Ken Nagao (1939-2020)
Eugene architect and community leader Ken Nagao died unexpectedly this past Monday afternoon. He was scheduled to start chemotherapy following a recent diagnosis of leukemia. The cause of death was bleeding in the brain, with no known cause of the bleeding.
Like many others who knew him well, I was shocked and saddened by the news. Ken was not only a pillar of the local Asian-American community but also a stalwart supporter of all efforts to promote Lane County’s diverse cultural landscape. He was one of a kind—a tireless, respected elder who led by example. His passing is a tremendous loss for all of us.
Ken was born in Hawaii to a large family just before World War II. He came to Eugene to study architecture at the University of Oregon during the 1960s. It was during his studies at Oregon that he met his wife, Irene, who coincidentally was also from Hawaii. Following a stint in the Air Force and working for an engineering firm, Ken would establish his own practice, first in partnership with others (including Tom Oroyan) and eventually as Nagao Pacific Architectural PC. He only retired recently after a lengthy career designing many projects throughout Oregon (and also in Hawaii, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and California) for both private and public sector clients. Ken also served the profession as a three-term member of the Oregon Board of Architect Examiners(1).
I can’t exactly recall when I first met Ken and Irene, but it was very soon after my return to Eugene in 1988. I immediately recognized his infectious enthusiasm and positive attitude for everything he applied his attention and energy to (which was considerable). This included helping initiate the highly successful Oregon Asian Celebration (which marked its 35th anniversary in February), establishing the annual Asian Kite Festival, as well as the Obon and Taiko Festival. Additionally, Ken served many terms as a board member for both the Asian American Council of Oregon and the Japanese American Association of Lane County. Besides his leadership on behalf of the Asian-American community, he also was active with Kiwanis International and Ducks Unlimited, and promoted career education through the Boy Scouts of America. His leadership on so many fronts is immeasurable and represent a legacy that will likely never be matched.
He and Irene were two of the founding members of Eugene Taiko and would be among our biggest cheerleaders following their retirement from the group. As a current member of Eugene Taiko, I can confidently say we will carry Ken’s contributions forward in our own small way.
The entire breadth of Ken’s interests and passions was truly remarkable. He was an avid hunter (I never knew what a chukar was until learning from Ken), kite maker, gingerbread house architect, potter, ukulele artist (as a member of the Iron Mango Orchestra), competitive roller-skating dancer and judge, gourmet cook, and all-round bon vivant. Ken and Irene annually hosted a large Christmas party at their home, at which their many guests would marvel at the enormous and lavishly decorated tree they could fit into their lofty living room.
If Ken had a dream that was not fulfilled, it was to see a dedicated multicultural center here in Lane County become a reality during his lifetime. While it is heartbreaking this did not occur, I am hopeful his vision will be realized at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Oregon State University interviewed Ken back in 2007 for its Multicultural Voices of Oregon project. I encourage readers here to listen to the interview or read the transcript to learn more about Ken and his efforts on behalf of Oregon’s ethnic communities. More than anything, he wished to encourage our community's acceptance of and appreciation for its fabulous mosaic of traditions and cultures.
Ken was always willing to help and give of his time, and he did so with the utmost joy and humility. He leaves behind a void that cannot be filled but he did provide us with a blueprint for how to live life well and in the service of our neighbors.
Irene asks at this time that her privacy be respected. Think of her in your thoughts and prayers. Save your phone calls for a later date; there will be time in the future for phone calls and hugs. Everyone hopes to be able to eventually gather to honor and share their memories of Ken. In the meantime, you can send your condolences to Irene at the home she and Ken shared at 1775 Tabor Street, Eugene OR, 97401.
(1) It was during Ken’s tenure on the Board that I acquired my licensure in Oregon. Back then (1989) the registration process included an in-person “interview” before the Board for the year’s crop of candidates to augment the written jurisprudence examination. Ken singled me out for one of the questions, which I answered erroneously, much to my embarrassment.