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Reginald T. Okamura: A Personal Recollection

drill rig with Tom
Photograph by D.A. Swanson, 1968
Reg and Tom Wright with the trailer-mounted drill rig on the floor of Makaopuhi Crater in late 1968.

Reggie and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory were inextricably associated for 34 years. I was privileged to be part of the relationship for much of this time. I was assigned to work with Reg when I arrived in 1964 as a young staff geologist. Reg and I were the same age, and we became professional colleagues and personal friends. He introduced me to Island ways, and when I left HVO in 1969, I could count Hawai`i as my second home.

I'll never forget the vision of Reg on Chain of Craters Road during the beginning of the March 1965 eruption in Makaopuhi Crater--catching falling pumice in his hard hat for a visiting scientist who desired volcanic samples untouched by rain! In that moment I realized that HVO was not just a local facility but one literally connected to the greater scientific world through the accessibility of the observatory and its information. HVO has built a reputation established equally by the locally hired staff and by the scientists who came from the mainland to temporarily staff it. The eruption formed a deep "lava lake" ponded in the crater. Reg and I collaborated on all aspects of what became a classic study of the cooling of basaltic lava. Climbing down 200 m (700 feet) into a crater, sometimes several times a week, creates unbreakable bonds, and so it was between Reg and the many others who participated in the lava lake study. As driller, Reg took responsibility for equipment checks before making the descent, and he kept all the notebooks in which data were recorded. Back at HVO we worked together to plan the experiments and interpret the data. We authored a USGS Professional Paper on the results of our studies.

Before computers, when hand calculators were barely introduced, Reg was record keeper for the growing studies of ground deformation. He maintained the entire early record of Kilauea and Mauna Loa surveys and calculated the surveying results quickly after the field data were acquired, often staying long after pau hana time to finish the job. His speed with mental arithmetic is legendary and provided a quick reality check to eager young Ph.D.s, who couldn't begin to keep up.

Reggie was Chief of Operations at HVO when I was chosen as Scientist-in-Charge in 1984. In this role he handled the day-to-day responsibility for making HVO work, and again Reg and I collaborated on the scientific program. His job was made especially challenging by the long-awaited approval of a new building, coming about, in part, through Reg's contacts within Hawai`i's Congressional delegation. He was instrumental in ensuring a graceful transition from our old facility to the new. Reg was in charge during times when I was on the Mainland, with no thought of any disruption in the decision-making associated with HVO's work. I still treasure a photograph of the two of us taken in 1965 in front of a newly installed X-ray diffraction unit, labeling it "Who ever thought these guys could run a volcano observatory?"

Reg was present at the initiation of the Minority Participation in Earth Sciences (MPES) program. This program matured to become essential to HVO, not only providing summer help but also identifying several future staff members. Reg was the vital connection between the Scientist-in-Charge and the permanent staff, summer students, and the many volunteers, and he also worked with State and County officials as Scientists-in-Charge changed. I was moved, at his funeral service, to see the many people whose lives Reg had personally touched. His contributions to HVO and the Big Island community will be long remembered.

Tom Wright Former HVO Scientist-in-Charge.


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Updated: 5 Mar 1999