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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Jim Bartels eulogized as a 'true historian'

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jim Bartels studied the past, worked in the present and planned for the future. Through it all, he brought history to life.

Historian-curator Jim Bartels was respected for his superb research skills that colleagues say grew out of his pride and dignity in being Hawaiian. Bartels died Sunday in California. He was 57.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 1, 1998

Bartels, who helped preserve 'Iolani Palace and Washington Place for future generations, was remembered yesterday by friends and colleagues as a gentle-but-powerful guiding force in the Hawaiian community.

He died of complications from cancer Sunday in California. He was 57.

"No one else even comes close to Jim Bartels," said longtime friend Jeffrey Apaka. "He was a tutor and a mentor who spoke for the Hawaiian people. There's no one to replace him."

Whether it was studying centuries-old archives or facing the modern realities of fund raising and bureaucracies, Bartels brought a sensitive spirit and boundless enthusiasm to his work, friends said. His accomplishments will help people better appreciate the unique history of Hawai'i and Hawaiians, they said.

"He was a sweet and kind man with an absolute passion for what he did," said Regina Kawananakoa, his former wife who remained close to him. "He knew so much about Hawaiian history and was always trying to discover new things."

He also had a gift for sharing history.

"He had a great quest for knowledge, but even more important he could share that knowledge with others in wonderful, very magnetic ways," said Charles Nakoa, former executive director of the Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center.

Although his academic background was in fine arts, Bartels was a natural historian.

Colleagues said his superb research skills grew out of his own sense of pride and dignity in being Hawaiian.

"His research was exquisite and it was his real joy, but he only allowed himself a few hours a week because he knew there was so much other work to be done," said David Scott, executive director of the Historic Hawai'i Foundation.

A University of Hawai'i graduate, he spent two years in the Navy during the Vietnam War and then worked at the Bishop Museum.

In 1971, Bartels found his true calling at 'Iolani Palace. Over 28 years, he worked his way up from researcher to curator and managing director, guiding a restoration process that coincided with a Hawaiian renaissance.

"He started as a volunteer and became undisputedly the world's leading expert on that period of Hawaiian history, the late monarchy period," said Alice Guild, former executive director of the Friends of 'Iolani Palace.

Longtime friend Watters Martin remembers that Bartels once returned re-created Kingdom of Hawai'i flags because their length was an inch short.

"He was very precise," Martin said. "If the carpet wasn't right or the drapery, if it wasn't 100 percent accurate, he sent it back."

Bartels resigned in 1998 after a dispute with former Friends of 'Iolani Palace president Abigail Kawananakoa, who sat on a fragile 115-year-old palace throne for a Life magazine photo session.

A few months after leaving the palace, he was named director at Washington Place, the 154-year-old home of Queen Lili'uokalani and 13 territorial and state governors. Working with former first lady Vicky Cayetano on a plan to convert the residence into a museum that would tell Lili'uokalani's story, Bartels oversaw its presentation until he became ill in January.

"He had a wonderful way of taking the Hawaiian experience historically and making it understandable to people," added William Chapman, head of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Hawai'i. "He always gave you the sense that there was a place for everybody in his idea of a Hawai'i kingdom."

Gov. Linda Lingle retained him as director of Washington Place. The governor called Bartels a "gentleman" and a "true historian."

"He was a curator in the finest sense of the word," she said. "His diligence to maintain the traditions and artifacts of Washington Place and 'Iolani Palace will be his living legacy."

Funeral plans were incomplete yesterday but expected to include a memorial service in Honolulu at St. Andrew's Cathedral, next to Washington Place.

Advertiser staff writer Mike Gordon contributed to this story.