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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Staff Writer

Posted on: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vet, youngest son were constant companions

 • Bodies of pilot, son recovered from Hawaii plane wreckage
 • 'The kindest man I have ever met'
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Nicholas and Tim Palumbo

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Dr. Nicholas Palumbo, killed in a plane crash yesterday, was co-owner of The Cat Clinic on Kapahulu Avenue. He also was the only veterinarian for people who live on Läna'i.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Dr. Nicholas Palumbo flew to Lāna'i every weekend to treat animals, the only veterinarian on the island for more than 40 years.

Everyone knew that on Sunday mornings if the flags were up at his house, he'd be there to treat their dogs or pigs or whatever. It didn't matter what kind of animal, Dr. Palumbo was friend to all.

"Sometimes breakfast was served on the same table where an animal had surgery," son Nick said. Palumbo was unflappable that way. "I never once saw my dad afraid," oldest son Charlie said. "He lived his life without fear."

Palumbo loved hunting, healing animals and flying. He had been flying between O'ahu and Lāna'i, sometimes daily, since the 1960s. When his plane crashed on Sunday, Charlie said, "The possibility of that happening had been in the back of my mind for 40 years. I kind of accepted it."

Palumbo, 81, died with his son Tim, 20, who was with him.

Palumbo was born in 1928, a "depression baby," Charlie says, who possessed the kind of practicality and appreciation of that generation. He never considered himself poor because everybody he knew was struggling, but sometimes, his father had to go out and shoot squirrels for dinner. He was notoriously frugal, but at the same time, incredibly compassionate and quick to share, quick to help. "He taught us how to be generous and to treat everyone equally," Charlie said.

As a kid growing up in New Haven, Conn., Palumbo was known to bring home little hurt animals he'd find and nurse them back to health. He also loved hunting, and these two passions somehow weren't incongruous in the earthy, exuberant way he lived.

After serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Marines in World War II, Palumbo went to college on the GI bill. He then was drafted to serve in the Korean War and became a captain. He learned to fly while in the Marines, though in a program for civilian aviators.

He finished his schooling at the University of Missouri after his service and did his residency in Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston. It was there he met a fellow veterinary resident from Hawai'i, who recruited him to work in his family's Honolulu clinic.

After working in a number of clinics and going to Johns Hopkins University for his teaching credentials, Palumbo taught at the UH medical school and was chairman of comparative medicine. He studied such wide-ranging topics as fertility, growing corneas and developing an antitoxin for dogs that come in contact with toad poisoning.

"We spent many nights in Niu Valley catching toads to milk the toxin for my dad's research," Charlie said. The stories of their childhood are like that — larger than life, funny, remembered with great fondness and gratitude.


The Palumbo family always had a house on O'ahu, but Lāna'i was where they felt most at home. Palumbo leased two acres in the middle of a Lāna'i pineapple field near Palawai Basin, where he had found an abandoned pig farm. They lived without electricity, using Coleman lanterns and a camping stove.

They bought an old plantation house, cut it in half and trucked it to the pig farm, put it back together and added onto it. Palumbo disassembled an old water tank and used the redwood planks to make a deck for the house.

He cared for animals there, raised his six children from his first marriage and two boys from his second marriage there. He took in other kids as well, kids who were having trouble at home or just needed a place to stay. The Palumbo kids thought of them as hānai siblings and said their parents treated every child as if he or she were their own.

They called their busy, bursting-with-life Lāna'i home "Pigeon City," a play on the name Palumbo, which means "white dove" in Italian. When the lease to the land was canceled, Palumbo found another parcel of land where he again trucked the old plantation house.

He was there Sunday morning, the day of the crash, treating animals. There was a line out the door to see him.


Palumbo was a true country doctor, treating anyone who came his way. Some people paid for their animal's care with fish or venison. "One guy tried to pay him with bags of pakalolo, and my dad was like, 'Sorry. I can't take that,' " Nick says, smiling at the memory. He would fly his plane into Kalaupapa to treat the pets of patients there, who would show up at the airstrip with their animals in cardboard boxes. Palumbo was even known to stitch up a kid who got into a scrape or to slather a bit of veterinary medicine on a scraped knee.

"My dad was my hero," said daughter Kay Daub, who is chairwoman of the School of Nursing at UH- Hilo. "I learned to fly so he would be proud of me. I became a professor so he would be proud of me. I still feel like this never happened. I can't believe it. He had such a passion for life."

Nick runs a surf school on Lāna'i. Charlie is a planner on O'ahu, though he still thinks of Lāna'i as home.

Tim was the youngest of Palumbo's eight children. He graduated from Kalani High School, but still attended a special education program that taught life skills to people with learning disabilities. Tim was his father's constant companion, and, his siblings say, was in some ways the most like their father in terms of their high energy and sense of humor. Tim loved flying with his dad to Lāna'i every weekend and looked forward to each trip.

"This is a tragedy, but in a way, I'm glad they were together, because they were always together," Charlie said.

Palumbo loved poetry and especially loved Robert Frost. He heard Frost give readings in Boston in the early 1960s, and when daughter Kay was born on a wintry February day, gave her the middle name Frost to mark the cold weather and his favorite poet.

"The poem 'The Road Not Taken' about 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,' that was one of his favorites," Kay said. "And my father took the road less traveled. That's how I would sum him up."

The family will bury father and son on Lāna'i, near the Sacred Heart Church where all the Palumbo sons served as altar boys. The date of the service hasn't been set. "But definitely Lāna'i," Charlie said. "My father really loved Lāna'i."