Lani Acasio was a dedicated man of faith and truth whose amicable nature lent to the inception of one of the greatest and most pervasive families ever known.

Man sits on rocks

“Lani” is the Hawaiian word for “heaven.” Its proto-Polynesian roots can also lend to translations like “sky” or “royalty.” “Lani” can even be used as a suffix in the Hawaiian language to describe the majesty or spirituality of a subject.

For James Henry Lani Acasio, the etymology rings true, because spirituality, more than anything, cemented the bedrock of his being.

“Why did they make Jesus’s arms so long in the Mater Dei Chapel?” someone once asked him.

“Well,” he had responded, “wouldn’t your arms be long too if you carried the weight of the world’s sin?”

Lani passed away on Feb. 20 at the age of 74. He had worked for the Mount’s maintenance department for over 30 years. Since Acasio was born in Hoolehua, Hawaii, on Aug. 2, 1948, Hawaiian culture and a deep appreciation for family were ingrained into him. With an unbreakable love for his wife of 51 years and his children and grandchildren, he was certainly no stranger to affection, which had spread well beyond his biological family.

Around the time he began working at the Mount, for instance, now-retired Professor Emeritus Jeff Hillard taught Acasio’s daughter Nani very early in his tenure. This link automatically fostered a connection between him and Acasio that would span a third of a century.

“Nani,” Hillard recalls, “was always so deeply committed to class. She was my go-to student, one that I could always rely on.”

Even after she graduated, he would ask her father about her every time they spoke, never lapsing in concern for his former student. When Nani had her first child, in fact, Hillard was one of the first people Acasio told. When he showed Hillard a picture of his daughter with the newest member of the Acasio family, the latter was awestruck and emotional.

“Give her a hug for me,” Hillard had told him.

This affinity between Acasio, his family, and Hillard—this ohana—did not end there, however. Doctors Darla Vale, Gene Kritsky, Tim Lawson, and Elizabeth Barkley are among some of the first members of Acasio’s proverbial family in the Mount faculty, being part of a group that knew him around the beginning of his long-lived vocation at the Mount.

“Lani was the sunshine here at MSJ,” says Fran Feldman, the Office Manager in Buildings and Grounds. “Always with a humorous or caring remark, always so positive. He loved a challenge to fix anything, take care of any member of our MSJ community, and was quite the craftsman. Heaven gained an angel, that is for sure! God Bless Lani!”

With deep-seated comedic subtlety and sensibility, Acasio always knew how to put a smile on one’s face and make that day brighten just that much more. His unceasing witticisms and social wisdom made him the “consummate storyteller,” according to Hillard.

“There was an irony there,” he says, “because even though he always told stories about himself, his family, or his experiences, he always wanted to know about you. He could talk with the best of talkers, but was ironically more interested in you.”

Acasio’s storytelling was a means to an end. His anecdotes, while about him, were never actually about himself. They were, more than anything, a vehicle to establish a kinship with other people, no matter who they were or where they came from. This was his gift. With a talent for narration, impeccable timing, methodical yarn-spinning, and pure charm, he never failed to mesmerize his listeners and share some common sense.

When he spoke, he maintained this air of nonchalance that was always undergirded by an acute profundity, which contributed to his charisma and almost supernatural ability to always have a good word. Whether he was absolutely serious or joking, his words were always carefully cultivated to appeal to whoever he was speaking to.

Stacy Decker, the Director of Buildings and Grounds, knew Acasio for only 16 months, but that was more than enough time for him to leave an impression on Stacy.

“Lani was my friend,” he says. “He had a quick wit about him but was even quicker to help somebody out. He made me laugh my first day on the job and always picked me up (whether he knew it or not) when I was having a bad day.”

It was true that Acasio simply didn’t know a stranger. He always found some kindred aspect of everyone he talked to because it was in his nature to connect.

“This was embedded in his soul,” Hillard says. “You can’t teach that.”

This certainly appears to be the case with Acasio because it was difficult to pin down exactly how and why he was so eternally captivating and recondite—but it does run in the family.

His grandmother, for instance, was also known as a renowned storyteller—a true Kealoha—who had an identifiable poetic sensibility like Acasio’s. Seeming as though raised in some narrative tradition, or perhaps it’s just in their blood, the Acasio family possesses the same powers the Mount’s Acasio did in building an underlying connective tissue between people. His grandmother, in particular, powerfully epitomized this reality.

