LaRue: Looking for Emancipation Proclamation, original Mickey Mouse drawings? They’re in Tacoma

When Thomas Jutilla allows that his job title is curator of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, he is quick to point out it’s hardly the only position he holds.

“I came here 20 years ago as a part-timer and my job description just kept growing,” Jutilla said happily. “Now I’m the curator, the marketing director, the education program director, the custodial director and groundskeeper.”

Actually, he could have gone on.

Jutilla, 53, is the sole employe at Tacoma’s Karpeles Museum — one of 11 scattered across the country. Once open six days a week, the Karpeles has cut back to four, Tuesday through Friday.

The price of admission, however, hasn’t changed. There isn’t one.

Walk into the museum across from the Wright Park Conservatory and the curator will greet you personally. Jutilla wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I’ve met so many great people here, people who love research and learning,” he said. “We’re across the park from the hospital, and we have people come here to find serenity.

“We get a lot of students who want to see great works they’ve read about.”

Born in Yakima, raised in Aberdeen, Jutilla was once one of them.

He spent years in jobs that paid well but didn’t do much more than that. Not long after the Tacoma Karpeles Museum opened in 1991, Jutilla had an “aha!” moment.

“I realized I wanted a unique career, a job that I wanted to go to every morning,” he said.

So 20 years ago, Jutilla visited the museum and then-curator David Shawver, a retired Washington State University professor.

And Jutilla, who’d returned to college, wound up being interviewed by David Karpeles, a wealthy California businessman who owned the string of museums bearing his name.

“I was offered a job as curator in our Florida museum,” Jutilla said, “but I wanted to stay here.”

So he gave up sunny Florida for Tacoma. Turns out, Jutilla loves the city where his parents met and married.

“My folks were born in Tacoma, went to Bellarmine Prep,” he said. “My dad was a Tacoma banker. This city has been the richness of my life. I’ve had opportunities, but I can’t move away. There’s so much here.”

The Karpeles is part of that richness for Jutilla.

In his years with the museum, which changes exhibits every three to four months, he has handled truly remarkable documents that have come through Tacoma.

“Some of my favorites over the years? I’ve held the work of Frederick Douglass, Gandhi — men who changed history,” Jutilla said. “The execution letter for Joan of Arc, writings of Sir Isaac Newton., the blueprints for Sputnik ”

Karpeles, 74, made his fortune in real estate, and began collecting manuscripts in the late 1970s. His is described now as the largest privately owned collection in the world, and it is stunning.


One letter, dated 1183 A.D., is from Pope Lucius III, and includes orders on the departure of knights before the Third Crusade. Then there’s a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation — signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Not all of the collection is so serious. There’s also original production drawings of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. And Walt Disney’s will.

Karpeles still chooses each exhibit that tours his museums, but in Tacoma, those exhibits are put together by Jutilla.

“Protection of the exhibits is hugely important,” he said. “The pages arrive in mylar and are kept that way, never touched by hand. Each exhibit case is humidity controlled. The light in the museum is soft, and the windows are protected so there’s no UV light. The windows are made of alabaster glass.

“During the six hours a day we’re open, the documents are on display. After that, they’re moved and protected even more.”

Another of Jutilla’s many titles is head of security. While there have been occasional issues outdoors — the bronze museum plaque by the entrance was stolen a year ago — there has never been a break-in at the Karpeles.

At least not a human one.

“I was called in once when a motion detector was set off,” Jutilla said. “I came in and was on the telephone with our alarm company when I saw a bat flying in the entryway. I said, ‘It’s a bat!’ and they thought I was saying an intruder had a bat.”

That straightened out, Jutilla opened the museum doors, and the bat flew out. Just another service he provided at the Karpeles.