Hometown Hero

“A quiet, fit man is what you notice at first glance. A gentleman in the true sense. As you get to know him better you are aware of the strength and commitment within the dedication to family and community that is not often found in today’s world. An educated man, one with no formal degrees but who reads and is aware of the foibles and fascinations of all peoples. His self-effacing attitude hides a keen wit, an earthly humor and a saucy grin. He is honest conscientious, diligent, hardworking and an honorable man.”

— Freeland resident Bobbie Sandberg, writing about her friend Jim Harwell.

Where can such a man be found? When he’s not volunteering in the community, you can find Jim Harwell seven days a week 12 hours a day — usually — at Jim’s Hardware in Clinton.

In 1974, Harwell then a stock clerk, bought the hardware store, fixtures, and customer goodwill from then-owner Carsten Knaplund, who was himself a hardworking mentor for Harwell. Knaplund had such a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis he had to scoot himself backwards on the floor with an office chair to get around his store, remembers Harwell.

Harwell brings his hardworking character out in the community, whether it be at work or while doing the swimming, bicycling or running training to race in triathlons. Warren Fitzpatrick a fellow volunteer, remembers how Harwell — who is a member of the South Whidbey Kiwanis Club “got us all interested in building a playground in the Dan Porter park in Clinton. When Kiwanis built the snack shop at the high school, Jim became Mr. Popcorn. Jim would get to the stand on game nights after working all day and make popcorn until the game ended. He would never leave until the snack shop was all clean for the next event.”

Sitting in his kitchen recently, Harwell was very much at home in the modest Langley house he and his wife of 27 years, Mary, share. It’s styled in an old fashioned French country style, complete with a white picket fence outside, and pale yellow walls and lacy curtains inside. It is everything his hardware store — with its narrow, piled-high aisles and that small-town feel of disorderly order — is not.

Talking at his kitchen table, Harwell had a peanut gallery consisting of his wife, visiting sister and brother-in-law in the other room. The three express their opinions every time he voices his, starting with why he spends so much time at his hardware store. Harwell, using the dry wit for which he is known, answers that question with one of his own.

“Well, where would I go everyday?” he said.

Mary Harwell then chimed in from the living room.

“You’re not hanging around here all day, she said.”

With that, lots of laughter broke out, which seemed to be a theme in the Harwell home.

A second inquiry about why Jim Harwell spends so much time at his store still doesn’t bring a serious answer. The response from the peanut gallery?

“We’ve been wondering the same thing,” say the three family members as they lean over one another in the kitchen doorway.

As it turns out, Harwell does have heartfelt reasons for doing what he does.

“Because I love it,” he said. “I love every part of it — sweeping the floors, stocking the shelves, writing the orders. But most of all, I love the people that come in. Helping people get what they want is really satisfying. I go to the hardware store every day, and yet I don’t feel like I work. It’s a labor of love, all because of the people.”

If it’s true that a man usually defines his own image through his work, Harwell can be proud of his.

Randy Hudson, well known South Whidbey volunteer, musician and artist, is a Jim’s Hardware patron as much for the conversation as for his need for, well, hardware.

“I regularly stop into Jim’s Hardware many times a week for one thing or another, and when I have some project underway I might run down there two or three times a day,” he said. “I can find whatever I want there, and do my UPS shipping, too. There’s always a lot of conversation and joke telling going on in his store. I love being able to write down what I need on a scrap of paper and leave it on the counter, if there is a line. I also like placing special orders, which Jim often makes a note of by writing it on the back of his hand. But what I love most is the small-town atmosphere, which is a direct reflection of the man. All the store needs is a wood stove and a cracker barrel and you’d no doubt find folks hanging around playing checkers.”

Is a small hardware business centered on this small-town ethic profitable? Harwell said he hasn’t paid himself a salary for many years. The money earned all goes back into the hardware store, and paying Harwell’s six employees.

“Making a lot of money never has been something I have cared much about,” Harwell said. “I have had some anxious moments over the years about the business, but I just keep showing up every day. Life isn’t about a profit margin, it’s about helping people. It’s about love and charity. I see this kind of spirit happening all around. Every time I give or help someone, it comes back to me many times over.”

Leonard Good, a South Whidbey science teacher who lives in Langley, says he will never forget a kindness Harwell did for him.

“Once when I was between jobs, Jim could sense my need and hired me to tutor his son, Jimmy,” he said. “He says he likes retailing, but what this man really likes is people. His wit and humor can make you laugh for days.”

South Whidbey residents Mary Ann Davis and Linda Alexander love Jim’s Hardware so much they have volunteered to work there for years.

“They just started showing up from time to time, started stocking shelves, whatever they see that needs to get done,” he said. “Before I knew it, they were wearing shirts like mine and had a key to the store.

Talking about a big shipment coming in on a recent evening, he said Davis would be looking for the truck coming off the Clinton ferry.

“I just know she’ll be at the store unpacking boxes and stocking shelves,” he said.

Over the past 30 years, as Harwell ran and ran to the store (a distance runner, he has been known to run to the store three or more times a week), Mary stayed home with the couple’s three children. Still, the store was part of the children’s childhood memories.

“They would roller skate up and down the aisle,” he said. “I remember them walking around pretending they were blind, doing all those things kids do.”

The eldest daughter, Kathy Cepowski, worked at the store during her high school years. Her husband, Terry, still works in the store.

Family is No. 1 with both Harwell and Mary. Daughter Cepowski wrote in a six-page letter about how much she loves and admires her father.

“He taught us fishing, motorcycle riding, ice-skating, BB gun shooting, swimming, bike riding, you name it,” she wrote. “He introduced us to literature by reading to us. Even though money was tight they made available any music or other lessons we wanted, as well as putting each of us through college.”

In May, the entire family ran the 12-kilometer Rhody Run in Port Townsend wearing their bright yellow shirts. Harwell has competed in almost every running of the race in its 26-year history.

Harwell said that over the years more and more kids are left at home to raise themselves. Some kids just don’t have any kind of role modeling from their parents.

“I was fortunate to have hardworking, upstanding parents,” he said. “They were the salt of the Earth. When I look back, I wish I had not taken this for granted and appreciated them more.”

Some parents, he said, are so poor they don’t have a chance to raise their children. He pauses looking down towards the floor, then shakes his head while recounting a photo he saw of a mother in Sudan.

“It was beyond sad,” he said. “It was a mother dipping her soiled dress into a muddy filthy river, so she could wring it out in her baby’s mouth to ease the little one’s thirst. I’ll never forget that photo ever.”

Harwell is a man of faith. He says if you watch a man you will see his faith and beliefs.

“A man can say a lot of things, but it is what he does that I pay attention too.”

Harwell’s faith and kindness towards others ring in loud and strong to South Whidbey residents.

Greg Willis, the principal at Langley Middle School Principal, best sums up why Harwell is a Hometown Hero.

“Although Jim would never consider himself a hero, there’s no question he represents the very best in all of us. He is a hard working business owner, proud and loving family man and a person committed to serving his community. I have always appreciated his patience, sense of humor, and ability to tell a great story. His dedication to keeping himself healthy through his running, bike riding, and swimming is a model for all of us. Jim is just a wonderful person. He keeps us all honest.”

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