Shigeto “Toto” Setoda was a Hilo banker who golfed and rubbed elbows with business and political leaders in Hawaii County for decades, long after he had retired as a vice president with the Bank of Hawaii. He was old school — one longtime friend described him as “samurai” — and he carried himself with a quiet kindness that people respected.

He had no children of his own, but he was the sort of man who was happy to take a neighbor boy in rural Pahala fishing with him. Setoda was manager of the Pahala bank branch at the time, and while he didn’t talk much that day, the two remained good friends for the next 60 years.

One of Setoda’s nieces tells the story of how she once attempted to play golf — a game Setoda loved — and things went badly on the course. Word got back to her uncle, and Setoda presented her with a set of clubs as a gift, gently suggesting that perhaps the clubs she used were somehow to blame.

“He always told me, if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you, which is true,” said Setoda’s wife, Yaeko. “He was gentle.”

On March 25, the couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

Shigeto “Toto” Setoda in 2016 with family members at a favorite restaurant. They are, from left, his niece Phyllis Kam-Young and her children Jennifer, Brent and Gavin; Setoda’s brother Thomas; Setoda’s wife Yaeko, and Setoda. Courtesy: Phyllis Kam-Young

Setoda was a World War II veteran, and in July he was admitted to the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo for therapy after a brief hospitalization.

Visitors were not allowed in the home because of the pandemic, so Yaeko joined him there on Aug. 6. It was the only way she could see him, she said, and she hoped to speed his recovery by helping him with exercises.

He was 95, and she was 92, and the largest outbreak yet of COVID-19 was spreading across the state. The virus swept through the veterans home in the weeks that followed, and they both tested positive. Neither of them had symptoms, but Shigeto died peacefully on Aug. 29 with Yaeko holding his hand.

Shigeto “Toto” Setoda and his wife Yaeko, were married on March 25, 1950. Courtesy: Yaeko Setoda

In all, 27 veterans and their wives became infected and died in Yukio Okutsu home. A team dispatched by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs last month finally helped to halt the spread of the disease inside, and Hilo Medical Center reports that all residents and staff are now free of the virus.

A series of reports on the deaths in Okutsu has cited failures in infection control practices, including a report earlier this month that criticized lapses in social distancing and quarantining of staff who had been exposed to the virus. That report was later rescinded by the state Department of Health, and a revised version is expected to be released in the future.

Several lawsuits over the deaths at Okutsu have already been filed on behalf of the families of veterans who died there after becoming infected, including one by the family of Vietnam veteran Chris Drayer, and others by the families of Vietnam veterans Stephan Plancich and Lawrence Elton Akana.

Avalon Health Care, which manages the home, says it has followed the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the state Department of Health on COVID-19, but the company has agreed to transfer management of the facility to the quasi-public hospital corporation that operates Hilo Medical Center.

Yaeko has now recovered from the virus and returned to her Hilo home, where she has been making preparations for a private memorial service for her husband.

Shigeto “Toto” Setoda sometime in the 1930s. Setoda’s father was a carpenter and foreman, and he grew up in Hilo. Courtesy: Phyllis Kam-Young

Shigeto Setoda was born on April 26, 1925, and was the oldest of five children. He acquired his lifelong nickname as a small child because he was unable to say his name, and would instead say “Toto,” according to Yaeko.

His father Fukuichi Setoda was a carpenter and foreman with Isemoto Contracting Co., and Shigeto grew up on Manono Street in Hilo. Setoda enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from Hilo High School in 1943, and served in Germany.

Yaeko Setoda said her husband served as a paymaster of a unit, but he rarely talked about his military service.

After the war, Yaeko and Shigeto met while attending night classes at business college in Honolulu, and it turned out their day jobs were in the same Bishop Street office building downtown. He had his eye on her, Yaeko recalled with a laugh, and early in the courtship he would sometimes linger where he was likely to bump into her.

“That’s how our romance started,” she said.

Later he would send boxes of carnations and roses from the florist at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to her house, and he would pick her up in a Jeep to take her to movies at the Waikiki Theater. They often went out to a favorite Chinese restaurant for noodles after the show.

They were married in 1950 at what is now called Harris United Methodist Church in Nuuanu, but Shigeto wanted to return to his roots, Yaeko said. He traveled back to small-town Hilo to look for work, and applied at Bank of Hawaii.

He spent his spare time during the job search on an aku fishing boat with friends, and one day the manager at the Suisan fish market radioed the vessel to pass along the news that someone from the bank was looking for him. They turned the boat around, and Setoda got the job.

 

Shigeto “Toto” Setoda, left, in Hilo with the late Bobby Fujimoto, retired chairman and CEO of HPM Building Supply. Setoda is one of 27 veterans who died at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home this year after testing positive for COVID-19. Courtesy: Setoda Family

During the many years he worked at the bank he supervised the bank’s charge card, school savings and business development operations for the island, and his longtime friendships with Hilo business leaders made him an important link between the bank and the community. He was a bank vice president when he retired.

Our family was proud of his achievements at the Bank of Hawaii and his rise through the ranks from entry level to its vice president on the Big Island,” according to Setoda’s niece, Phyllis Kam-Young. “We knew his friends were in the upper echelon of society and yet Uncle remained humble and did not boast. He taught me about the importance of fairness, loyalty, and keeping promises in family matters and working with and treating others with respect and amiability.”

Shigeto “Toto” Setoda volunteered for the Army after graduating from Hilo High School and was stationed in Germany, but his wife Yaeko said he never talked about his wartime service. Courtesy: Phyllis Kam-Young

Shigeto and Yaeko traveled to Japan 17 times, and “he remembered special occasions, milestones, and achievements of family members by either attending gatherings or parties within Hawaii or the mainland, or by sending gifts,” Kam-Young recalled. “He also helped family members in need during times of sadness or personal hardship.”

Another niece, Cathy Setoda-Ear recalled that “when I would go to Hilo, I would always think that Uncle Toto was ‘famous.’  He knew everyone and everyone knew him.  I could tell that people respected him and he liked being in that position of being a leader.”

Setoda always had a fondness for fishing, and Setoda’s brother Roy and his wife Dodie recalled being awakened by Setoda at 4 a.m. during a visit to Hilo years ago in 1972 to visit the Suisan fish market.

“Rest in peace, Uncle Toto,” wrote Setoda’s niece Tracey Gauthier in a memorial essay for her uncle. “I hope wherever you are, the fish are plenty and the weather is always good for golfing.”

Setoda is survived by his wife Yaeko of Hilo; brothers, Thomas Setoda of Hilo, Raymond (Aileen) Setoda of Los Angeles and Roy (Dodie) Setoda of Portland, Oregon; and nieces and nephews.

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