His name tag simply reads Staff.
A woefully insufficient title, given the scope of his responsibilities, but perhaps the only imprecision of his entire career. Because Rick Chandler, whether building houses, studying birds for the government, or collecting and cataloging the history of Bainbridge Island, is nothing if not thorough.
The longtime curator of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum technically retired at the end of last month, though he plans to remain somewhat involved with the institution in a less official capacity going forward. It was something like the end of an era, Chandler having been on staff, serving in various capacities of increasing prominence, since 1999. He became facilities coordinator in 2002 and was appointed curator in 2009.
During his lengthy tenure, Chandler, 75, produced a number of award-winning exhibits, led collaborative efforts to preserve historic sites — most notably, in partnership with Olympic College’s Department of Anthropology, the Yama settlement — as well as assisting the public with hundreds of inquiries related to the bygone days of Bainbridge.
“He is a true lover of history and worked tirelessly to preserve and share the diverse stories of the island,” said Brianna Kosowitz, the museum’s executive director.
“All in all it’s been, I think, a good sort of change,” Chandler said, citing increasing responsibilities and a desire to focus on his own research and projects, including maybe returning to the world of home repair/construction, as the primary reasons for his retiring.
“I was hoping to stay on longer,” he said, “but it was just starting to get overwhelming. The new administration was pushing me to take on so many things that I was more totally overloaded than I’ve ever been in the past. But it’s been a good change.”
Originally from Wellesley, Massachusetts, Chandler found his way to Bainbridge in 1976 via a chance invite from an associate. He promptly fell in love and bought a house. His initial trip to the state, however, was spurred by less pleasant circumstances — a bit of a wartime mix-up with Uncle Sam.
A bureaucratic error led Chandler’s attempted conscription three times in one year, despite his being too old, and the loss of his teaching position in California.
“So I headed north in case I had to go to Canada,” Chandler recalled.
He made it as far as Bellingham.
And all that even after having already done his part for the war effort — though admittedly pretty far from the jungles of Vietnam.
“When I graduated from Cornell in ornithology, vertebrate zoology, I got a job at the Smithsonian that was centered in Honolulu,” Chandler said. “It was on a boat … a government contract the Smithsonian had from the Department of Defense that was looking to try and find a place to test germ warfare.
“There were all these islands in the Central Pacific that the U.S. owned … lots of open ocean territory, and we were sent out to make [bird] population estimates, evaluate what was going on — basically banding birds and watching where they were going. So I spent a lot of time on the water and going back and forth to these uninhabited islands that were covered with birds that we’d band and take blood samples [from].”
It was worth a draft deferment, the goal being to find a spot isolated enough so as to safely test weapons. But birds, as Chandler well knew, are prone to wandering.
“They didn’t want the virus to get into the birds and then go all over the U.S. territory,” he said. “We definitely showed that if we captured and tagged birds we’d go to other islands and see the movements that were going on. They were going all over the place so we said, ‘Hey, you can’t test. You can’t do that — it’s going to end up in Honolulu!’”
It was during that time Chandler had his first true brush with history: He set a world record.
“I banded so many I set the world record for most number of birds banded in a 12- or 24-hour period,” he said. “6,000 birds in 12 hours; captured and banded.”
The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum was not Chandler’s first academic rodeo, so to speak (and he actually started the Whale Museum up in Friday Harbor) but it did become his ultimate passion.
“I was always into museums,” he said, “but my early interest was more in science-oriented museums.”
Still, he did seem to get success down to a science, at least.
The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum has won more awards than any small museum in the state. There was barely a year during Chandler’s time at the helm that it wasn’t heaped with accolades from local, state and even national authorities. And in 2011 it was really put “on the map,” as Chandler put it, when both the Seattle Times and The New York Times ran large features about an exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs documenting life at the Manzanar, California internment camp during the post-Pearl Harbor incarceration of Japanese Americans.
It’s perhaps ironic that Chandler, who has built more than a dozen houses throughout several states, is departing even as museum officials prepare for a potentially huge construction effort. The project is now in the very early stages, but ultimately the hope is to add on to the main building and extend the facility on both of its eastern and western ends, leaving what is now the main exhibition space free to act as a meeting/conference space.
The longtime curator, knowledgeable as he is of the past, is less certain of the future.
“I’m not convinced it’s going to go ahead like the plan is going,” he said.
“It’s got a timetable that’s so far out right now … there are a lot of people who are not convinced that’s the smartest thing to do, to expand on this small site because [of] the trees that are being threatened,” Chandler explained. “There have been options of other locations, possibilities kicked around.”
As for personal possibilities, Chandler said his only unrealized goal in terms of preserving and presenting Bainbridge history, his white whale, if you will, is the creation of an Eagle Harbor Museum.
“I’ve done exhibits on all aspects from around the island except Eagle Harbor,” he said. “It’s so busy, it’s so massive. But there is enough that’s gone on here in this harbor itself to justify a museum focused entirely on that aspect of the island.”
The current police station, once vacated, would be an ideal location in Chandler’s mind for such an institution, with an emphasis on ferries and the island’s nautical past.
“Everybody’s got to walk right past it,” Chandler said.