Aberdeen native Dann Sears is the 2016 Harborite of the Year.
He will be so recognized at the annual Harborite of the Year Dinner Saturday, Oct. 8 at the Aberdeen Museum of History at 111 East Third Street.
“It’s a great honor … I was not expecting it,” Sears said. “It typically goes to people not associated with the museum. They are either volunteers or someone who has done something good for the community like Jim Middleton who purchased the Jones Photography Collection. He was actually the first person to be recognized as the Harborite of the Year. We should be honoring him.”
Museum director Dave Morris said this is the 14th time the award had been presented. But it hasn’t always be known as Harborite of the Year.
“The award was originally called the Historian of the Year. It was given out to deserving people who go above and beyond efforts to preserve historical items and buildings in the community,” he said. “Dann was nominated for the award because he basically created the museum 15 years ago. This place was a mess … was cluttered with piles of stuff when he walked or should I say crawled in and around things.”
Sears, 72, was born in Aberdeen. After graduating from Aberdeen High in 1962 he enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Ft. Ord, Calif. for basic and advanced individual training. His permanent party station was at Ft. Bragg North Carolina, as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. When he got out of the service Sears remained in North Carolina and took a job at the State museum.
While on a visit back home Sears said he, “found out we had a museum here, which we didn’t have, inside our old armory.”
“I looked at it and it was pretty raw,” he said. “But they had a great foundation to build from, so I thought what the heck … I wanted to come home anyhow, so I resigned at the museum in North Carolina and drove out here.”
After attending a couple of museum board meetings in 2001, his fate was sealed.
“The next thing I knew they hired me as their first curator,” Sears said. “We went to work right away cleaning and removing items that were endangering other artifacts, and then started building.”
Over the next 15 years, the museum acquired an innumerable amount of collectibles, many with local and global historical significance.
“One of the neatest things here are a couple of 1100 year-old Peruvian Whistling Vessels,” Sears said. “They come from the collection of Captain Matt Peasley who sailed the Vigilant in the South Pacific.”
Filled to the brim with water and blowing into the mouthpiece, the vessel produces a whistling sound.
Built in 1920 by the Gordon F. Matthews Shipyard in Hoquiam for the E.K. Wood Lumber Company, the Vigilant was a five-masted tall ship lumber schooner that was 241 feet long and 44 feet wide. She could carry a 2 million board-foot payload of lumber.
Peasley’s nautical prowess was legendary. His sea-going experiences served as inspiration for the fictional Captain Matt Peasley, rugged hero in Peter B. Kyne’s adventure book “Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley,” published in 1916.
Another favorite item of Sears’ is a dugout canoe Peasley brought back from an island in the South Pacific.
“Things like the water vessels and canoe usually end up in bigger museums,” Sears said. “But Captain Peasley ended up living here, so when he passed away, the historical society was given that collection. We were very fortunate.”
Many people, tourists and otherwise have visited the Aberdeen Museum of History during his stint as curator, but none more interesting, Sears said than the children of Sam Benn.
“We have a really good connection with them … they have been sending us a lot of stuff,” he said. “We even ended up with his citizenship papers. A lot of people thought he was born in New York, but he was actually born in Ireland and migrated here with his parents when he was 10 years old.”
Although Sears is no longer curator, he is still actively employed at the museum and has taken on the task of reviving the archive photo lab in the basement of the armory building. The project was made possible by a $324,000 endowment gifted to the museum by Margret Cross Murdach, whom Sears described as a dynamic visionary woman.
“I spoke with her at a couple of our Grays Harbor events and see was pretty excited about some of the things the museum was doing at the time. The more she talked I discovered she was from here and that her father and grandfather were well known attorney’s in Aberdeen,” he said. “After our second conversation, I reached over to pat her hand and she told me I didn’t have to worry about things, and that the museum will be taken care of.”
The museum, Sears said, was also the recipient of a grant from Norm Dicks years ago that was used to build the lab, but it went dormant because they didn’t have anyone to work it besides volunteers who would often just get caught up in the photos themselves and nothing got done.
“The endowment will now allow us to revitalize the project.” Sears said. “We are renaming the lab and will call it the Margret Cross Murdach Historical Photo and Document Achieves. I think she would’ve liked that.”
Sears is no longer running things at the museum, but true to form of a preservationist, says he’s left that responsibility to a very capable predecessor.
“When I first took over as curator, I remember thinking what the hell did I get myself into,” Sears said. “Dave probably walked around for a week or so wondering what the hell had he stepped into. But he’ll do okay … he’s going to make a good director and that’s what we need to build this place up. We’re right on that cusp. We can either stay a small town museum or we can expand into something special … can make this a real educational experience for young kids.”
The Harborite of the Year venue kicks off with a social hour at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7. Call (360) 533-1976 for tickets, reservations and more information on the event.