- Robert (Bob) C Kiste: Mentor and Friend of the Pacific
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This article is drawn from the introduction to a previously published volume, Pacific Places, Pacific Histories: Essays in Honor of Robert C. Kiste (Lal 2004), which honors Bob Kiste and celebrates the contribution he made to the promotion of Pacific Islands studies in the latter half of the twentieth century.
By the time Bob retired from the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa (uhm) in July 2002, after serving as director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies for twenty-four years, his reputation as the world’s premier encourager and publisher of the best scholarly research on the Pacific Islands was secure. Colleagues, collaborators, research students, staff, friends, and admirers all benefited from Bob’s support, generosity, and vision for Pacific Islands research. Bob was a remarkable person who embarked on a remarkable personal and professional journey, resulting in a fundamental, enduring contribution to Pacific Islands studies unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
Like many others, Bob found his place in the Pacific Islands through chance—or fate, if you will. His was an improbable journey. Improbable, yes, but not exceptional, for while the roots and routes vary, with different points of departure and different personal and professional destinations, most of us have also come from just or nearly as improbable backgrounds. In Bob’s unplanned and unpredictable journey, we can all recognize markers of our own special moments, coded allusion to our own various dispersals, sounds of our own footsteps. Like him, many of us are pioneers in our own way: the first in our families to graduate from college, enjoy secure academic careers, make enduring cross-cultural friendships, travel to distant and sometimes previously unheard of places, or simply do something outside the realm of family tradition. We are all full of “firsts” [End Page 478] of one sort or another. Like many of us, Bob was a man of many places whose ideas and imagination of those places changed over time. Change, in fact, was a constant in Bob’s life.
When I first proposed the idea of a book of essays to Bob sometime in the late 1990s—which appeared as Pacific Places, Pacific Histories in 2004—he was genuinely taken by surprise. He was flattered at the thought but felt he did not deserve the honor. He was that kind of person: product of an earlier generation, slightly reticent, emotionally uncomfortable in the public limelight, not one to bask in the glory of his achievements, always distributing credit around. When I persisted, he agreed to let me proceed but on the firm understanding that, while he would cooperate, he would prefer not to know what the book was about or who might be asked to contribute to it. I respected his request, eventually compiling a list of the “usual suspects” with the assistance of some of Bob’s close friends and colleagues, all of whom agreed to abide by my request to keep the project secret from him.
When contributions began arriving on my desk, I needed to talk to Bob about his life. He agreed, though still with no firm idea of the theme of the proposed book nor of the contributors. We met in his office in uhm’s Moore Hall in late January 2002, and over a weekend of sustained conversation, several hours long (all on tape), I obtained details of Bob’s journey. He was completely candid about people and places he had encountered, about his own disadvantaged family life in the American Midwest, his professional work and its satisfactions and disappointments, and his reflections on the Island world he had come to call home. What follows is based largely on our conversation—but not all of it is, I should hasten to add, because some things in the privacy of a confidential conversation must perforce remain private.
Bob Kiste was born on 26 August 1936, into a poor family in remote, rural Spencer, Indiana, population two thousand. His father, Edgar, and his mother, Hazel, were typical Midwesterners of their time in their attitudes, values, social relationships, and expectations of what life...