Lonny Kaneko reads his poetry on the Day of Remembrance at the Mukai home in February. (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo)

Lonny Kaneko, Vashon’s poet laureate, dies at 77.

* Editor’s Note: This version of the story corrects an error in the previous version which incorrectly listed the time of Kaneko’s service at the Mukai Farm & Garden.

Lonny Kaneko, an islander for more than three decades, died unexpectedly on March 30, leaving many in the community grieving his absence.

Kaneko, 77, traveled in several circles on Vashon and is best known locally for his poetry, his support of work related to Japanese Americans and as a teacher and student of tai chi. Those who knew him best also note his long teaching career at Highline College, his love of music and the kind of spirit that led him to take tango lessons with a friend.

Kaneko was born on Nov. 15, 1939, in Seattle to Sanetomo and Lois Kaneko. When he was a young boy, his family was incarcerated at Minidoka, a concentration camp in Idaho for Japanese nationals as well as Japanese Americans.

His family’s experiences during and after the war are reflected in his book “Coming Home from Camp and Other Poems,” which was brought back into print and expanded in 2015 by islander Jean Davis Okimoto, who heads Endicott and Hugh Books on Vashon.

Okimoto recalls that they met several times over lunch at Green Ginger — like a second home to Kaneko — and selected new poems for the book there.

“He was an absolute joy to work with,” she said last week. “He was glad to have it published, and I was so honored to publish it.”

Kaneko had a long history as a writer. He attended the University of Washington as both an undergraduate and graduate student and studied with well-known poet Theodore Roethke. Roethke greatly influenced Kaneko, whose work also included fiction and plays.

His love of language and literature led him to Highline College, where he taught for nearly 50 years in the English department. In recent years, he also taught English as part of a summer faculty exchange at the university in Shanghai.

On Vashon, his writing led him to be named Vashon’s poet laureate in 2015, a two-year honor he shared with islander Cal Kinnear.

Kaneko was also active in supporting the work of the Friends of Mukai, a group working to restore and preserve the Mukai Agricultural Complex and its related history.

On Feb. 19, the Friends of Mukai marked the day with a ceremony at the Mukai home; it was the 75th anniversary of Pres. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans. Kaneko was among the speakers that day. He had been in the emergency room the night before and arrived late, but those facts were undetectable, as he read his work with grace and humor to the overflowing room.

Islander Joe Okimoto — Jean’s husband — noted that it was important to Kaneko to be there.

“He had attended Day of Remembrance events on the 25th and 50th anniversaries, and so he did not want to miss the 75th,” he said.

Joe Okimoto said the two men knew of one another as boys in the 1950s because they went to the same summer camp, but it was only in 2015, when he arranged a poetry reading with two Japanese-American poets, including Kaneko, that they became friends. The two shared an interest in the Mukai property, and just days before Kaneko’s death, they went to lunch in Seattle and met with King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, working to obtain his support for the county’s plan to purchase the Mukai Barreling Plant.

“We spoke as Japanese Americans who went through the World War II incarceration. We felt the Mukai story was important to preserve in addition to the building. It is an American immigrant success story,” he said. “I think Lonny really enjoyed the day.”

Lonny’s close friend Suni Kim spent a great deal of time with him over the years on Vashon, attending music shows and movies, taking walks and sharing food. She also learned tai chi from him in a long-running class, where he was both student and teacher. She noted that his love of martial arts was deep and that as a young man he was friends with Bruce Lee.

“He was genuinely a teacher. He taught tai chi like nobody could,” she said.

In an email, Todd Kaneko, Lonny’s son, said he had been battling an aggressive cancer, but his health was improving when he went in for a surgery that wasn’t thought to be risky. He seemed to be recovering initially, but died March 30. He also spoke to his father’s feelings about the island.

“My father was a private person, but he found a community that he loved on Vashon Island. I think he saw his family and community disrupted when he was a kid and his family was sent to camp, so as an adult, creating and fostering community is something that became pretty important to him. Community like that which he found on Vashon,” he wrote.

In addition to Todd, survivors include his daughter Shayna Burgess, three grandchildren and sister Jo Ann Kaneko, among other friends and family.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, May 1, at Mukai Farm and Garden, 18017 107th Ave. SW, Vashon, and at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 3, at Highline College.

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