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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Gene Thompson, 77, of Kihei, advocate for Maui community

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

KIHEI, Maui — Gene Thompson, a tireless advocate for Maui's fastest-growing community whose energy and leadership mobilized armies of citizens to save beaches and plant trees, died Saturday at age 77.

Services are planned for late January.

Thompson at one time headed the Kihei Community Association, which became the most effective organization of its kind on Maui, and worked to establish an islandwide council of community associations to address common concerns.

"If there was a public hearing he would be there giving testimony," said Jan Dapitan of the nonprofit Community Work Day program, which organizes cleanups and other beautification activities. "He really jumped into the life of the community. If you needed to know about South Maui, you called Gene Thompson."

Thompson also is credited with revitalizing the Maui Outdoor Circle, and served as its president for three years in the late 1990s. One of his first fights was successfully challenging plans by retailing giant Costco to install a large sign at its store near the Kahului Airport, said Jeannie Pezzoli, who would later lead the group.

Under his leadership, the Outdoor Circle kept a close eye on new developments, ensuring plantings and shade trees were installed along roadsides and in parking lots.

"Gene was so creative in understanding what the solutions were. ... He just didn't do a lot of talking, he cut through the red tape and got it done," said Pezzoli, who is assistant dean of instruction at Maui Community College.

"He had a great enjoyment of outdoors and how plants and trees bring sense and sensibility to our lives."

Thompson was born June 28, 1926, in Santa Clara, Calif. After serving in the Army and working for NATO in Europe, he began buying old homes and restoring them with his life partner of nearly 40 years, Jack Esker. The two men were later honored by the state for preserving historical buildings in Petaluma, Calif.

Thompson and Esker first vacationed on Maui in 1971 and six years later they moved to the island. Thompson worked as a property manager until retiring in 1981, when his volunteerism kicked into high gear.

Using plantings and sand fences, he marshalled other volunteers to restore Kama'ole Beach Park II in Kihei after severe erosion caused by major storms in 1980 and 1982. Kama'ole Beach Park I would later benefit from Thompson's efforts.

His recruits wore T-shirts that identified them as Kama'ole volunteers, and Dapitan said she remembers getting down on her knees beside Thompson to plant naupaka, 'aki'aki grass and morning glory to stabilize the shoreline.

"He was a person who saw a need and took charge, and he recruited other people and got them just as involved as he was," Dapitan said.

He also was active in the Maui County Arborist Committee and Bikeways Maui, and walked the beach as a member of the "turtle patrol" that protected nesting sea turtles and hatchlings. Last month Thompson was celebrated by county officials and the community as honorary chairman for Arbor Week 2003, and was honored by the Maui Outdoor Circle at a separate event.

Sue Kiang of the county Department of Parks and Recreation said his last major project was tree plantings on the medians along Ka'ahumanu Avenue, Central Maui's main thoroughfare.

"Rather than just coming in and grinding the county about what they were not doing he always came with a solution and a way that citizen participation could make it happen," Kiang said.

Esker said Thompson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in July. He regained his strength and up until about six weeks ago was continuing to weed and groom the landscaping at a small traffic triangle he had "adopted" where Mokulele Highway meets North and South Kihei Road.

Thompson died at home under hospice care.

He is also survived by a sister, Joyce Raineri, and a brother, James, both of California.