Shunichi Kimura, whose public service spanned more than 28 years as Hawaii County’s first mayor and then a Circuit Court judge, has died.
Kimura also was the first American of Japanese ancestry to become a mayor in Hawaii.
He died May 20 in California at a rehabilitation facility after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 87.
As Hawaii County mayor, Kimura was praised for helping to restore federal aid to the poor and seniors in the 1970s and for his work as a judge.
“He had a big heart. … He was very sympathetic to senior citizens,” recalled Kimura’s former county Deputy Managing Director Megumi Kon.
Kimura was born May 15, 1930, to a Mountain View tenant farmer’s son who died when Kimura was 3 months old, leaving a wife and seven children.
The family faced financial hardships in Kimura’s early years, living without electricity or running water, according to family and friends.
He graduated from Hilo High School in 1948 and then attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa before joining the Army.
He earned a law degree from San Francisco’s Hastings College of Law in 1961 after receiving a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State College.
Kimura returned to Hilo in 1962 and was elected to the Hawaii County Board of Supervisors and became its chief executive officer in 1964, a position that was then similar to mayor.
Under a revised county charter, he was elected mayor in 1968.
In 1971 Kimura helped save threatened programs that aided the poor and seniors under the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council by going to San Francisco to talk with federal officials, recalled George Yokoyama in his book, “Memoir of a War on Poverty in Paradise.”
Kon said Kimura worked closely with state and federal officials to build housing projects and institute programs for seniors in Hilo and Kona.
“He was a great promoter of programs for the elderly,” Kon said.
Kimura left the mayor’s office to become a circuit judge in Hilo in 1974, gaining a reputation for working hard, sometimes continuing trials into the night.
Kimura’s son, David, recalled that his father would call on his children to operate the tape recording equipment after letting the court staff go home for the night.
“I had to help out on more than one occasion,” David Kimura said.
Hawaii Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra, who once served as a first deputy prosecutor and a corporation counsel, said Kimura left an indelible mark on the judges who served with him and those who came after him.
“The Hawaii community has lost a true public servant. … While he had a brilliant mind, he was humble and treated everyone with dignity and respect,” Ibarra said.
“I learned so much from him, both as an attorney and a judge, and I can’t thank him enough for being a mentor and role model,” Ibarra said.
Kon said that while serving as mayor, Kimura was the kind of leader who “gave you a feeling of worthiness.”
“He took the best part of you and tried to make something out of it,” Kon said. “He was a very sincere man of character.”
Kimura retired as a senior Family Court judge in 1993 and later served on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents.
In the late 1990s he moved with his wife, Grace, to California.
Grace, a Berkeley, Calif., native, died in 2016.
Besides son David, Kimura is survived by sister Alma Araki and daughters Lynne, Leslie and Lisa Kimura.
No public services are planned.