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Kenji Hamada poses with Sue Pilkilton, executive director of Ivy Green and Camp Courage organizer. [COURTESY PHOTO]

Kenji Hamada's professional accomplishments make for a long, exhaustive list, but when the retired Oregonian optometrist/businessman comes to Tuscumbia, he's all about taking in the very essence of Helen Keller.

In that spirit, Hamada has been named this year's Helen Keller Festival grand marshal.

The festival is set for June 27 through June 30. 

Hamada's ties to Tuscumbia began about a decade ago when he had an impromptu meeting in Chicago with former Alabama Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow and his wife, Dr. Martha Morrow, who is also an optometrist. They were attending an optometry conference.

"We sat together at a pizza parlor and I was intrigued to learn they were from the Tuscumbia area," Hamada said, adding that he'd studied the life of Helen Keller since early childhood in Japan, where Keller's goodwill ambassadorship, post WWII, elevated her to legendary status in the country.

"Johnny Mack asked me what could be done to help perpetuate Helen's legacy and my quick response was, 'something like the Make-A-Wish Foundation that brings (hearing and visually impaired) children to her birthplace because there's a certain spirit there.'"

According to Hamada, when the Morrows took that casual conversation to the Keller Foundation one thing led to another and Camp Courage was born.

Hamada has been a vital presence with the camp since that time, supporting it financially as well. He also makes yearly trips to Tuscumbia in the fall of each year while it's going on.

This year, in addition to his Camp Courage pilgrimage, Hamada will be in Tuscumbia throughout the festival and will lead the parade at 6 p.m. June 27.

"The Morrows are my co-grand marshals because without their tireless work and support of Camp Courage it wouldn't have come about," Hamada said.

Hamada is no stranger to awards and has been honored for his work in optometry as well as for his philanthropic efforts nationwide. 

"As grand marshal I'm a goodwill ambassador mainly, with hopes of fostering Helen's legacy," he said.

Hamada came to the U.S. at the age of 13, unable to speak or write English. 

He taught himself to read and write English.

He said he'd also had adversity in life and therefore identified with Keller. 

"I was very motivated to find success in life and make a difference and Helen's story, her message, was inspiration to me," he said. "In these last several years we've become very familiar with the wonderful and hard working people of Alabama, and especially the Shoals."

Sue Pilkilton, executive director of Ivy Green and Camp Courage organizer, said Hamada's friendship and giving spirit in the Shoals has been a valuable gift to many.

"The first time I met Kenji he became family to us," Pilkilton said. "As much as he's done for our area, this was the best way we knew to honor him by asking him to be the grand marshal. He is truly a gift to us all."


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