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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Michael Nakamura led a remarkable life

By David Shapiro

Former Honolulu Police Chief Michael Nakamura kept a positive outlook on life despite having to use an electric scooter to get around.

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The most important secret to living a good life with a severe disability is to keep your focus on the things you can do, not the things you can't do.

Few have ever exemplified this better than Michael Nakamura, the former Honolulu police chief who died Saturday at 58 from a progressive neuromuscular disease that forced his retirement in 1997.

Nakamura leaves an impressive legacy a top cop who inspired loyalty from his troops and trust from the community, a straight-shooting public servant, a socially responsible community leader.

But he'll be remembered most as an indomitable spirit who refused to let extreme personal adversity douse his enthusiasm for life or his unwavering sense of purpose.

He was a stern lawman when it came to keeping crime off our streets, but a kind man with a warm smile who in his later years enjoyed handing out flowers on downtown streets to spread a little cheer.

Nakamura's battle with spinal muscular atrophy made his body increasingly useless as the disease advanced, but his mind was always as sharp as ever and he never let it go to waste.

He served his final years as police chief in an electric scooter he used for mobility.

When the time came to leave the police force after a 28-year career, including seven years as chief, Nakamura was typically upbeat.

"I'm happy and excited to be moving on," he said. "Maybe it's because I always see change as exciting."

Good to his word, he threw himself into an active retirement in which he found other ways to serve.

He passed on his knowledge and wisdom by mentoring troubled young people and teaching community college courses in law enforcement.

Always eager to learn as well as teach, the former chief obtained a master's degree in arts and organizational management from the University of Phoenix.

Nakamura became involved in politics when he was appointed and later elected to the state Board of Education.

He chaired Mufi Hannemann's 2000 mayoral campaign and tried to make a point about out-of-control campaign finances with an unsuccessful low-budget run of his own for the City Council in 2002.

As if his crippling disease wasn't enough of a challenge, it seemed especially cruel when Nakamura was run down by a hit-and-run driver as he drove his scooter across a Mililani crosswalk in 2004.

The collision left him with two broken legs and caused a series of mini-strokes from which he never recovered, but they failed to diminish his sense of inner peace and truly generous heart.

He held no grudge against the young man who hit him, and his forgiveness was a big factor in Anthony Pearce II getting probation and a fine instead of a long prison sentence.

Nakamura asked only that Pearce honestly accept responsibility for what he'd done and use his second chance to make something of his life.

That was the tough-but-fair character that earned him such admiration as police chief.

Nakamura ran a clean department and had little patience for misconduct, but won the respect of those who served under him by empowering them to do their jobs and showing he cared about their lives and careers by calling each of them on their birthdays.

He was responsible for the department's community policing initiative that brought officers closer to the citizens they served.

Michael Nakamura's life was cut way too short for the kind of man he was and the value he brought to the community, but he would probably say he got his money's worth by making every minute count.

That's the inspiration we all should take from this remarkable man's passing.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.