Perished cyclist remembered: Richard Topenio fulfilled American dream before life suddenly taken

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KAILUA-KONA — Richard Topenio’s last words to his wife were a promise made from a roadside in Kona early Saturday afternoon — he’d be home soon.

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KAILUA-KONA — Richard Topenio’s last words to his wife were a promise made from a roadside in Kona early Saturday afternoon — he’d be home soon.

It was the one promise in more than 25 years together that he was unable to keep.

A little before 2 p.m., only minutes after the call with his wife ended, Topenio was hit by a southbound truck that veered onto the shoulder near the 98-mile marker of Queen Kaahumanu Highway. His injuries proved fatal, and Topenio, 42, was pronounced dead at Kona Community Hospital just before 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Police arrested the driver of the truck, 60-year-old Jeffrey Pelham of Kamuela, on suspicion of negligent homicide and operating a vehicle while intoxicated, according to a report from Hawaii County police. Pelham was later released pending further investigation.

It was a tragic ending to a life that Topenio’s cousin, Joyce Davis, described as the quintessential story of one man’s selfless pursuit of a better life for his family.

“He was born and raised in the Philippines and came to Hawaii in 1995,” Davis said. “He’d met his girlfriend prior to that in 1991, and before he left he promised her he was going to marry her and bring her to the U.S. so she could live the American dream she always wanted.”

Topenio kept that promise, and the couple subsequently brought two daughters into the world — Arcy and Alliah, now 8 and 9 years old, respectively.

Davis characterized Topenio as a humble man and a tireless worker who put his family above all else in his life. His mind was ever bent on earning enough money to make sure his children could attend college, if they chose, and live a good life in America.

Topenio spent the last 13 years as a landscaping foreman at Hualalai with the Resort Management Group. His reputation as a model employee spread quickly throughout the area, as did respect for the man himself.

“He was very responsive to all of the homeowners. Everybody loved him,” said Robin Ullakko, who owns a villa with her husband at Hualalai. “He labored constantly over the landscaping and the irrigation. He was just an incredible human being, a true gentleman and a kind person.”

Tom Callinan, another resident of Hualalai who developed a close personal relationship with Topenio over more than a decade, expressed anger and disgust over the sudden loss of a man he respected so highly.

“I’m in real estate,” Callinan said. “I have people who work for me, and Richard would have been a star among my people. There was no finer individual. I felt he was a friend.”

As an expression of that friendship, Callinan gifted Topenio in December with the bike he was riding on the day he died.

“His eyes were like a kid’s at Christmas time,” Callinan said. “He was so appreciative, you’d have thought I gave him a Mercedes.”

Richard hadn’t ridden the bike much before Saturday’s accident. It required a small repair, which he made quickly, but he didn’t own exactly the right attire to match his prized, newly acquired possession.

“He’d (recently) purchased shoes for his bicycle,” Davis said, one of Topenio’s more extravagant buys as he held most of his income in reserve for the welfare of those he loved. “He was really stoked about riding it, but he wanted the right shoes because he only owned a pair of work boots and slippers.”

It wasn’t only Topenio’s family and clients that admired the selfless man who never complained, who always wore a smile, but also his employer and fellow employees.

Maximus Yarawamai, owner of Resort Management Group, called Topenio an “unstoppable worker” who could be relied upon as much on the job as he could be at home.

It was Topenio’s family, Yarawamai said, that fueled his passion for his work and served as the source of his unrelenting pride and happiness.

“All of the other foremen, they were in tears that morning when we were having our meeting. It was just unbelievable,” Yarawamai said. “We took a whole day off with pay, our whole crew here, just so everybody could go home and be like the way Richard was with his family.”

Topenio was the sole provider for his wife and daughters, as Cynthia made her life as a stay-at-home mother. But his family relied on him for even more than that.

Cynthia is not only unable to drive a car, but struggles daily with a language barrier. After this school year ends, she will take her children home to the Philippines, as life in Hawaii without her husband has already proven untenable, Davis said.

To help with the move and to allow Cynthia to bring her husband home to the Philippines with the rest of her loved ones, Davis is gathering up possessions — both her own and some of Topenio’s — to sell in order to raise the requisite funds.

She’s also opened a PayPal account under the email address joycedavis110814@gmail.com for anyone who wishes to help a family now in dire need.

Tina Clothier — executive director of People’s Advocacy for Trails Hawaii (PATH), which strives to create safe trails across the island for cyclists and joggers — said Topenio will be remembered by Kona cyclists as part of the Ride of Silence Day, scheduled this year on May 17.

The memorial ride, she said, is held in concert with different groups all over the world to pay tribute to those who have died on public roads, allowing participants to reflect on the lives lost and consider how they can make the activity safer for everyone.

The shoulder on which Topenio was riding, Clothier said, is not actually considered a bike lane, but is instead categorized by her organization as an “undefined space.”

Plans for PATH’s Queen’s Lei project, which celebrated the opening of its first mile in April of last year, include a section of bike trail that would stretch all the way down Queen Kaahumanu Highway from Kaiminani Drive to the intersection with Palani Road on the HELCO easement some 25 feet clear of traffic.

It’s still years from being realized and can’t be completed until the widening of the highway is finished. Delays to construction have pushed back the completion date to the end of 2018.

Had the section of the Queen’s Lei already been built, it would have provided an alternative for Topenio, who Saturday had no choice but to ride on the less protected roadside.

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She added part of PATH’s legislative priorities this year are several bills in the state legislature that would establish a 3-foot passing zone between cyclists and motorists to increase safety. According to Senate Bill 742, which addresses the issue, “40 percent of all cyclist fatalities are caused by a motor vehicle striking a cyclist from behind.”

A closed casket viewing service will be held for Topenio’s family and friends Sunday at 11 a.m. at the family home, located at 74-5221 Kauwela Place in Kailua-Kona.

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