The state Capitol fell silent Thursday morning as the late Congressman Mark Takai’s casket was carried into the rotunda accompanied by a traditional chanter offering a sad, haunting kanikau, or song of mourning.
Takai, 49, passed away July 20 after a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The month-long wait until his memorial service allowed friends and family from Hawaii and around the country to plan their attendance, and hundreds turned out, filling the ground floor of the rotunda and lining balcony railings of the floors above.
Virtually every prominent Hawaii elected official — the federal delegation, governors past and present and a sea of legislators — filled every available seat. But the focus of much of the attention was the family the congressman left behind: His wife Sami, and teenagers Matthew and Kaila.
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi shared fond remembrances of Takai’s brief service in Congress — he died 18 months after being sworn in for his first term — along with condolences from President Obama. Pelosi offered warm words of comfort directly to the family.
“There will come a time when the mention of his name will bring a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eyes,” she said. “I hope that time comes soon.”
Takai’s 22-year career in public service included two decades in the Hawaii House of Representatives and 17 years in the Hawaii National Guard, including overseas deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Several speakers recalled that his political work began even earlier, remembering how Takai, as student body president at the University of Hawaii, lobbied hard — and successfully — for construction of a 10,000-seat multi-purpose arena at the UH Manoa campus, rather than one half that size. The arena that would later be renamed the Stan Sheriff Center opened in 1994, the same year Takai was first elected to the Hawaii House.
“There will come a time when the mention of his name will bring a smile to your lips rather than a tear to your eyes. I hope that time comes soon.” — U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi
That was one of many incidents that endeared him to Gov. David Ige. He and Takai had much in common: They were both Pearl City High School and University of Hawaii graduates, and Takai was elected to Ige’s House seat when Ige was elected to the state Senate. They both even named their sons Matthew, Ige noted Thursday.
“It’s so difficult for me to accept that he is no longer with us,” said the governor. “I truly have lost a dear friend and colleague.”
Ige and others lauded Takai for his work on issues such as public education, veterans’ homelessness and transportation. Several noted his dedication to the military, and said his work to create the Hawaii Medal of Honor — presented to the families of fallen service members — was his proudest achievement.
“One thing that was very clear,” said Ige, “he was a soldier and proud to be one.”
It was an emotional service, and mourners throughout the rotunda wept throughout the ceremony. Rep. Sylvia Luke, who served as mistress of ceremonies, stepped away from the microphone twice at the beginning of the service to regain her composure before continuing.
House Speaker Joe Souki admitted he “struggled to find the words to give voice to the sense of loss” he felt. He remembered Takai as a fighter who worked hard “for what really mattered” and never quit. Takai mustered that resilience even in the face of a disease that has a five-year survival rate of only 7 percent.
Takai understood and accepted the challenge with grace, said Souki. “It was just like Mark to take on the battle quietly, without fanfare or drama.”
The First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu will host a family memorial service for Takai at 11 a.m. Friday. The congressman made celebration of “Aloha Friday” a tradition at his offices in Washington, D.C., and the Takai family requests attendees honor that tradition with aloha attire. Call (808) 532-1111 for information.
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