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Anthropologist was hero to Marshallese

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Pacific anthropologist Jack A. Tobin, who devoted most of his life to research in the Marshall Islands, died June 18 in Honolulu.

He wanted to live to be 90 and died three days after reaching his goal, said Robert Kiste, retired University of Hawaii professor of anthropology and former director of the Center for Pacific Island Studies.

"He was a very unassuming man, very sensitive to others," Kiste said. "He really felt a sense of compassion for island people who are struggling in small, poor countries."

Byron Bender, retired professor and chairman of the UH department of linguistics and a specialist on the Marshallese language, said Tobin "is something of a hero and a legend" in the Marshall Islands, where he was district anthropologist for many years.

"He was always a loner and in recent years a near recluse, occasionally having lunch with a few of us who knew him at Zippy’s on Vineyard near Queen Emma Gardens where he lived," Bender said in an e-mail. "He did not talk about his past."

Kiste said Tobin served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II and was at Pearl Harbor during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. Kiste contacted Tobin’s niece, Mary Steven, who told him Tobin earned a Bronze Star for repeatedly risking his life to rescue those who were wounded.

When Tobin’s military service ended he enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Manoa to study anthropology, Kiste said.

Tobin’s adviser was Leonard Mason, Pacific specialist on Micronesia with a special interest in the Marshall Islands, Kiste said in an interview and an obituary notice for the Pacific Islands Report.

Tobin accompanied Mason on a research trip to Arno Atoll in the Marshalls in 1950 to work on the Pacific Science Board’s Coral Atoll Project, studying the needs of atoll dwellers with limited resources and growing populations.

Tobin later was hired as an anthropological field consultant by the Civil Administration Unit of Naval Operations.

He obtained a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and returned to the Marshalls as a community development officer, Kiste said, adding: "He was totally involved in the Marshalls.

"He was kind of shy. Certainly, you’d never know he did anything of any accomplishment. He was so unassuming, a lot of people did not know what he did."

Tobin was the sole district anthropologist for the Marshall Islands during the Trust Territory Administration era, according to Hawaiian & Pacific Collection News, which published a notice of his death.

It said he held that position through 1957 and was community development adviser to the Marshalls from 1967 to 1975.

Kiste said Tobin lived in Honolulu for many years after retirement.

Tobin wrote a book, "Stories from the Marshall Islands," published in 2002 by the University of Hawaii Press.

He began donating his research materials to the Pacific Collection at UH Manoa’s Hamilton Library a few years ago and transferred the rest of his materials shortly before his death, including about 12 linear feet of manuscripts and an estimated 1,500 photos and 35mm slides.

The Pacific Collection said the manuscript collection hasn’t been processed but work has begun digitizing Tobin’s photos and slides to make them available online later this year.

Kiste said Tobin didn’t want any formal service or gathering other than family and asked that his ashes be scattered at sea.

 

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