ISLAMORADA -- Irving Eyster, long known as Islamorada's resident historian, passed away at Mariners Hospital last Thursday afternoon. He was 95.
"He was my whole world," his daughter, Barbara Edgar, told the Free Press Friday morning.
Born in Indianapolis in 1918, Eyster developed his love for history as a little boy listening to stories and going on archeological digs with his grandfather, Edgar said. He brought that love with him to Key West, where he moved along with wife Jeane in 1947.
Almost immediately, Eyster began collecting Florida Keys artifacts. His collection would eventually become vast and would include everything from the old lantern of the Pacific Reef Light, which now sits at Founders Park in Islamorada, to a 1733 Spanish cannon that is displayed in front of the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo.
In a 2011 interview, Eyster said that among his favorite artifacts was a jawbone found on Indian Key after 1965's Hurricane Betsy. The bone, he said, is likely the remains of physician and horticulturist Henry Perrine, who was killed by Indians during their 1840 attack on the small island off Islamorada.
Calusa Indian pottery that Eyster found in an early 1980s dig in north Key Largo was another personal favorite.
Anxious to get away from the hubbub of Key West, Eyster moved with Jeane to Lower Matecumbe Key in 1952, where, according to Edgar, they became just the eighth family living on the island.
The couple opened a small motel there. Through the years Eyster would also earn a living by installing terrazzo floors.
But history was his love. Eyster worked on archeological digs in Miami and the Keys. He wrote hundred of articles on local history for magazines and newspapers. He taught anthropology at Florida International University, the University of Miami and Miami-Dade College. In 1980, he became a charter member of the Florida Archeological Council. Five years later, as chair of the Historic Florida Keys Preservation Board, he was a strong supporter of the eventually successful efforts to prevent Key West's San Carlos Institute, an icon of the city's Cuban history and culture, from being converted into a cabaret theater.
"Words cannot describe the deep sense of personal loss I feel at Irving's passing," San Carlos director Rafael Penalver wrote in an email Friday in which he recalled the effort to save the institute.
In Islamorada, Eyster founded the nonprofit Matecumbe Historical Trust in the early 1990s. Now run by Edgar, the trust holds monthly historic lectures and also honors the victims of the 1935 hurricane each Memorial and Labor Day at the Florida Keys Hurricane Memorial.
Seth Bramson, who is an adjunct history professor at Barry and Nova Southeastern universities as well as the company historian for the Florida East Coast Railway, remembered Eyster Friday as a historian with impeccable character and enormous knowledge.
"In business nobody is irreplaceable," Bramson said. "But when it comes to the history of the Florida Keys, Irving is irreplaceable."
Eyster's achievements didn't go unrecognized in Islamorada, either.
In 2008 the Village Council named a street next to the hurricane memorial in his honor. And just this past December, he and wife Jeane were honored with a plaque on the Pacific Reef Light cupola in Founders Park.
"Irving was Islamorada's iconic historical reference and we are losing a magnificent resource," Mayor Ted Blackburn said Friday.
Eyster's last few years were marked by one major disappointment, though. In 2011 it appeared that the Matecumbe trust was finally on its way to opening a long-sought museum to house Eyster's collection. A Labor Day groundbreaking for the Irving Eyster Museum of Florida Keys History was held with much fanfare on the grounds of Upper Matecumbe's Islander Resort.
But in 2012, the project fell apart amid disagreements between the Eyster family and other members of the Matecumbe trust's board.
Though he lived the last decade of his life with Parkinson's disease and leukemia, Eyster remained active nearly until the end.
Eyster is survived by Jeane, his wife of 68 years; Edgar; sons Bob (Sandra) and David; and grandchildren Evan and Veronica Eyster and Cinnamon Edgar.
A Celebration of Life will be held at Island Community Church at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16.