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Widow recalls 6 decades of husband's quiet, sweet love

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 8:50 p.m. HST, Feb 14, 2011

It takes a rare kind of confidence to ask out a young lady whose previous interactions with you focused on, oh, an area of your body not known for getting a lot of sunshine.

But Joe Nakasone was never short on confidence, and the object of his affection was no daisy, either.

"I was working as a student nurse at the time, and Joe was in for an appendectomy," says still young-at-heart Hiroko Nakasone. "So I had to take care of him. I even had to give him an enema!"

Joe was considered quite the catch then.

"There was another nurse who liked him," Hiroko says, laughing. "I won." The two married in 1948.

Joe grew up in Kona, the wild child of divorced parents. He was raised first by his father, then by a Buddhist priest who taught him peace through farming.

Hiroko grew up on the Hilo sugar plantation, the middle of seven children. As a child she divided her days between school and the fields, where she worked shoulder to shoulder with adults hacking down thick sugar cane stalks.

After graduating from Hilo High School, Hiroko moved to Honolulu to study nursing, eventually landing a job in a private office. She retired in 1980.

Joe worked mostly as a painter but also kept a cucumber farm in Waimanalo. Though he never advanced past eighth grade, he had a robust curiosity for the world that manifested in a love of reading. Through novels, Joe cultivated a rich life of the mind of which few besides Hiroko were aware.

"He liked to keep things quiet," Hiroko says. "He hated braggarts."

Hiroko had her own interests, turning post-retirement swim lessons into a 16-year stint as a lifeguard and 24 overlapping years as a pool cleaner. She retired again at age 80.

Through it all, Joe and Hiroko remained each other's biggest supporters, bound by a love expressed not in grand gestures, but in the sharing of countless, forgettable everyday moments. They went to boxing matches and football games, ate Hiroko's evolving sushi experiments and loved the heck out of their daughter Joyce.

"For Valentine's he always got me a box of Hawaiian Host chocolate macadamia nuts," Hiroko says, chuckling. "Sometimes I'd come home from work and there would only be one piece left. He and our daughter ate the rest."

Last year, Joe felt a strange pain in his shoulder. A battery of tests revealed advanced lung cancer.

The end came just a few weeks later at home. Hiroko was settling in after a visit from Joyce's family. Then Joe's breathing changed and Hiroko knew he was close. She called her daughter and told her to return as soon as possible. She listened as Joe's breathing grew shallower and shallower — then silent.

Today, Hiroko will wake to her first Valentine's Day in 62 years without Joe. It's OK, she says. They had a long and happy life together. They have a legacy of love that lives on through their daughter's family.

A box of candy would be nice, though.

Reach Michael Tsai at

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