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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Gorgonio lived as he had died

By David Shapiro

I wrecked Gorgonio Ibera's car before I ever met him.

I had forgotten a textbook for class at UH-Hilo and my girlfriend, Maggie, offered me her dad's Falcon to run home and fetch it. I was in too much of a rush and clipped the rock wall beside my driveway, crushing the fender.

I was mortified, horrified and terrified. Maggie's dad had an intimidating look, and I was already apprehensive about meeting him, much less having to face him over this stupidity. But he took it with remarkable calm, and it was about then that I decided he would make an excellent father-in-law.

Over the next 35 years, I learned that Gorgonio Ibera's greatest strength was that very ability to take setbacks in stride and live on a steady course, which he did until his death last week from cancer at age 91.

He left his home in Sinait, Philippines, at 17 to join the migration of Filipino laborers hoping to find better lives on Hawai'i's sugar plantations and earn money to send home.

After 10 years on Kaua'i, he moved to the Big Island to work in the Puna Sugar Co. mill. He spent the remaining 65 years of his life in Kea'au, where he married his wife, Veronica, raised three fine children and endured the tragic death of his only son, Francisco.

His wedding photo shows a dashing man with a Ricky Ricardo thing going on, but the bright lights were not for him. Except for excursions to indulge his passions for fishing and lobstering, he seldom ventured even the 10 miles into Hilo and never again left the Big Island.

We all owe tremendous gratitude to self-effacing men like my father-in-law who were so vital in creating modern Hawai'i.

He and his fellow plantation workers did the heavy lifting to build Hawai'i's sugar industry, which provided the economic backbone to support statehood.

They fought for the right to unionize, then joined their voices to shape Hawai'i politics for half a century and forge an unprecedented era of social justice.

My father-in-law earned a modest salary, but saved enough to build a house for one daughter and contribute the down payment for the other daughter's first house.

It pained him that his gene of thriftiness didn't pass on. "Espend, espend, espend!" he would grouse at any sign of family extravagance.

He was quiet by nature and learned only the English he needed to get by. Even among his closest family, few report ever having an extended conversation with him.

But his presence was strong in the house, and he always managed to communicate affection and support for his children. Of all the photos on display at his funeral, he showed the greatest joy when he had one of his six grandchildren or three great-grandchildren bouncing on his knee.

My father-in-law was a sturdy man, refusing so much as a Tylenol to ease the intense cancer pain of his final weeks. Doctors found evidence of an old heart attack that he had simply toughed out without treatment.

He wanted nothing to do with hospitals, so his daughter Carolyn kept a devoted bedside vigil in his home as he neared the end, while Hospice of Hilo provided invaluable daily care.

Carolyn lay in his bed with him when he took his last breath, and Maggie was blessed with a final smile of recognition when she gave him a sip of juice.

Gorgonio Ibera died as he lived — on an even keel and surrounded by those he loved.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.