks that rented for about $100 a month.

“Nobody should have been living in there,” the fire chief said.


Firefighters who opened the door to the unit faced a wall of cardboard. There was a vertical tunnel leading upward to a “mezzanine level” about 5 or 6 feet off the floor, Williams said, where another series of tunnels led to small openings.

In one of the tiny cavities, firefighters found the victim, next to an extension cord light, a flashlight and a couple cans of food – but no smoke detector.

His tunnel-like living arrangements were not unlike the tight spaces he lived in while serving on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine – reportedly as the first Asian-American chosen for such duty.

His childhood friend, Mike Young, of Honolulu, said John enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after graduating from St. Louis, a tough, all-boy Catholic high school in Hawaii.

“He was the first one of Asian descent to be selected to be a member of a nuclear submarine,” Young said. He wasn’t sure if his friend served on the Nautilus or another early nuclear-power sub.

John, who grew up in Hawaii, was 9 when Pearl Harbor was attacked in World War II.

Young said he and John were in the Boy Scouts together – “he became an Eagle Scout” – and went on campouts together during the “blackout” days of World War II. John grew up in a series of foster homes and used one of those families’ surnames, Kuapahi. But his birth name was Yoshikawa, according to Young, who provided a yearbook photo. It shows that John made the four-year honor roll at the school.

“He was always No. 1, No. 1 achiever,” said Young, a retired civil service employee and University of Idaho graduate.

Young said he heard his friend attended the University of Southern California on the GI bill after leaving the service and taught for a time in the University of Wisconsin college system. Those details couldn’t be confirmed last week.

After the 1950s, Young said, he lost contact with Yoshikawa. Young now hopes his friend’s body can be returned to Hawaii for military burial.

“For some reason, he just drifted away, left everything behind,” Young said. “If I knew why, I’d be a great psychologist.”

The two would have a chance encounter 50 years later at the Suki Yaki Inn in downtown Spokane.


None of his acquaintances who could be located last week knew where John lived or when he moved to Spokane.

Among the first people he met were Will and Barbara Murray, who owned a bookstore on West Third Avenue that sold new and used books and software.

“The same week I opened up the store in 1990, John showed up,” Will Murray recalled. “He had a worn-out satchel with a rope around it.

“He always had a box and would fill it with books. He bought technical books, engineering and math,” Murray said. “He bought thousands of books, worth hundreds of dollars. We used to just think John was trying to keep us in business.

“The guy was highly educated or very knowledgeable,” Murray said. “He loved to talk philosophically. Then he would start quoting Tennyson. Most people don’t do that.”

When the Murrays closed their bookstore in the late 1990s and began operating an online art gallery, John would do yardwork at their South Hill home.

“John would do odd jobs for us, but never let us pay him,” Murray said. “He would insist that we send the money to the Union Gospel Mission.

“He never talked about his family, children, a wife, brothers or sisters or parents,” but occasionally would fondly recall a high school teacher he had growing up in Hawaii, Murray said.

“About this time every year, the holiday season, John would show up unannounced on our doorstep with a big box of oranges and apples,” Murray said.

John wouldn’t talk about where he lived and wouldn’t accept rides from the Murrays, choosing instead to walk or take the bus.

His was a familiar face to several Spokane Transit Authority drivers.

Transit driver David Walker said John would use his bus pass to ride from the downtown STA Plaza to Airway Heights every Saturday morning. “He’d go to the Exxon service station, the post office, then Yoke’s, and then get back on after I’d completed my loop, usually in about 35 minutes,” Walker said.

“He always had his bags with him, but I never heard him talk much,” the driver said.

At the Airway Heights Yoke’s store, John befriended cashier Dee Mock, who has worked at the supermarket for 28 years. “He has been coming in for years, every Saturday morning,” she said.

“He’d come in and get a couple of cans of food, usually beans,” Mock said, “and he’d buy all kinds of vitamins.”

“When I’d ask him, ‘How are you doing, John?’ he would say, ‘Well, how do you think I’m doing?’ ” Mock said. “He would never tell me anything about himself.

“His hair was long and gray, and he wore it in a ponytail. He wore a green jacket that usually looked like it needed to be washed.”

The two traded small gifts at Christmas, and John gave her some vitamins when she recently had health issues arise, Mock said.

“I just wish I knew more about him,” said Mock, who last saw John on Nov. 15. “I want to tell his family what a good person he was.”

Another STA driver, Teresa Troyer, said she also struck up a friendship with John.

“I never knew where he lived, and he wouldn’t talk about it,” Troyer said. “He’s been riding the bus for the last 20 years I’ve been driving,”

When driving the Hillyard route, she recalled dropping John off at Garland and Cook, and sometimes she’d see him amble off with his pack through a field, apparently toward the abandoned auto-body shop.

Troyer said when her late husband was dying of cancer in April 2001, she called Hospice of Spokane for assistance with yardwork, and John – the man she remembered as one of her bus passengers – showed up at her home.

“He mowed my lawn for 10 weeks and would never accept anything,” Troyer said. John attended her husband’s funeral, and continued to offer to mow her lawn.

“I’ve never seen him talk to anybody,” Troyer said. “I just don’t want people to think he was some recluse who didn’t mean anything to people.”

She recalled one occasion when John got on her bus and offered her a carton of Japanese food.

“He had a huge heart,” she said. “I’m going to stop now, because I’m going to start crying.”

Troyer didn’t know it, but the food she was given apparently came from the Japanese restaurant at 119 N. Bernard that became John’s real home.


John showed up at the Suki Yaki every weekday for about the past 30 years, said owner Emiko Collett.

He would go to a basement work area and break down cardboard food boxes, clean out sauce buckets, scrape ice from the freezers and do other chores. He never asked to be put on the payroll, but gladly accepted a basement storage closet, which he padlocked and filled with books.

“This place is as close to him as family, as anybody,” Collett said Friday after placing a rose in the basement near where John worked.

Collett described her friend as one of the most intelligent people she’s ever met. He loved to talk with her about politics and sports, and knew a lot about almost anything, she said.

“The Boston Red Sox, I like them,” the restaurant owner said. “John knew all the players, their batting averages, everything. Amazing.”

Collett said John would accept a daily serving of restaurant-cooked food, and about a year ago became a vegetarian. “He would still ask, once in a while, for a little shrimp.”

John walked and would turn down offers for rides, Collett said. “He was a very religious man. He doesn’t judge you. He always listen, you know, my problems, but never talk about himself.”

He was “a little different, but I don’t think he had mental health issues. He was not mentally ill,” Collett said. “This was just the simple life he chose to lead.”

During his annual fall visit to Spokane and his alma mater in Moscow, Mike Young usually stops by the Suki Yaki. Several years ago, Young said he saw John in the restaurant and thought he remembered him from their childhood in Hawaii. Young said John was emotionless and wouldn’t acknowledge they were childhood friends, “even when I sang our old school fight song.”

Then in 2004, during another chat in the basement of the restaurant, Young said John broke down and handed him a sealed envelope, addressed to one of his foster families, whose survivors still live in Hawaii. Young promised to deliver it.

John wouldn’t talk about what had become of his life, instead describing himself as a small rowboat in a vast ocean. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, life goes on,’ ” Young recalled.

Then his friend quietly and effortlessly repeated the words of Persian poet Omar Khayyam:

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

Some letter of that After-life to spell:

And after many days my Soul return’d,

And said, “Behold, Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”

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