Thoughts of Home: Ken

A photo of Ken walking in nature

This is the sixth edition of Efficiency Vermont’s “Thoughts of Home” series as written by Dave Keefe. It is intended for building science professionals in Vermont and not intended to be used as guidance or assistance directly for homeowners. Comments should be directed to dkeefe@veic.org

Recently our energy efficiency community lost one of our most beloved and effective leaders.  Ken Tohinaka worked for 30 years in Vermont to improve our housing stock and the lives of those who live in those homes, first as Weatherization Director for Champlain Valley Weatherization Services, and then as a Senior Consultant for the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.

Ken combined his intellect with creativity to devise solutions that often surprised us with their simplicity and elegance.  He also had a great sense of humor and a dry wit that one of his friends described as “dessicated”.  Many people are smart, but this smart guy was wise, too.

What an interesting guy! 

Ken was a Japanese American. His parents came to this country like many, looking for a better life for their kids.  I don’t think Ken would mind if I pointed out that they snuck in.  His childhood included time in an internment camp during World War 2, an experience that could well have left him bitter.  But it did not.

I first met Ken in 1984.  He was one of only three people I met in Vermont who knew what a blower door was.  Later, my partner Mark Kucharek and I did a bunch of weatherization jobs for him.  Ken knew his stuff technically, but most of the stuff I learned from him had to do with living.

I’m not sure how much his heritage had to do with that, or maybe it was the philosophy doctorate.  In any event, he had a way of staying centered and persevering, even seeing humor where others might see futility.  Right now, I can see that little grin and the shoulder shrug that said, “Yeah, I know, it probably won’t work, but let’s give it a shot anyway”.

Ken said that he had “failed miserably” when he was appointed Weatherization Director during Ronald Reagan’s first year in office and told to shut the program down.  Indeed.  He instead moved the program from its history of relatively ineffective caulking and weatherstripping to a modern, science-based retrofit effort.  He lobbied for the use of blower doors when many were confused and worried by them.  He fought for the right to use independent contractors in the program when the state leadership was dead against it.  He won that fight, and he proved that his approach could work well.  He brought the grandfather of dense-pack, Jim Fitzgerald, to Vermont to show us how it was supposed to be done.  I still remember that day.

Ken devised the idea, now well accepted, that BTUs per square foot per heating degree day was a good metric to look at.  He also (along with Blair Hamilton) invented the “Q-loss” spreadsheet that many of us use to this day. 

Most of us will never be on the cover of a glossy magazine, but Ken was.  The photo of him on the satirical publication “Vermont Lifer” is a classic, not only because it portrays a very un-Vermonty-looking person tapping a birch tree in the fall, but also because it’s a great example of someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Ken’s life companion was taken from him slowly and tortuously by dementia.  He stayed by her side to the very end, caring for her by himself until it became impossible.  He was as kind and gentle as they come.

Once upon a time, in a conference hotel somewhere, Ken opened the phone book because we needed to eat.  He ignored all the restaurants that were affluent enough to have an ad other than the basic listing.  One of the “least among us” restaurants struck his fancy.  I asked him why and he said he didn’t know, just had a feeling about it.  We went with it.  It was a lovely small place, family run, extremely friendly.  The food was awesome, impeccably presented, and inexpensive.  One of the best meals I’ve ever had.

Ken was a connoisseur of cheap food, and an expert on diners.  He always seemed to know the best place to go.  He told me one time that he based his diet on the four food groups – salt, sugar, fat and tobacco.  I think he was mostly kidding, but not entirely.

He probably didn’t invent the phrase “It’s better to be approximately correct than to be precisely wrong”, but I will always associate it with him.  He had a way of staying grounded and not getting caught up in petty details.  I told him once that he was the most creative bureaucrat I had ever met.  He didn’t consider himself a bureaucrat, but I explained that I thought a bureaucrat was just someone who had to handle a lot of rules and regulations, and that the way he handled most of them was to find a path around them.  I thought that was pretty creative.

A coworker remarked today that he had “never met anyone who ever had a bad word to say about Ken”.  I thought about it a minute and realized that I could say the same.

He was a friend and mentor to many of us, and an example of a life well lived.  He would have laughed at that statement and protested that he screwed up too many times, had too many faults, etc.  But we all screw up and have faults.  Ken never judged anyone as harshly as he judged himself.  He was a really good guy, unselfish, kind, and a genuine inspiration.  We will miss him.

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