POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 19, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 8:44 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Lei Girelli spent the last three decades of her life fighting for the dignity of long-gone strangers. She died June 4 at the age of 82. Her family says she died knowing that she had been victorious.
"That memorial they built was all her," said son Keith Boudreau. "She kept going. If she had something in her mind, she wouldn't let it go. She'll really be missed."
The memorial is at little Puukamalii Cemetery in Alewa Heights, a graveyard so humble and tucked away most people don't know about it unless they have relatives buried there.
Girelli remembered visiting Puukamalii as a child and recalled rows and rows of headstones marking the graves of Hawaii men who had served in World War I. When her mother died in 1979 and was buried at Puukamalii, Girelli was shocked that the grave markers she remembered were no longer there. That began her quest for answers and her fight for justice.
Lucy Leialoha Kahanu Girelli was born March 29, 1929, the youngest of nine children. She grew up in Kalihi and graduated from Farrington High School. She believed in hard work and held many jobs during her lifetime, including bartender, hairdresser and Realtor. She also believed in speaking up when things weren't right and treating people with the same fierce, protective love she had for family. It didn't surprise her relatives when she took up the fight to remember the veterans she didn't know.
"She was always doing things like that," said granddaughter Lana Torres. "She always helped and took in many, many hanais as if they were related by blood. And she always introduced herself as Aunty Lei or Tutu Lei no matter who you were."
Every Memorial Day for years, Girelli held her own remembrance ceremony at the small cemetery. She made her grandchildren and great-grandchildren come with her to clean Puukamalii, mow the sometimes head-high weeds and place flags where she believed the unmarked graves to be.
"She packed us up every year bright and early, armed with weed whackers, rakes, trash bags, flags, leis and our banner always reading the same thing: ‘Don't Forget The World War I Vets,'" Torres said. "And that was a part of what we did every year for these soldiers that none of us knew, but we didn't care because our Tutu was dedicated to remembering them so did we too. As her grandchildren, we were her mighty soldiers and she was definitely our leader."
Girelli amassed stacks of research on the area, tapping into historical documents she found in state and church archives. She found the broken headstones of four WWI soldiers thrown in a trash pile, but she was never able to document the dozens of other graves she remembered; but she trusted her memory and over time, convinced people she was right.
In 2008 Solomon Kam of VFW Diamond Head Post 8616 became her ally and helped write more letters. When U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka got involved, Girelli's efforts finally gained traction. Last November, Akaka presided over a dedication of a memorial at Puukamalii and thanked Girelli for never giving up. She cried through the entire ceremony.
"She was overwhelmed and couldn't believe she was being honored for something that she just felt had to be done," Torres said.
Girelli's survivors include her oldest brother George Kahanu, 93; three children, nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Her family plans a memorial service for her next month at their home in Nanakuli. Though she had a special connection to Puukamalii Cemetery, Girelli wanted her ashes to be scattered in the ocean fronting the homestead. Her mission at Puukamalii was complete.
Lee Cataluna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.