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Pāhoa park renamed after beloved Big Island mayor Billy Kenoi who died of cancer

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Outside the district park gym Wednesday in Pāhoa, keiki slid down slides and rambled around the playground equipment.

Their laughter and squeals of delight brought to life the legacy of a former Hawai‘i County mayor whose actions while in office focused on protecting and preserving the Big Island for future generations.

While the kids played, more than 150 people gathered inside the gym to celebrate that mayor, the late Billy Kenoi, by renaming Pāhoa District Park in his honor.

Pāhoa District Park was renamed William “Billy” Kenoi Park after the popular Hawaiʻi County mayor who died in 2021 at age 52 after a long battle with cancer. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now

At the event to rename the county property the William “Billy” Kenoi Park were many dignitaries. They included current Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth, former Kaua‘i County Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Hawai‘i County Council members and state Sens. Lorraine Inouye and Joy San Buenaventura.

Kenoi, who died in January 2021 after a long battle with a rare form of cancer called myelofibrosis, worked diligently while in office from 2008 to 2016 to develop and enhance County parks around the island.

On Nov. 2, the County Council adopted Bill 212 to name the park for the former mayor, public servant, lawyer, teacher, coach and Ironman finisher.

While Billy Kenoi was mayor of Hawaiʻi County, he advocated for the improvement of county parks. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now
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Kenoi was a lifelong resident of Puna and instrumental in the district park’s construction, which at one point was halted because of the 2014 lava flow from Kīlauea. Four years later, the park, constantly abuzz with keiki and events, became home to hundreds of families who lost everything because of the 2018 Kīlauea eruption and lava flow.

Wednesday’s park naming event featured an opening aha, a pule and remarks from several of Kenoi’s friends, colleagues and family members. Each regaled those in attendance with stories about the former mayor, who was known for his forward-thinking leadership grounded in aloha and with a dash of humor.

“Everybody has a story about Billy,” said Kimo Alameda, the event’s emcee, chief executive officer of Bay Clinic, a friend of Kenoi and director of the Hawai‘i County Office of Aging during Kenoi’s second term. “He made time for everybody.”

The park’s new sign was also unveiled along with a new ko‘u tree and pōhaku. The three are arranged in a triangle, a symbol of integration and nod to the former mayor’s work to bring the island together.

If Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz had her way, every park around the Big Island would have a feature named for Kenoi.

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“Billy thought that when you immerse yourself in ‘āina and do it with people you love, it can be a transformative experience,” the council member from Puna said. “And everyone deserves that.”

Kierkiewicz introduced Bill 212 and was one of the naming event’s coordinators.

Mahina Kenoi said her father’s goal in his work to improve the County’s parks was to make sure the island’s children had safe havens because keiki who are engaged and healthy have happy and healthy families.

“He loved his community and loved putting smiles on everyone’s faces,” she said, with emotions welling to the surface.

Mahina Kenoi urged everyone to never stop sharing their stories about her dad, the jokes he told and all the advice he offered. Keeping those memories, like the park now named for him, will help his legacy to live on.

Mahina Kenoi said having the part renamed after her father is a great way for people to remember him. Photo Credit: Nathan Christophel/Big island Now
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Others called the former mayor a blessing and said he wasn’t just a public official, he was a friend and became ‘ohana with whomever he met.

Before leading the crowd in a closing prayer, Pastor Renee Godoy said Billy Kenoi was a very spiritual person who she used to meet with often. They would pray together and she would always ask what she could pray for him.

“His answer was always the same: It’s about the keiki and the kūpuna,” Godoy said.

Kenoi’s work on the County’s park system is a testament to that, she said.

Justin Kenoi thanked everyone for coming. He was certain his father was smiling down on everyone in attendance, knowing he was still able to help his community. Wednesday would have been Billy Kenoi’s 54th birthday. Carvalho led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to close out the event.

The former mayor’s family said everyone coming together and seeing each other again for the first time after such a long time apart because of the COVID-19 pandemic was amazing and humbling.

“It was so beautiful to see and gather again,” Mahina Kenoi said.

She also said it was amazing to see people keep her father’s signs up even after he died. Now, the park is a permanent memorial to remind them he’s still here: “Itʻs so nice to have this.”

Every time his children come to William “Billy” Kenoi Park, they’ll not only see his name, they’ll remember him.

Mahina Kenoi said: “It will feel like he’s here and he’s staying here — and it’s good.”

Photos in slideshow by Nathan Christophel with Big Island Now.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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