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Mussel Man

Tatsuaki Nakato was passionate about reintroducing endangered Higgins Eye mussels into the Mississippi. He is shown here near Cordova, Ill.

Tatsuaki Nakato was passionate about reintroducing endangered Higgins Eye mussels into the Mississippi. He is shown here near Cordova, Ill.

Tatsuaki Nakato’s three-decade career as a research engineer at IIHR almost didn’t happen. After completing his PhD at IIHR, Nakato made a final visit to the lab before returning to his homeland, Japan. He met then-Director John F. Kennedy in the parking lot. “I just came to say goodbye,” Nakato told Kennedy.

Kennedy asked him if he had a job in Japan. When Nakato answered no, Kennedy replied, “Are you crazy? I’ll hire you right away.”

It was the start of a wonderful career, Nakato says, and he is grateful for Kennedy’s guidance and mentoring.

“What an amazing, dynamic person he was!” Nakato says. “People all over the world respected him so much.

“This was a Mecca for hydraulic engineers,” Nakato says of IIHR during the Kennedy years. “So many famous scholars from all over the place came to learn from Jack Kennedy.”

Nakato came to IIHR for PhD studies in 1971, in the midst of violent campus protests nationwide. He remembers a big anti-war demonstration on central campus. When the state patrol dispersed the crowd, some moved west across the river, hurling Molotov cocktails at the hydraulics lab. After that, a student and a faculty member were assigned to spend the night at the lab, armed with fire extinguishers, until the violence receded.

“It was just a terrible period,” Nakato remembers.

Despite the upheaval, Nakato found an ideal academic and personal home in Iowa. “There were so many interesting projects!” he says. After completing a PhD degree on sediment transport, he stayed on as a postdoc working on the Lake Chicot Pumping Station in Arkansas. “I didn’t know anything about pumping plants!” Nakato says. But when Kennedy introduced his young colleague to officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Vicksburg District as a pumping plant authority, the pressure was on to actually become one. “He was a great motivator!” Nakato says.

Nakato enjoyed fieldwork, and he spent many happy hours taking sediment samples on the Mississippi River. “I became very familiar with the Upper Mississippi River,” he says. That work paid off in 1999 when IIHR was going through an external review.

Former UI President Sandy Boyd was chair of the external review committee, and he asked IIHR faculty where they would like the lab to go in the future. After a short silence, Nakato hesitantly raised his hand and proposed a research station on the Mississippi River focused on inland rivers. Boyd enthusiastically jumped on board, and the final report recommended that the University support the effort.

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust approved a grant proposal for the research station, and provided a total of more than $1.2 million in grants for the project. Nakato and then-IIHR Director V.C. Patel found the perfect location near Muscatine, Iowa, on land leased by the Iowa DNR. The research station, now known as LACMRERS (Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station), opened in May 2002.

It was the realization of a dream for Nakato, and the beginning of a new research focus as well: freshwater mussels. “Mussels are water cleaners,” Nakato says. “They are a most underestimated creature.” He began work with Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist Kevin Hanson, who shared his interest in mussels. “So I started learning about mussels, and I started teaching [Kevin] about hydraulics,” Nakato says. It was the beginning of a great partnership.

Nakato noticed a heap of mussel shells, tossed aside by muskrats near LACMRERS. The shells were slated to be cleared out and thrown away, but Nakato saw a treasure trove. He rescued the mussel shells of some 40 different species, which he used to create an impressive display at LACMRERS.

The river near Muscatine was a favorite habitat for mussels until over-harvesting by the pearl button industry depleted the population. In the early 2000s, the federal government reintroduced endangered Higgins Eye mussels to northern parts of the Upper Mississippi River. Nakato was frustrated that the effort did not include the area around Muscatine, once so prolific with freshwater mussels. He worked tirelessly to convince the government to include this part of the river in their efforts.

“It was not so easy!” he remembers. “Finally, they say, ‘Nakato is right.’” The legislation was signed on Oct. 1, 2007, and on Oct. 2, Nakato and his team got to work. Three months before his retirement, Nakato helped reintroduce Higgins Eye mussels to the Mississippi River near LACMRERS. He still volunteers with successful mussel propagation projects on several Midwestern rivers.

Retirement has not been solely leisure and relaxation for Nakato. His dedication to tornado-related volunteer work blossomed in 2008, when Parkersburg, Iowa, was hit by an EF5 tornado on Memorial Day weekend. “I really thought they needed help,” Nakato says. This year, he also traveled to the Deep South, which was hard hit by several early-season tornados.

“Whenever a tornado comes or a hurricane comes, I’m ready to go,” Nakato says. “I’m an old man. I cannot carry a huge log, but ¼ I try to help people.” He found the southerners very kind, polite, and appreciative. “They cried and hugged me,” he says. “I felt like a dignitary.”

Nakato’s son, Ken, has been a frequent partner on the volunteer trips. Nakato and his wife Sharon have three children: Ken and two daughters, Misa and Kimi.

Although Nakato still travels to Japan every year to visit family and present academic papers, Iowa has been his home for more than 40 years. Nakato says he is fond of the friendly and open-minded people here.

“Iowa has been really great for us,” he says.

Editor’s Note: It is with great sorrow that we report the news that Tatsuaki Nakato passed away on Sept. 3, 2016.

Last modified on September 7th, 2016
Posted on September 7th, 2016

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