Thursday, April 24, 2014

By PETER SUR

Tribune-Herald staff writer

VOLCANO -- Attached to the bulletin board on one wall of this community's volunteer fire department is a small picture of Ray and Colleen Fuhrmann holding a maile lei in front of the fire station that bears their name.

The memories and photographs of the couple are all that remain after the patriarch died Tuesday at his Volcano home. He was 95.

A retired engineer, Ray Michael Fuhrmann designed both the Cooper Center and the nearby Fuhrmann Firehouse. In recent years, he was haunted by tragedy. Since 2005, he had lost his wife, his grandson, Ray Michael Fuhrmann II, and his son, Michael Ray Fuhrmann.

His grandson was the first Big Island soldier to die in Iraq. On his second tour, the combat medic and three others were killed in Samarra when their Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb. He was posthumously given a Silver Star for rescuing six wounded soldiers in a firefight six months before he died.

"Ray was a wonderful kid, but I guess the Lord figured that was that," the elder Fuhrmann told the Tribune-Herald in 2006.

"I think about Ray and Michael frequently," he said in 2009. "And my wife. And I wonder why they died and I haven't. And I miss them. I miss them."

The end came quickly, said Barbara Toles, on-site administrator for the Cooper Center. Toles said Fuhrmann had come to do yoga at the center just two weeks ago. According to her, Fuhrmann had asked a caregiver whether there is an afterlife. The response was, "Most definitely."

"He said on Sunday that Colleen visited him," Toles said.

"I went to see him yesterday or the day before," at Hilo Medical Center, said longtime Volcano community figure Betsy Mitchell. "And he held my hand, and he said, 'Betsy, I'm going to see Colleen.'"

But he wasn't going to see her in a hospital bed. So on Tuesday, he was driven back to Volcano to his home at the end of the rough, one-lane road and taken inside where he died shortly after.

Fuhrmann was born in Canada and met Colleen when the two were 16 years old. He worked in Honolulu and lived in Kailua, Oahu, and retired to Volcano.

He was followed to the upland village by Mitchell, another former Kailua resident, who thought Volcano lacked a community center.

"There wasn't a place where we could get together," Mitchell said. "There was a nice fellow who said, 'I think that's a splendid idea," and encouraged the community to get behind the project. That man was Mr. Cooper, whose first name escaped Mitchell while being interviewed.

"Other than that, he had no connection" to the Cooper Center, she said. Fuhrmann designed the building and his wife designed the bookstore. The community pitched in to build the center and it was dedicated in March 21, 1987. In recent years, he continued to look for ways to improve the building.

"He did so much for us," Mitchell said.

The Fuhrmanns used to rent out their home and car when they traveled to the mainland, Toles said. One day, one of their guests came home and parked the car in the garage, which then caught on fire. At the time, the nearest fire station was in Keaau. That incident prompted Fuhrmann to design a fire station, too, and it opened in November 1993.

"We're glad he put this together," said Tom Reppuhn, Volcano station captain. "One of the very best volunteer fire stations on the island."

He was a lifelong Republican activist and former precinct chairman who worked on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaign. But he had soured on the GOP in recent years and called the party "dead to me."

"If I could, I would punch the button to blow up (Dick) Cheney, (George W.) Bush and (Donald) Rumsfeld," he said in 2005. "We were suckered into that war and we have no business being there. It wasn't our business to oust Saddam Hussein. They deliberately suckered the country to get us over there without a clue about how to get us out."

Mitchell, her husband Mitch and Fuhrmann were honored last October at a potluck party and roast for their decades of volunteer work at the Cooper Center.

Services are pending. Fuhrmann's ashes will be mixed with those of his wife's and scattered in a private ceremony. Fuhrmann told people that he didn't want a big ceremony, but Toles said that "Cooper Center will definitely do something."

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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Ray and Colleen were those rare individuals that are vital to the health of any community; not just willing, but actively seeking, to give of their time and their skills for creating a better place for their neighbors. Perhaps it is something important to recognize about their generation, that selfless drive to get things done, even when things happen slowly. My wife Sheri and I are glad to have been their friends, and both live on quite vibrantly in our warmest memories of the happy years we lived in Hilo. While volunteering with Habitat for Humanity's first house-build in Nanawale in the early 1990s, Ray taught me how to design homes the local way instead of the mainland way. We drew up the firehouse plans together, and I delighted watching the community rally around that white-haired man as those walls went up. And we'll never forget my little daughter's excitement at meeting "Mrs. Claus" (Colleen) one Christmas on the fronch lanai of the Volcano Art Center (Santa was a bit scary.)

They were wonderful people, and touched many lives, always for the better.

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