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My Friend Darrell by Mike Yamamoto

I knew Darrell Takaoka long before I actually met him. Through conversations with Lorraine Takaoka, his mother, learned a lot about her second son. Especially interesting to me was the common interest we shared in keeping tropical fish. One evening, while browsing through the aisles at Petland Ala Moana, I saw a guy who looked a lot like Lorraine’s husband, Roy. I knew that it must be Darrell.

After introducing myself, we got to talking and found we had a lot in common. Although Darrell was interested in a wide variety of freshwater and marine fishes and invertebrates, he was particularly fascinated by a group of freshwater catfishes belonging to the genus Corydoras, or corys for short. By coincidence, this was also the group that I was very interested in.

Corydoras come from South American and includes the common bronze, albino and peppered catfish that can be found in just about any petshop in Hawaii. Probably unknown to most fishkeepers is the fact that this group of catfishes includes more than a hundred species, with more new species discovered every year. As knowledgeable as I was about this particular group of fishes, I was amazed at how much Darrell knew.

When most hobbyists describe the fishes they keep, they may describe the color of the fish, or use terms like ‘skinny’ or ‘fat’. Darrell talked about inter-orbital distances, fin ray and scale counts and snout lengths. Although he had been a business major at UH, he thought like a scientist. It was all the more amazing to me because he was self-taught. As zoology majors I think many of us remember ichthyology labs and the tedium of counting scales and fin rays. It was not something most of us particularly enjoyed. Darrell picked all of this up on his own.

Besides being probably the foremost expert on Corydoras catfish in Hawaii, Darrell’s interest and expertise extended into the marine realm as well. He played a crucial role in Dr. Randall’s description of a second aholehole species in Hawaii. John Hoover, in his book, Hawaii’s Sea Creatures, acknowledged Darrell’s contributions, and described Darrell’s uncanny ability to locate and collect rare and unusual marine animals almost on demand. It was something that I witnessed first-hand.

One evening we were talking about native gobies and I mentioned to Darrell that the pointed–tail goby, Oxyurichthys lonchotus, seemed much less common than it once was. I used to catch this fish in the lower Manoa Stream/Ala Wai Canal in the past, but had not seen it for many years. A few days later I got a call from Darrell, who managed to collect a specimen for me under the bridge at Kailua Beach Park. He sent it in with his mom the next day.

Darrell was a humble and modest individual, who was not inclined to talk about his many accomplishments. It was only through Lorraine that I learned about his many other talents. It was Darrell, for example, who painted the red Asian arowana poster displayed in many petshops. If you look closely at the poster, you can see that not only is it beautiful, but it’s accurate to the tiniest detail.

Besides drawing and painting, Darrell was an accomplished musician and sculpturer. I just recently had an opportunity to listen to a tape of Darrell jamming on his guitar. If you didn’t know any better, you would swear that you were listening to a professional guitarist; pretty impressive for someone who was self-taught. Lorraine also showed me photos of some very impressive pieces Darrell sculpted during his UH days. He could also do some amazing things with a boogie board. According to his brother Alden, he could have been a pro.

Darrell supplied aquatic plants to several Honolulu petshops. He would collect the plants from streams in Honolulu and Kaneohe, and in Quarry Pond on the UH campus. Several years ago when the UH budget was cut back, maintenance of the pond was reduced and the pond became overgrown with California grass. Although Darrell had other collecting spots to collect his plants from, out of a sense of giving back, Darrell took it upon himself to keep the pond clear. He would spend hours upon hours cutting and pulling out the grass himself. On several occasions he paid the UH maintenance people out of his own pocket, to compensate them for using their heavy equipment to help clear out the weeds. How many people would think to do that?

Whether it was collecting aquarium plants or nearshore invertebrates, Darrell did most of his work at night. One reason was that the animals were out, and more easily collected. Another, perhaps more important reason was that it was quiet and peaceful and a good time to think and reflect upon things. Darrell enjoyed doing that.

Darrell was the kind of guy who would literally give you the shirt off his back. He was a regular and generous contributor to the River of Life charity, which takes care of the homeless. It was not unusual for Darrell to walk up to homeless people and hand them some money so they could get something to eat. When he got sick, he made his parents promise to continue supporting this charity.

Darrell suspected that something was wrong several years ago. In typical fashion, he accepted his fate and planned his life accordingly. He had a girlfriend, but made the decision not to get seriously involved with her because he did not want to leave her a widow. It was typical Darrell, always putting others before himself.

With his mom and dad always accompanying him for support, Darrell went to many doctors to see if they could help. He was prescribed a range of medications, and to the surprise and amazement of his doctors, Darrell selected the medications he would take and modified the dosages and his treatment schedule accordingly. He kept meticulous notes, read the available literature, and knew exactly how the medications were affecting him. I’m sure the doctors learned something from Darrell.

In our conversations and in his notes to me towards the end of his life, Darrell never expressed anger or bitterness at the hand he was dealt, just a calm acceptance that I found amazing. He loved his mom and dad, his brother Alden, and all that they did for him. He was also happy with the things that he was able to accomplish in his life. Darrell passed away on April 13, 2002 at the age of 33. So this was the Darrell Takaoka I knew; devoted friend, beloved son and brother, scientist, naturalist, painter, sculpturer, musician, boogie boarder and benefactor of the poor and unfortunate. He was such a rare individual. I feel priviledged to have known him, and to have been considered a friend. Like a shooting star, Darrell’s time on this earth was brief, but he shined ever so brightly and touched the lives of so many people.

Mike Yamamoto