Gordon Sakamoto, one of the first Asian-Americans hired to work in a U.S. bureau of an international news service, died Wednesday at 82.
Sakamoto, a former Hawaii bureau chief for The Associated Press, started his journalism career with United Press International in Honolulu in 1960. He retired in 2001 after overseeing operations in Hawaii and the Central Pacific for AP.
He died in his Honolulu home after heart failure and a long battle with chronic kidney disease, his son Kyle Sakamoto said.
Honolulu-born Sakamoto worked for UPI for 27 years in San Francisco and Hawaii. He joined the AP in 1993 after working five years as a marketing specialist for the state of Hawaii.
The AP named him bureau chief in Honolulu on Jan. 1, 1994. The next day, he was kicked off the island of Lanai while trying to cover the ultra-secret wedding of billionaire software mogul Bill Gates. It was one of the adventures in reporting he often reminisced about.
To some former AP reporters, he was not only a mentor, but a father figure as well.
“He taught me a lot about journalism, about life, about family and to be a better person,” said Jaymes Song, a former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter who was hired by Sakamoto to work with him at the AP.
Song recalled Sakamoto helping a cash-strapped student at the Asian American Journalists Association convention in New York in 2001.
“Gordon gave him money out of his own pocket — a complete stranger,” Song said. “He brought the guy with us to a Yankees game. That’s the kind of guy he was. He took care of people, and he cared about people. That’s what made him a great news leader and person.”
Sakamoto was a pioneer as an Asian-American in journalism.
“He was a manager in an industry where there were little-to-no minorities in management,” Song said.
That wasn’t something Sakamoto talked about or bragged about, but it made him a leader who was sensitive to differences in culture and values, said Song, who later led the Hawaii bureau as an administrative correspondent. Song and Sakamoto remained close even after Sakamoto retired and after Song left journalism for a career in real estate.
Jean Christensen was a rookie reporter fresh out of a temporary AP gig in Minneapolis when she called Sakamoto looking for a job.
“I told him I lived in Hawaii as a kid, and he said, ‘How’s your Pidgin,’” she recalled.
Sakamoto’s Hawaii roots shaped the way he directed news coverage of the state, said Christensen, now a bankruptcy attorney.
“His love of Hawaii was just always so apparent,” she said. “We were so protective of Hawaii. We wanted to make sure that stories about Hawaii didn’t just play on stereotypes.”
He was a “steady hand” during breaking news events such as the 1999 mass shooting at Xerox Corp.’s Honolulu warehouse, Christensen said. He championed his reporters’ story ideas, she said, recalling how supportive he was when she pursued a story about paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — on the Big Island.
“I remember him as a quiet man who took pride in his appointment as our chief in Hawaii and was zealous in trying to meet the members’ needs in Hawaii and see that Hawaii’s story made it out to the rest of AP,” said former AP President and CEO Louis D. Boccardi.
On top of his duties representing AP to member outlets, he juggled the bureau’s sports coverage. Retired Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Ann Miller traveled with him covering golf for about a decade.
“He never complained about it,” she said.
In 1998, Sakamoto wrote a first-person account of being a 6-year-old Lunalilo Elementary School student when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
While more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the mainland were sent to internment camps during World War II, those in Hawaii often fared better, he wrote: “Living in the islands, with their melting pot of ethnic groups, eased the fears of retaliation for my parents, who were second-generation Japanese-American, or Nisei.
“In no time, we kids of Japanese ancestry were out playing with our Chinese and Portuguese neighbors and parking ourselves in their homes.”
Sakamoto’s knowledge of Hawaii’s culture, politics and society made him well-suited to lead the bureau, said David Briscoe, who succeeded him as bureau chief from 2001 to 2009.
“One of the great things about the AP is some of its best people do come from the local community,” Briscoe said. “Gordon probably was one of the few really home-grown bureau chiefs.”