Friends mourn historian, ex-BSU dean Robert Sims, who shared tales of WWII internment

Robert Sims wrote extensively on the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, including their internment in camps across the American West. He shared his scholarship with a broad audience, serving on the executive committee of the Idaho Humanities Council and the board for the Idaho Humanities Foundation. He was also a consultant to the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Oregon.

During his time at Boise State, he served as dean of the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs.

His fellow historian Judy Austin, editor of “Idaho Yesterdays,” a publication to which Sims contributed, considered him a friend and colleague for more than 40 years.

“What impressed me most about his scholarly work is that it was always oriented to the people involved,” Austin said by email. “The most obvious example is the work he did on Japanese relocation, and particularly the Hunt internment camp in south-central Idaho. He cared about the people who were interned there during World War II and wanted their stories told and understood.

“He also did an admirable article for ‘Idaho Yesterdays’ on the reaction of then-Gov. Chase Clark to the idea of bringing Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Coast states to interior states like Idaho.”

While Sims was an accomplished writer in “both style and substance,” she said, his true love was for teaching and working with students.

“He was helping others understand the importance of history, and not just their own histories,” said Austin.

Hanako Wakatsuki became a student at Boise State after Sims had retired. But Sims reached out to her after learning that Wakatsuki’s great-aunt, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, wrote “Farewell to Manzanar,” a seminal memoir of the internment era.

“He took me under his wing. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. He single-handedly influenced my life,” said Wakatsuki. She’s the education specialist at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in California. Before that she worked at a former internment camp site at Tule Lake in Northern California.

“I knew my family history, but hadn’t learned about it in high school and thought it was just some obscure thing,” said Wakatsuki.

Under Sims’ tutelage, she learned about the Hunt/Minidoka internment camp in Idaho and made connections with families like hers that had been imprisoned during the war. Sims suggested that Wakatsuki join the board of Friends of Minidoka, the group devoted to preserving World War II history and the stories of Japanese-Americans.

“I thought, ‘I’m just this 20-year-old history student. Why would they want me?’ ” said Wakatsuki. “But under Professor Sims’ guidance, I ended up chairing the board.”

Sims founded the annual Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium, an annual conference. Wakatsuki will return to Idaho this summer for the symposium’s 10th anniversary.

“And hopefully, I’ll get back to Idaho one day and carry on Bob’s legacy,” said Wakatsuki.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush, who chaired the Idaho State Historical Society Board of Trustees and was president of the Idaho Legal History Society, also mourned Sims’ passing.

Sims’ death, Bush wrote, “creates a sadness in many hearts, to be sure, and reminds me again that a lifetime such as Bob’s — of learning, curiosity, scholarship, and commitment — contains a human reservoir of importance that can never be refilled in the same way. Bob was always gracious to me with a certain patience for the shortcomings of the non-historian who admires historians and likes to be in their midst, but always with a measure of respect for that non-historian’s own accomplishment in shared interests and pursuits. Not everyone approaches the broader circles of their world in that way, and it is a mark of good character (and Christian virtue), I think.”

Sims earned his bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Oklahoma State University in 1961, a master’s from the University of Oklahoma in 1965 and his doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1970.

He joined the faculty of Boise State University in 1970.