Gil Kahele, a state senator representing Hilo on Hawaii’s Big Island, died Tuesday morning at the age of 73.
The cause of death has not been revealed, but a press release from the state Senate says he died peacefully at Queen’s Medical Center surrounded by his family.
The passing of the senator, a Democrat, spurred an outpouring of grief, accolades and condolences from his colleagues at the State Capitol, many of them in tears.
“Such a quiet, humble man,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi. “He carried himself with such class and dignity, even through this last week.”
Kahele’s hospitalization at Queen’s forced him to miss opening day of the Hawaii Legislature on Wednesday.
Kouchi said at the time that Kahele was undergoing medical tests but that he was “in good spirits and hopes to be released soon.”
Kouchi and Sen. Brickwood Galuterua visited Kahele at Queen’s, at the request of Kahele’s family.
“He always had a joke or a kind word for us,” said Kouchi. “I last talked to him Thursday before I returned to Kauai. Based on our conversation, I fully expected him to be in his chair by tomorrow. Unfortunately, it took a turn for the worst.”
Kahele chaired the Senate Tourism and International Affairs Committee and was vice chair of Higher Education and the Arts. He was also a member of the committees on Judiciary and Labor, and Education.
According to his profile on the Legislature’s website, Kahele graduated from Hilo High School in 1960 and then served in the U.S. Marine Corps until 1964. He is a graduate of Laney College in Oakland.
After living on Oahu, Kahele returned to Hilo with his wife, Linda, in 1976 to raise a family. He retired from the Hawaii State Department of Defense after 33 years as the director of public works for the Pohakuloa Training Area.
In Janary 2011, Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Kahele senator for the 2nd District. He was elected in 2012 to represent Hilo, now known as the 1st District as a result of reapportionment.
Kahele’s accomplishments in the 2015 session include securing $45 million for capital improvement projects in Hilo.
Kouchi said Kahele delivered the funding for a pharmacy school at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and played a key role in the passage of legislation to preserve conservation land at Turtle Bay on Oahu’s North Shore.
Sen. Kalani English, the majority leader, said Kahele served as a calming, wise presence in the chamber.
“Senator Kahele is what we call the ‘tutu’ — the elder in the Senate,” English said, using the Hawaiian word for grandparents of both genders. “Seriously, when things would get heated, he would always have a cooling effect. It was like your grandparents coming in and saying, ‘Settle down, everyone.’”
English called Kahele’s perspectives “always very keen and deep. His life experience also gave fruit to the work that he was doing.”
That experience included his desire to take care of lands on the Big Island. He was born in the fishing village of Milolii in South Kona and later moved to Hilo.
“He would say that the fishing lifestyle was disappearing, so he wanted to make sure those lands were preserved,” said English. “We have a number of bills that he signed that are circulating now. Those will be produced probably today. We’ll miss him dearly.”
Kahele’s website states, “Life was very simple in the fishing village of Milolii. Hawaiian was the predominant language. Most families earned their living by fishing the plentiful waters off Milolii for Opelu and Ahi.”
English added, “For me personally, he was like a grandfather to me. I remember when he left last week Friday, we were sitting in my office, and he came in and said, ‘Okay, you guys, everybody be ready for work.’ He’s a Marine, right? ‘So, everbody be prepared. See you next week.’ That’s the last time we saw him.”
Kahele previously served as the chair of the Hawaii County Police Commission and was the Democratic Party’s vice-chair for East Hawaii. He also served as a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
Kahele’s Big Island colleagues are remembering the senator with fondness.
State Rep. Richard Creagan, like Kahele, was appointed to the Legislature by Abercrombie, and he said he benefited hugely from Kahele’s help.
“When I was appointed, he came down and basically watched over me, watched my back. He gave me great tips on how to do this work,” said Creagan, a Democrat who represents Naalehu, Ocean View, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona.
“He carried himself with such class and dignity, even through this last week.”—Senate President Ron Kouchi
A physician who has seen many suffer through long periods of illness before dying, Creagan said Kahele’s brief illness and quick passing should be seen as a blessing.
“He was here just last week making plans for session,” Creagan said. “He was quiet, humble, a good man who had a very good life. I’ll miss him, but I’m glad he went out on top.”
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, the treasurer for Kahele’s Senate campaign, said, “I’m saddened, but I believe he was able to do what he wanted to do. We all have a life purpose, and I believe he had achieved his, as a senator.”
In addition to funding the pharmacy schools, San Beunaventura, a Democrat who represents Puna, credited Kahele for improvements for Highway 130.
Services are pending.