Rev. Richard Uejo was raised up poor in a Kauai plantation camp, and left his special mark on Hawaii with his faith. Hilo today is dotted with churches where Uejo was either the founder or the pastor during his decades as a leader in the Baptist Church.
Perhaps it is less widely known that Uejo was also a soldier during World War II. Richard and his wife Masue, who were married for 73 years, lived together for more than a decade at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo.
Then as COVID-19 swept through the facility in recent weeks, both husband and wife became infected, and Richard Uejo died at the nursing home on Sept. 8 at age 95.
Masue Uejo, 99, is still at the home, and her family is worried.
“She wants to go,” her daughter said. “She misses Grandpa, so she wants to go.”
There have now been 18 deaths among the Okutsu veterans infected with the coronavirus, making the cluster at the facility the most deadly in the state. A total of 68 residents and 30 staff members at the nursing home had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
The fatalities at the nursing home have triggered a review of the operation by staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. A team of specialists mobilized by the VA at the request of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz were to arrive Thursday to try to help prevent more deaths.
The fatalities at Okutsu also prompted Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim last weekend to urge the state to replace Avalon Health Care Group as the nursing home operator.
Avalon said in a statement Tuesday that it immediately began to implement the inspectors’ recommendations. As for the deaths, “we are heartbroken over this and express our condolences to the family and friends of these residents.”
Lt. Gov. Josh Green told reporters Wednesday he had seen a draft report of the review of the facility.
“The challenge, of course, is that we see fatalities at a high rate because — and this is from the report — the age of the individuals in question that got sick, some of them died, they’re very old, almost all of them had very severe underlying conditions, and that does not make an excuse in any way whatsoever, but it is the reason that it happened,” said Green, who’s also an emergency room physician.
He added: “I can tell you, if I can put my physician hat on, a lot of the individuals, God bless them, had made choices to not under any circumstances, whether they got sick with pneumonia or COVID or heart attack or heart challenges, they were not going to ask to have life sustaining or saving life support systems like breathing tubes or ventilators. And so that’s why you do see a very high mortality rate for kupuna.”
Two of those kupuna are Richard and Masue Uejo, whose family would gather at the Okutsu nursing home each night to share dinner with them. Those visits ended when the pandemic began several months ago, which was hard on everyone, said their daughter Carolyn Uejo Kuntemeyer.
“To their last breath they were always ministers — always — to us, to people around them,” Kuntemeyer said.
Richard was born May 7, 1925 in Waimea, Kauai, and was the oldest of five children. The family lived in a plantation camp that served the McBryde Sugar Company in the southern portion of the island. He would describe how his family grew their own food, and wasted nothing, Kuntemeyer said.
“The mother was so resourceful,” she said. “He remembers even washing out the intestines of a chicken and they would cook that.”
In his youth Uejo would caddy at the golf course at Kukuiolono Park for 50 cents a day, and the boys would go into the fields to eat pineapple for lunch because they had no other food, she said. Even so, Uejo remembered those days fondly, she said.
The war began when Uejo was 16, and Kauai boys his age were put to work digging ammunition dumps, tunnels and erecting barbed wire barricades around the island for the U.S. military, Kuntemeyer said.
Years later, Uejo would recall a U.S. Army sergeant who never came near the youths as they worked, but carried a rifle and would watch them with binoculars as they ate lunch, “and so they were always scared,” she said.
Uejo graduated from Kauai High School while the war was still on, and immediately enlisted in the Army out of patriotism and because because he needed money for college, said his daughter. He was getting ready to board a plane to ship out as an infantryman when an officer pulled him out of the line to put him to work in an office job at Fort Shafter.
While he was stationed in Honolulu, Uejo began to attend the Nuuanu Baptist Church, which at the time held services in a tent. He met Masue Kirihara from Kona there, and they were married on Jan. 11, 1947.
In the post-war years the couple moved to the mainland where Uejo attended college at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri for two years, Mississippi College for two years, and Golden Gate seminary in California, where he earned a degree in theology.
“The stories he tells are amazing,” Kuntemeyer said. “He had to win the trust of everybody, one by one, because nobody trusted him. He and my mom looked like the enemy.”
He would speak at churches on the mainland, but sometimes the reception was cold. Uejo told his children of one occasion when he preached to a church congregation, and a deacon made a show of lying down on a pew in front to pretend to sleep while Uejo spoke.
At times they were reduced to eating flour and water pancakes, and some of the farmers’ wives who attended the local churches would take them in to try to help. He won over some of the farmers by borrowing work clothes and following them around to help with the chores.
Given a chance Uejo made friends easily, and he eventually became student body president in Missouri. When it came time for the couple and their baby son to make the trip to California, he bought a cheap Jeep and he worked odd jobs for gas and cash along the way to feed the family.
The Jeep died for good as soon as they arrived at a gas station in town near the seminary. “He was always guided by faith, and God always had his back,” Kuntemeyer said.
Uejo later became a missionary with the Japanese Mission Church in Richmond, California, and was then invited back to Kauai to become pastor of Waimea Baptist Church.
In 1961 he moved his family to Hilo to become pastor of the Kaumana Drive Baptist Church, where he led the congregation for 18 years and launched initiatives such as a preschool, a Japanese language school for children where Masue taught, an after-school program, and the Hilo Adult Day Center before retiring.
But Uejo, who was described by one friend as a small, dynamic man with a big voice, almost immediately emerged from retirement to become founder of the Hilo Baptist Church, which he led until 1990. He went on to launch the non-denominational Heritage Christian Fellowship, and both churches still operate in Hilo.
He also served as the volunteer Kilauea Military Camp protestant chaplain for 48 years, and helped to launch the Veteran’s Day Parade in Hilo.
Masue moved into the Okutsu veterans home in 2008 after a bad fall, and her husband joined her about a year later, Kuntemeyer said. Even then, Uejo led the Christian Sunday services at the nursing home for as long as he could manage it.
Masue always loved to sing and dance and have fun, and has had a hard time being isolated, Kuntemeyer said. She forgets what has happened, and asks why her family only visits on the other side of a glass window.
“She’s trying her hardest, take her medicine, try to eat a little bit, but she said ‘I always wanted to just go with Grandpa. When he goes, we want to go together. But whatever the Lord thinks is fit. I have to be patient,'” Kuntemeyer said.
“This pandemic has been devastating to so many people up there — so many,” she said.
Uejo is survived by his wife Masue of Hilo; brother Donald (Martha) Uejo of Richmond, California and sister Ellen Tamashiro of Honolulu; son Daniel Uejo and daughter Carolyn Uejo (Roger) Kuntemeyer of Hilo; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
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