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Toshiko ‘Daisy’ Okura, ukulele strummer from Hawaii, dead at 90

Toshiko "Daisy" Okura helped form Chicago's Na Kupuna Ukulele Club. | Family photo

No one wore black for Daisy Okura.

Her memorial service was festive with the colors and smells of the Big Island of Hawaii, where she grew up the daughter of sugar cane workers. Friends and relatives wore bright muumuus and shirts with hibiscus and plumeria prints in shades of scarlet, melon and aqua. A shrine with her ashes was decorated with a plumeria lei and anthurium flowers from relatives in Hawaii.

Her Na Kupuna Ukulele Club strummed “Aloha Oe” — one of the sweetest Hawaiian melodies — with lyrics that translate roughly:

“Farewell to you. . .
One fond embrace,
‘Ere I depart
Until we meet again.”

Toshiko “Daisy” Okura, one of the founding members of the ukulele club, died last month in her sleep at 90. Her son, Terrence, asked friends and relatives to come to Maloney Funeral Home in “aloha wear.”

“It tied them back to Hawaii,” he said. “It was more festive. We also did it to console the people she’s left behind.”

Mrs. Okura was born on a sugar plantation in the village of Hakalau when Hawaii was still a U.S. territory. It didn’t become a state until she was nearly 35.

She was the oldest of four kids. Her father, Enoske Tomiyama, was one of many Japanese men who worked the cane fields. Her mother, Miye, was a Japanese “picture bride” who came to Hawaii for a marriage arranged through photographs and letters. When Miye met her husband-to-be, she was disappointed to see he looked older than his photo, but she stayed anyway, said their grandson.

Daisy and Hiroshi "John" Okura on their wedding day in 1953 / family photo

Daisy and Hiroshi “John” Okura on their wedding day in 1953. | Family photo

Daisy Okura often said plantation work was hard and thankless. She and other local youngsters, like Hiroshi “John” Okura, had to help out in the fields.

But when World War II broke out, he signed up for the Army, believing, “You could get away from that kind of life,” said Terrence Okura.

John Okura joined the 442nd — the Japanese-American brigade renowned for its heroism. He served in Italy and Germany.

After the war, they got married.

“Both of them were hoping to leave Hawaii, the ‘island paradise,’ ” said their son. “The work wasn’t what they wanted to do.”

In the late 1940s, they left for Chicago, where John Okura used the GI bill to attend the Ray-Vogue School, a precursor to the Illinois Institute of Art. He became a commercial artist and worked in advertising and design.

Mrs. Okura went to beauty school to be a hairdresser. They lived near Sportsman’s Park in Cicero and in Uptown before settling near Devon and Magnolia in Rogers Park to raise a family.

Their other son, Gerald, developed severe kidney problems in grade school, a complication from strep throat, and John Okura — who’s still living at 94 — donated a kidney to his son. Gerald Okura survived the operation and lived to be 46. He died in 1997.

The Na Kupuna Ukulele Club at a memorial service at Maloney Funeral Home for a founding member of the group, Daisy Okura / family photo

The Na Kupuna Ukulele Club, in festive “aloha wear,” at a memorial service at John E. Maloney Funeral Home for a founding member of the group, Daisy Okura. | Family photo

That year, Mrs. Okura and her brother, Alvin Tomiyama, joined other island and mainland seniors to form the ukulele group Na Kupuna, which means “elder” in Hawaiian.

“She was one of the original members,” said her friend, Helen Kuwashima.

The ukulele was embraced by Hawaiians after it was brought to the islands by the Portuguese.

The troupe has entertained on many stages. Mrs. Okura particularly enjoyed a 2004 show.

“When Millennium Park opened, the ukulele group was picked to perform,” Kuwashima said.

The Na Kupuna Ukulele Club does crowd-pleasers like “Blue Hawaii” and “Hawaiian Wedding Song” and also traditional songs in the Hawaiian language, like “Kaulana Na Pua,” or “Famous are the Flowers.”

“She always had a big smile on her face,” said Tonko Doi, a member of the club. “She loved to entertain.”

“I can’t say enough about the Na Kapuna Ukelele Club,” said Terrence Okura. “What it gave my mom in her later years was priceless.”

In addition to her husband and son, Mrs. Okura is survived by a sister, Teruko, two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

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Daisy and John Okuru at Brookfield Zoo in the 1950s with their sons Gerald (left) and Terrence. | Family photo