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A Life: Kazuhiko Itagaki – 1927-2021; ‘He was a big appreciator of nature’

  • Aya Itagaki knits outside in the end of her day while her husband Kazuhiko uses the hot tub at home in Fairlee, Vt., on June 10, 2007. (Valley News - Ikuru Kuwajima) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Kazuhiko and Aya Itagaki hold their wedding photograph on October 28, 2013, a few months before Aya died following a massive stroke. While looking at the photos with a friend who was visiting from Japan, Itagaki said that he had never imagined to have such a beautiful marriage and joyful retirement life. (Hiroko Ikuta photograph)

  • Kazuhiko Itagaki picks apples in the backyard of his home in Fairlee, Vt., on October 28, 2013, a few months before his wife Aya died following a massive stroke. (Hiroko Ikuta photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/2/2021 6:03:20 PM
Modified: 5/2/2021 6:03:19 PM

FAIRLEE — Kazuhiko Itagaki enjoyed soaking in a hot tub he had installed on the deck of his Fairlee home, which had a clear view of Lake Morey.

Even in the winter, he would walk over snow to get to the tub, which he had protected with a roof so that snow didn’t collect on the top. There, he would sit, a beer not far from hand, taking in the sights and the sounds of the lake.

He “really appreciated a lot of the small pleasures in his retirement,” said Leah Itagaki, one of his granddaughters.

She said she remembers her grandfather, who died in February at the age of 93 with dementia, diabetes and COVID-19, for his “silent companionship” and as a “big appreciator of nature.”

Itagaki was born in Hokkaido — which his daughter Sachi called the “snowy island of Japan” — on Feb. 14, 1927. He grew up there as the only child of the president of Snow Brand Dairy products, which was the largest dairy company in Japan.

After earning his doctorate from Hokkaido University in ice and snow physics, Itagaki came to the Upper Valley in 1964 to work at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory on Lyme Road in Hanover. His family — which by then included his wife Aya and three children, Haruhiko, Junji and Sachi — followed him to Hanover some months later.

The family was one of three Japanese families they knew of in the Upper Valley at the time, said Sachi, who was then a toddler. The fathers of the three families were all scientists at CRREL, she said.

At CRREL, Itagaki “did things that were very much about the physics of ice and its different properties like how it sticks to things; how it sheds from things like metal runners on sleds, ice skates (and) helicopter rotors,” said Bert Davis, a snow researcher who first came to CRREL in 1990, later directed it and now serves as a senior scientific officer.

“Icing is of huge importance both to aircraft (and) also — not a lot of people appreciate this — to ships,” Davis said. If ice becomes too thick and heavy on ships, they can flip.

Itagaki’s work “was very much from sort of the molecular level/physics point of view,” Davis said.

While Davis said some scientists at CRREL like to work in teams, Itagaki preferred to work alone.

“He was a guy who mainly worked with himself and his math and his computer,” Davis said.

But Itagaki would team up with one or two others to test out theories he developed. Ice often has impurities that means that it doesn’t always act the way mathematical models might predict, Davis said. So Itagaki “needed to do experiments to make observations to see how the math fit,” he said.

By the same token, sometimes Itagaki’s math would signal to observational scientists that there was something in the ice that they hadn’t yet identified, Davis said.

Outside of work, Davis said he came to know Itagaki through his family; rock climbing with Junji and mushroom foraging with both Junji and Aya, who also became a well-known Upper Valley artist.

To Davis and many friends and family members, Itagaki was known simply as “K” or “K-san.” The brevity of the nickname suited him as a man of few words.

“Dr. Itagaki was very quiet person,” said Devinder Singh Sodhi, a retired CRREL researcher who lives in Norwich. “Whatever he says is very, very precious.”

At the invitation of Aya, Sodhi and many other friends and acquaintances joined the Itagaki family for meals at their homes, first in their Hanover home not far from CRREL and later in the Fairlee home they built in the style of a Japanese farmhouse.

At first at least, the Fairlee cabin had few formal interior walls, relying instead on folding screens to separate spaces inside the one-bed, two-and-a-half bathroom cabin, Leah said. Accessing it could be difficult especially in the winter. Sodhi said the steep driveway requires parking at the bottom and walking up.

