Honoring a Local Hero

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William M. Akutagawa, Jr.
February 18, 1948 – November 2, 2020

By Kamahanahokulani Farrar, Executive Director, Nā Puʻuwai

Nā Puʻuwai, the Native Hawaiian Health Care System serving the islands of Molokaʻi (including Kalaupapa) and Lānaʻi, is honoring the life of William “Uncle Billy” Akutagawa. We are saddened by his passing and would like to honor our local hero by sharing his legacy with you.

A social worker by training, Uncle Billy is the longest serving executive director of the Native Hawaiian Health Care System. He was born and raised on the east end of Molokaʻi and was a passionate community organizer. I met Uncle Billy in 2004 while working with the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program of Papa Ola Lōkahi.

Nā Puʻuwai was a favorite site for many newly graduated Native Hawaiian scholars because Uncle Billy was such an outstanding mentor and historian. He ensured scholars were housed, integrated in community-based work, and provided with professional opportunities to learn and thrive.

Before his retirement in July 2016, Uncle Billy confirmed the priorities for Nā Puʻuwai including expanding and securing financial revenues, improving the organization’s capacity, and expanding our relationships in the community. Working with Nā Puʻuwai for the past four years, I can proudly confirm the staff is dedicated to working hard to ensure Uncle Billy’s vision for our future is strong. We are thankful to have had the vision of such a great man to guide Nā Puʻuwai.

Uncle Billy was an original member of Nā Puʻuwai Research Group in 1985 which sought to improve health conditions of Molokaʻi residents. Their innovation in research around two early projects, the Molokaʻi Heart Study in 1985, and the Molokaʻi Diet Study in 1987, informed the passage of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Act in 1988, and established Nā Puʻuwai as the Native Hawaiian Health Care System for the islands of Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi.

His work included pioneering community health programs in diabetes education, cancer screening and education, establishing a fitness center, providing outreach to those unable to leave home for health care, and assuring that traditional healing practices were available to patients seeking them and that practitioners were supported in their work. He addressed the health needs of the residents of Kalaupapa and quickly expanded to serve Lānaʻi. Uncle Billy mentored new generations of healthcare professionals for Molokaʻi, and he established long-term care services.

We extend our sincere aloha to Uncle Billy, his wife Abigail, and their ʻohana as we embrace his legacy of foresight, resourcefulness, leadership, and especially his deep sense of place.

Here at Nā Puʻuwai we are deeply honored and grateful for the opportunity to continue the mission to serve the community and endeavor to achieve balanced health and wellbeing for all Kānaka Maoli. We celebrate Uncle Billy’s dedicated service to the people of Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi, and confirm our deepest aloha honoring our local hero. I Molokaʻi Nui a Hina!

Resolution from Papa Ola Lōkahi 2016
William Akutagawa, M.S.W.
Molokaʻi kuʻi lāʻau

We, the directors and staff of Papa Ola Lōkahi, the Native Hawaiian Health Board, remain committed to honor and perpetuate the legacies of the visionaries who built sturdy foundations upon which we strive to achieve balanced health and wellbeing in our community.

Whereas, William Akutagawa, Jr., or “Billy,” was born and raised at the East End, attended college on the G.I. Bill and returned home to Molokaʻi as an employment and training coordinator.

Whereas, Billy was a social worker and community organizer whose leadership was meaningful and varied: mentoring Molokaʻi students to colleges; defining and seeking solutions for mental health needs on the island; and promoting a drug-free environment on Molokaʻi.

Whereas, in 1985 Billy was an original member of the Nā Puʻuwai Research Group, looking at improving the health conditions of Molokaʻi. The innovation in research around two early projects, the Molokai Heart Study in 1985, and the Molokai Diet Study in 1987, informed the passage of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Act in 1988, and established Nā Puʻuwai as the Native Hawaiian Health Care System for the islands of Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi.

Whereas, Billy is the longest serving executive director of any of the Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems, and the only one Nā Puʻuwai has ever known. As the main post, he pioneered community health programs in diabetes education, cancer screening and education, established a fitness center, provided outreach to those unable to leave home for health care, and assured that traditional healing practices were available to patients who sought them, and that practitioners were supported in their work; he addressed the health needs of the residents of Kalaupapa; quickly expanded to serve Lānaʻi; mentored new generations of healthcare professionals for Molokaʻi and elsewhere; and he established long term care on island so that patients needn’t leave.

Whereas, Billy is an avid hunter and fisher, he led the island’s initiatives to revitalize Hawaiian fishpond and limu production; develop and teach a hunter education program; and with others, establish Moʻomomi as the state’s first community based subsistence fishing reserve.

Whereas, Billy’s colleagues testify to his greatest asset the ability to bring together all the agencies, programs and necessary resources to address an issue, such as the recent restoration of Kalanianaʻole Hall, a community gathering place that reopened in 2010.

THEREFORE, LET IT BE KNOWN that we at Papa Ola Lōkahi extend our sincere appreciation and respect to Billy, his wife Abigail and their ʻohana; we embrace his legacy of foresight, resourcefulness, leadership and especially his deep sense of place; we celebrate his dedication and faithfulness in carrying out the mission to serve his community; and we endeavor to achieve balanced health and wellbeing for all Kānaka Maoli as Billy Akutagawa has been able to provide for his community.

I Molokaʻi-Nui-a-Hina!