After ‘15 years of joy,’ Michael Nakano leaves Lahainaluna
LAHAINA — He didn’t lead in an iron-fisted manner, but instead with the gentle, guiding hand of a nurturing parent.
Like the delicate fingering of the piano he loved to play, Lahainaluna High School Principal Michael Nakano — who retired last week after some 40 years as an administrator for the Hawaii Department of Education — was exemplified by a loving nature in his guidance of the oldest school west of the Rockies
Principal Nakano guided Lahainaluna into the new millennium, maintaining the integrity and charm of one of Maui’s cultural treasures despite the bureaucratic tangle that defines the Hawaii DOE, and into the face of the current financial recovery of our country. His 15-year tenure at the state’s only public boarding school will be remembered as a rainbow of accomplishments, like the colorful arcs that so often grace the foothills of Pa‘u Pa‘u above the historic campus adorned by the beaming “L” that represents the Lahainaluna ‘ohana.
He was born and raised on Oahu and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in History from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, as well as teaching certification and a Master’s Degree in Administration.
Principal Nakano then worked for the Leeward District on Oahu before coming to Maui for stints at Princess Nahienaena Elementary, Maui High and — egads! — Baldwin. But then he found his home here on the leeward side of the Valley Isle. “These were 15 years of joy with this wonderful community of kids, parents, families and coworkers,” he said.
“It’s a different kind of feeling here than anywhere else — a feeling of warmth that all embrace to fall in love with the school. It’s remarkable, like a motherly feeling, and I wrote a song about this (“Ha‘aheo O Lahainaluna”).”
For the Lahainaluna educational curriculum, Nakano helped guide the establishment of the Learning Community Pathways program that became a pioneer on Maui, the Po‘okela Advisory program and the Senior Project program that the state implemented in all Hawaii high schools.
Further, the formation of the Lahainaluna High School Foundation during his tenure led to major financial advancements, including millions of dollars in scholarships and facilities improvements for the students and the school.
Without a library for 40 years, a state-of-the-art facility was completed in 2003, and the same scenario was achieved for a locker room and weight lifting complex. Most recently, he worked to establish an ocean research center on campus that would someday bring scientists to work at the school in fields such as marine biology.
But closest to Principal Nakano’s heart, and to the family feeling that means so much to him, is the Lahainaluna Boarding Department. Living in the Headmaster’s Cottage fronting the dormitories, he naturally formed relationships with the boarding students that came from all corners of Hawaii.
One of them was 16-year-old Jonah Reyes, a second-year boarder from the rough and tumble Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi. Within the strict, and sometimes harsh, dormitory existence, Reyes found solace and comfort from the gentle parental affection of “Pops” Nakano.
“He was very close with the boarders… helped with the Boarders’ Choir and played the piano, and also wrote a song called ‘Ha‘aheo O Lahainaluna.’ Pops is very generous and always brought us snacks — and one time he brought me cough drops and cough syrup when I was sick. I grew really close with him and I will really miss him. There will never be anyone else like him,” Reyes said.
Kazia Lecker, a four-year boarder from Hana and the current boarders’ president, echoed the sentiment in saying, “Mr. Nakano did a lot for the boarders, as he dedicated his time and committed his attention to us. I’m sad that he is leaving and wish that he would have stayed for our senior year. It’s a big loss for Lahainaluna High School and especially for the Boarding Department. We are going to miss him dearly, and we will try to become the people that he believes we can be.”
And Nakano’s years and influence were not limited to the students, as manifested in the sentiments of Lahainaluna Student Activities Coordinator Art Fillazar.
“Through the years, my appreciation of him has grown beyond professionalism. He was a dear friend, confidant, loyal supporter and instrumental in the success of the student activities program. He gave great support to the Student Council and was always at every student event hosted or sponsored by the SAC. He was generous and loving to the students and especially to the boarders.”
“He was steadfast and committed in his leadership and vision to make Lahainaluna High School a great place for learning,” he continued. “I am so grateful for his love, support, encouragement and, most of all, his friendship for these 15 years. I bid him farewell with regrets, but with my prayers as a retiree. I look forward to his visits.”
For now, the 63-year-old Nakano will return to Oahu to begin what he calls “the big change.”
As he took down the last of the photographs from his walls and served up another buffet for the office staff, he had this parting message for the Lahainaluna faithful: “I thank you all for your support — it has been instrumental in the success of the school, and I hope you got something from me, because you have helped me be a better principal.
“For all the kids, please work hard on your reading and writing skills, and always try to give back to the community. Put negativity behind, because you cannot move forward with a negative frame of mind. Promote forgiveness, be humble and respect one another.
“This is a wonderful school because the kids love it, the community loves it. The kids and staff of this school are so great. Together, we moved the school forward in a collaborative effort that included the students, community, teachers, staff and administration. Greater things are still coming to this school,” he concluded.