“Lani always talked about how important she was to him,” Hillard observes. Reminding him of his own grandmother, Acasio’s “had a ‘seer’ instinct. She was mystic and had a profound sense of being. Like Lani, she was very spiritual and faith-based.”

As Acasio’s grandmother got older, it became more and more difficult for her to see. But he specifically remembers her sitting on her bed, her feet touching the floor, a Bible lying open on her lap, and praying for hours at a time. He was never sure what she was praying about because he never wanted to interrupt her. But once, he recalled, she had said she has “many, many things to pray about.”   

This spirituality was not lost on Acasio, who made God a cornerstone in his life. A member of St. John Lutheran Church in Lawrenceburg, Ind., he had a “tremendous spiritual belief—an aura about him,” Hillard notes. “Everything mattered to Lani. He never moralized or preached at anyone, but the way he dealt with people reflected that.”

Once, when Hillard was parking his car, he saw Acasio, who was just about to leave after a day’s work. Acasio noticed that the air in Hillard’s tires was getting low, so he pumped up his tires for him in an act of selflessness that would make his grandmother, and anyone else who values goodwill, proud.

Dedicated to a life of altruism, Acasio worked tirelessly in the service of others, all the way up until his passing, and always with enthusiasm. His work on campus is pervasive and still noticeable. He’s painted walls, patched holes, installed cove bases, hung drywall, and completed an innumerable number of other tasks.

“No job was too big or too small for him,” says Decker. “He took great pride in whatever he was doing for us…he was a great example of providing service to our MSJ community. I don’t believe Lani ever told a student, staff, or faculty person ‘no.’”

“Lani doesn’t do yes or no,” Hillard adds. If he spoke to anyone, the conversation invariably went well beyond yes or no not only because of his amiable personality but because of his devotedness to his craft. His work ethic alone was something to marvel at, given that he never gave up working in maintenance or helping people.

Lead Custodian Debbie Bartles fondly remembers Acasio in his entirety: “If you needed something done, he would find a way to get it done. He was happy, I loved his humor, loved his storytelling, and how proud he was of his heritage. And to me, I think he loved his job here as he could have retired, but loved being here to help out. He was an awesome family guy, loved his kids and grandkids.”

Acasio’s service to the Mount and his ohana was far-reaching and admirable, but nothing quite compares to his service to our country in the military. Having served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, it is unimaginable what he endured. And yet, his wit, humor, and wisdom remained perpetually intact, while his piety was only strengthened.

“What was it like in Vietnam?” I had once asked him bluntly.

He paused for a moment before saying, “Well they say there are no atheists in the foxholes.”

Amidst the horror, absurdity, and devastation of wartime, God’s presence, for Acasio and many of those drafted into the Vietnam War, was copiously identified and cherished.

“To me,” Decker adds, “talking to Lani about his service in the Vietnam War gave me many memories of my own father and his service in Vietnam. My father died while I was still in high school. I shared with Lani on a couple occasions how I felt the folks who served in Vietnam were never honored as heroes as veterans of other foreign wars were. I hope he understood how sincere my ‘thank you for your service’ to our country really was. I am going to miss him very, very much and I only knew him 16 months. I can only imagine the impact he had on people who were fortunate to work alongside him even longer.”

Of course, for Hillard, in his three-decade-long friendship with him, the impact was immense. He greatly respected Acasio’s valor in the Vietnam War, but he never pried. Hillard, rather, recognized how sublimely this vast service coincided with his friend’s love for the simplest things in life.

In the years before his death, Acasio talked with Hillard about their shared passion for cooking and their favorite foods. Both being soup-lovers, their conversations about the culinary arts often revolved around the stews and other dishes they’ve tried or made. In an attempt to one-up one another, they each boasted new delicious food creations and experiences. While Acasio usually triumphed conversationally, as was his nature, Hillard remembers “winning” once when Acasio mentioned he never had venison stew.                  

“I’ll bring some in for you,” Hillard had said to him. Even though he never got the chance, the nourishment was nevertheless procured through the soulful interactions they had.

A kindhearted, generous soul, Acasio was a father, a grandfather, a son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a mentor, an advisor, a role model, a friend, a war hero, a patriot, an icon, a jokester, a truthteller, a force of nature, a man of God, and an indelible mark on the lives of all those he affected. Anyone lucky enough to have known him, to have been a part of his ohana, feels this tremendous loss viscerally. But his family lives on, and he and his actions and his influence and his charm and his spirituality are all immortalized in them.

A new word might be needed to better describe this extraordinary, other-worldly family he created: ohanalani—“heaven family.”