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Free spirit left mark in Pacific

By Melissa Tanji MAUI, Hawaii (The Maui News, Jan. 23, 2010) – Haiku resident William Vitarelli carved a koa wood bowl while making a Christmas present for a family member in December 2004. He was 94 at the time. He died at home on Jan. 19.

Vitarelli, an educator, architect and community organizer, was 99.

Vitarelli, also known as "Vit" or "Rubak," died at his home with hospice care Tuesday, family members said.

[PIR editor’s note: Vitarelli served as an educational administrator and community developer in Palau, Guam, Yap, Saipan, and the Marshall Islands for over twenty-five years. Aside from a number of economic and educational projects he supported in Palau, one of Vitarelli’s major contributions to Palau was his position as the special advisor to the Belau Modekngei School, an indigenous institution established to preserve traditional skills and values. In addition, he created a printing press and furniture factory to ensure Palau’s students had the educational supplies they needed. One of two titles bestowed upon Vitarelli from Palau was from the Seventh Olbiil Era Kelulau, January 2006 whereas he was named as an "Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Palau". ]

In recent years, Vitarelli was known as the 90-something-year-old man who married a woman 40 years his junior. He also owned a homestead with several acres in Haiku, including a house with a tree house and pizza oven, friends said.

He also dedicated his life to the people in Palau, working there in the 1970s to make education accessible to Micronesians. He was also an organic farmer, an artist, a builder and a peace advocate.

"He's the king of Maui. There was no one like him on this island," said fellow artist and friend Tom Sewell.

Sewell, who called Vitarelli his "best friend," said the man was unconventional in every way.

"He built his dream house (when he was) 90 years old," Sewell said, adding that he "tricked" his family into thinking the home was a compost pit at first.

"Even the way he was buried. Burial at sea. He didn't want to be buried in the ground. He didn't want diesel fuel burning his body. It was a green ceremony. It was unconventional," Sewell said.

Vitarelli's 59-year-old wife, Charlaine, said her husband's body was placed in a coffin and taken out to sea off the Maliko Boat Ramp area Thursday morning.

Sewell, who witnessed the burial, called it "epic" seeing a "little boat" with a coffin heading out to sea in the waves.

Both Charlaine Vitarelli and Sewell said Vitarelli was the first person in 50 years on Maui to be buried at sea.

Dr. Lorrin Pang, the Maui District Health Officer, who oversaw the administrative process for Vitarelli's burial, said he couldn't comment directly on the case because of privacy. But he said burials at sea are "not too common," and this was the first one he's seen in the 10 years he's been Maui's district health officer.

Burials at sea need to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, and paperwork needs to be processed before the burial is done, Pang said.

Vitarelli was born Oct. 21, 1910, in New York City and was of Italian ancestry. He received a doctorate degree from Columbia University in 1948.

He worked as an educational administrator and community development official in Micronesia for more than 25 years, mainly in Palau, but also in Guam, Saipan, Yap and the Marshall Islands.

He also served as vice president for research and development at the University of Guam in the early 1970s and was the special adviser to the Belau Modekngei School, an independent alternative school in Palau, established to perpetuate traditional skills and values.

Vitarelli moved to Maui in 1976 with his family and first wife, Henrietta. She died in 2003.

He devoted his retirement years to designing and building homes, farming and writing. He maintained contact with he people of Palau throughout the years.

Charlaine Vitarelli said what she will remember most about her husband is "his love and his love of life."

She said that before her husband started having health problems, she'd ask him how he felt every morning. And he replied enthusiastically, "'I feel great,'" she said.

The two met during Sewell's New Moon/Full Moon Coffee Klatch several years ago and were married on Vitarelli's 97th birthday.

Charlaine Vitarelli said she is proud of her husband's ties and work with the people of Palau, and she admires how her husband fought and won a wrongful termination lawsuit during the "red scare" era of the 1950s.

After World War II, Vitarelli was a community development specialist in Palau, a United States territory at the time. When he refused to carry out a superior's plans to militarize Palau, Vitarelli was labeled a communist sympathizer and fired. He fought his firing and won a landmark wrongful termination lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959. He then returned to Palau.

Friends said they'll remember Vitarelli's love of life and others.

Friend and yoga teacher Skeeter Tichnor said: "He embodied so much the spirit of love he spoke about."

She said he chose love and had a capacity to forgive and care for others.

In fact, Sewell said, Vitarelli has so much love in his heart that he forgave the killer who gunned down his granddaughter, whom he had adopted as his own daughter.

Heather Vitarelli was a bystander in a shooting at a Las Vegas casino in 2000 and was killed. In keeping with his Quaker traditions, William Vitarelli asked that the killer not be sentenced to death.

He is survived by his wife, Charlaine; five children, Sandy Vitarelli, Margo Vitarelli, David (Naoko) Vitarelli, Don Vitarelli and Janice (Hideaki "Santa") Miyoshi; and 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

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