Clinton icon Jim Harwell dies

Jim Harwell lost his fight with cancer and passed away at age 68 Sunday. - Photo courtesy of Harwell family
Jim Harwell lost his fight with cancer and passed away at age 68 Sunday.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Harwell family

Jim Harwell, 68, a beloved longtime South End resident and owner of Jim’s Hardware, passed away Sunday, Feb. 10 at home after a short bout with cancer.

Harwell, who lived in Langley with his wife Mary, owned the store for the last 35 years and was considered an institution by friends and customers alike.

“He was part of the Clinton universe,” said store employee and son-in-law Terry Cepowski. “He was funny and could be feisty at times but he sure had a lot of friends.”

Many of those friends rode to the rescue last New Year’s Day. With Harwell very ill, more than 50 people showed up at the store to take inventory, a daunting task considering the thousands of items Harwell stocked.

“Everyone wanted to help out,” Clinton resident Joan Nelson said.

“We both so much appreciated the help from all of Jim’s friends over the last few months,” said his wife, Mary. “During the inventory, each person took a couple of aisles, writing down ‘four screws at 59 cents.’”

Mary Harwell said the family knew the end was near. His doctor had recently told him he had just three to five months left to live.

On Tuesday, the family was arranging details for a memorial on Saturday.

“It’s all a little scary trying to get everything done,” she said.

Jim Harwell was as well-known on Whidbey as his business.

He filled his store, with its narrow, old-fashioned aisles, with knives, night lights, dry wall studs, arrows and bows, cool-looking rain hats, fishing nets, dog treats, emergency radios, school supplies, toasters, model cars, work clothes, oil cans and just about everything connected with home improvement.

Home-building neophyte and educator John Patton recalled going into the store over the years.

“I’d go in and pick something out I thought I’d need and Jim would come over. ‘No, not that, here is what you want,’ he’d say.”

“I usually ended buying something less expensive but exactly what I needed. And he’d tell me how to use it. He was a real class act,” Patton said.

Cepowski said that everyone who came in the door lately asked how Harwell was doing.

“Hardware was his life,” he said. “It’s a blow to the town now that he’s gone.”

When Lynae Slinden opened her Island Framery shop at the other end of the mall from the hardware store, Harwell was one of the first to stop by.

“He showed up with bad jokes and a cup of coffee to welcome me to the neighborhood,” Slinden recalled.

“Jim is just the kind of guy you wanted to have around. He truly loved what he did. If the store goes away, we won’t see its like again.”

Harwell was a stock clerk at the store 35 years ago, working for Carsten Knaplund. He bought the hardware store — lock, stock and customer goodwill — from Knaplund.

Good friend Randy Hudson, a well-known South End musician and artist, remembered driving by the store long after it had closed.

“So many nights over the years we’d stop by, see his old truck and tell him to go home. He loved that place,” Hudson said.

Hudson said Harwell was a very social guy who would rather tell a joke than sell him something.

“He was a font of hardware esoterica,” Hudson said. “I’d show him some little broken widget and he’d go right to a particular tiny drawer in the back and pull out a replacement.”

He also did a lot for his community over the years, helping to create Dan Porter Park as a member of the South Whidbey Kiwanis Club and tirelessly promoting the annual Clinton Days celebration.

And he loved to run, swim and ride a bicycle. In 2006, he finished the Race the Rock triathlon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, 28.7 seconds.

“He’d want folks to remember that,” Hudson said.

A memorial for Jim Harwell will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday Feb. 16 at the Assembly of God Church, 5373 Maxwelton Road in Langley.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or

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