On one visit to the deck overlooking Lake Morey, Sodhi said he remembered Itagaki helping him set up a camera to photograph a comet.

“We have spent quite a bit of time watching the stars and comets from his home,” Sodhi said. “It’s a great place to be.”

The Itagakis welcomed visitors to their home, especially those visiting from Japan or with Japanese heritage.

Upon learning that Curtiss Takada Rooks — a former Dartmouth College football player and member of the class of 1979 — had been born in Japan and wanted to study Japanese, a college dean pointed him to the Itagaki family. They invited him first to dinner at their Hanover home and then to live with them, which he did in the fall of his sophomore year.

“They became my college parents,” Rooks said.

Having a place to eat rice prepared in a Japanese style using chopsticks without attracting undue attention or commentary, and to speak Japanese helped Rooks, who grew up in the U.S. and whose mother was Japanese, to “settle myself,” he said.

In some ways, such as in the meals they shared, the Itagakis lived a Japanese lifestyle, Rooks said. But, he said the family didn’t stand on ceremony.

“Japanese males tend to be extremely traditional,” Rooks said. Itagaki “was not.”

In Japan, the Itagakis lived with Itagaki’s parents, but when they came to Hanover, Aya Itagaki had more freedom to choose how to run the household, Sachi said. Aya managed much of the family’s day-to-day life. In addition to her artwork, Aya also pursued a wide range of interests including skiing, karate, belly-dancing and a form of Japanese ceremonial archery.

“My father always gave her that latitude,” said Sachi.

While Itagaki was not a big talker, he had “this ability to listen in a way that always made me feel that whatever I was working on was like Nobel Prize” material, Rooks said.

There were ways in which Itagaki would express himself through actions rather than words, Rook said. For example, when Rook brought his daughter to visit in later years, Itagaki would read books that she had brought with her, demonstrating an interest in what she was learning.

Itagaki had an “insatiable appetite for knowledge,” Rooks said.

Itagaki always loved classical music, but only began playing himself when he was in his 60s, Sachi said. He started with violin and later took up the cello, she said. Aya helped him find a teacher and brought him to lessons, before her death in 2014.

“My mom would kind of encourage him — for lack of a better term — drag him out (and) help him do things that he wanted to,” Sachi said.

Itagaki’s generally quiet presence did not mean that he lacked a sense of humor, which Leah, his granddaughter, said she noticed more in later years.

For example, she would ask him about an upcoming music lesson and he might respond, “No need to practice. I’m a natural talent.”

Rooks also recalled a “sort of giggle/chuckle he would do when things amused him.”

Itagaki brought his passion for engineering into his home life by jerry-rigging an exhaust fan out a window in the kitchen so that the family could have hibachi-style food in the winter, Rooks said.

He also built dollhouses for his granddaughters and frames, screens, stands and other structures for Aya’s artwork. Leah Itagaki said her grandfather built bobble-head dogs for her and her sister, one that looked like their dog and another built to look like his. He was fond of cocker spaniels and his first enjoyed listening to Wagner with him, Leah said.

Leah, who now lives in Fremont, California, grew up in Ohio, but would visit her grandparents for two to four weeks each summer. During those visits, she said, she could “really be a kid in a little more of an old-fashioned way.”

Her grandmother taught her calligraphy, while Itagaki would spend time with them fishing and boating. Later on, he taught Leah and her sister about “all the different categories of snowflakes,” she said.

Outside of the Upper Valley, the family also went on adventures abroad. The extended family went to Nova Scotia for the Itagakis’ 50th wedding anniversary.

When Itagaki was in his 80s he told Sachi he wanted to “to go to the desert and see how the nomads live.” So he, Aya, Sachi and her daughter all toured Marrakesh and her parents even rode camels, she said. They also visited the Galapagos Islands on another trip.

While he didn’t say much, Sachi said he would “smile (and) take it all in.”

After Aya’s death following a serious stroke in 2014, the degree of Itagaki’s dementia became clearer to the family. He spent winters these past seven years in San Francisco Bay area with Sachi and her family and spent some time with Leah and her husband, who live nearby, as well.

He returned to the Fairlee house six of the past seven summers where he took in the view and watched the birds and waters of Lake Morey.

Even as his health deteriorated, Leah said the “hot tub was something he enjoyed.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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