Dr. Kenneth K. Otagaki

Author: Mark Markrich
Puka Puka Parades, May 2009, 4/2009

Mark Markrich’s heartfelt remembrance of Dr. Otagaki

Dr. Kenneth K. Otagaki, (Kengo or Ken to his friends) was born on July 2 1917 and died on March 26, 2009. He was a self-made man, a teacher of animal science, a soldier, a University of Hawaii professor, a former State Director of Agriculture, an official in the U.S. State Department, an international consultant, a father who deeply loved his wife Janet, his children, and grandchildren. He was born in the small town of Laupahoehoe on the Big Island. His father worked as a clerk in a small dry goods store. His mother was a picture bride. Soon after Ken was born, his father lost his job and took a job as a day laborer at Hamakua Plantation, cleaning sugar stalks out of flumes.

As a boy to help support his family, he took a job delivering groceries and other goods by mules to workers on the plantation. The time he spent with the mules developed in him a love of animals that would stay with him for the rest of his life. He entered animal competitions as a member of the rural 4-H Club. He learned about an agricultural co-op in Honolulu where he could work and go to high school at the same time. He left the Big Island with $5 in his pocket at age 14 and worked in a series of different odd jobs: as a store room clerk, shop assistant, houseboy and truck driver, until he graduated from McKinley High School.

His job as a truck driver picking up produce from farmers all over Oahu led to contacts at the University of Hawaii and he enrolled at the school of agriculture. His background as a farm worker, which was very different from most of the other students, attracted the attention of his animal science professors who were happy to leave their animals in his care. At the University he met Janet Shigeko Maruhashi, who became his wife, confidante and the great love of his life. After he graduated he became a farm manager on Molokai and for the first time in his life had enough money to live on. He never had any particular interest in the military and never intended to become a soldier.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the 100th Battalion and was sent to Italy in 1943. There on a hillside he was seriously wounded and left for dead. He was evacuated and sent to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. Alone and far from home he slowly recovered in the hospital ward and waited to be released. One day he received a call to go the White House and have lunch with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. She was interested in 4-H and asked him to come and have a sandwich at the White House. He could not believe this was happening to him and when he was in the White House, he saw the President’s famous dog Fala, and the farm boy that he was, he plucked a hair from the dog so he knew he was not dreaming.

Then the greatest thing happened to him in his entire life. Janet agreed to marry him. With her love and support he went to graduate school and earned a PhD from the University of California and came back to Hawaii and taught at the University of Hawaii. The professorship in animal science led to an offer to become the Hawaii State Director of Agriculture. He instituted many reforms while in office, encouraging agricultural biotechnology, developing a statistical yearbook in the department and developing a standard for weights and measures in local markets. As a disabled veteran he also was instrumental in convincing the City and County of Honolulu to develop the first handicap parking stalls. He was grateful to all the people who had helped him.

His association with Club 100 was very important to him his entire life. He loved his children, was very thankful to his son Robin and daughter-in-law Sharon for looking after him. Above all he loved Janet without whom he thought his life would never have been possible and with whom he is now reunited. [Editor’s note: We thank Mike Markrich for sharing his heartfelt remembrance of Dr. Otagaki. Mike told us that he met Dr. Otagaki when he was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii during the late 1970’s. They remained friends after that for many years. He also told us that last year Dr. Otagaki asked him to put together a small memoir with him called “Dreams of Green” about his life in agriculture.]