BOSTON — It was very important to David Witham, the Bar Harbor hotelier who died from Parkinson’s disease Saturday at age 77, that the large picture windows in the Bar Harbor Inn’s Reading Room restaurant always be clean.
That was just one of the many details Cathy Walton, the inn’s food and beverage director, said she learned to pay attention to in what she joked was a 30-year course of instruction in the “David Witham School of Restaurant Management.”
“Don’t ever open the restaurant with bird [droppings] on the windows,” Walton remembered him telling her. “If you can’t find anybody to take care of it, call me at home and say, ‘David, come down and clean the bird [droppings] off the windows now!'”
His vision, Walton said, was to have a restaurant frequented by locals whose staff returns year after year, where everyone is known to each other.
“He left us prepared and in good hands to carry on that vision,” she said.
In the 1970s, Witham left an early career that included stints at IBM and Raytheon to buy some of his father’s motel cabins in Hampton Beach, N.H., in partnership with his sister and brother-in-law.
He bought the Bar Harbor Inn in 1987 from Barry Harris after visiting the property with friends Peter and Sally Vacca the year before.
That visit was on a Sunday, and there were no realtors available, the Vaccas said. “We found a door not locked and went inside. We looked around, and even in the dark, we realized it was a beautiful property.
“Most people in town thought that the asking price was way too high and that anyone was crazy to purchase it. Good thing [Witham] was that crazy person.”
Today, Witham Family Hotels, headed by Witham’s son, David C. Witham, owns and operates 13 properties individually and in partnerships. The company controls nine hotels in Bar Harbor, including the Bar Harbor Inn, Bar Harbor Grand, Atlantic Oceanside and Hampton Inn, as well as three hotels in Ellsworth and one in Saco.
“He sold his motels in Hampton Beach and put his energies into Hancock County,” longtime friend Les Brewer said this week. “He’s a man that when he moves into a community, it’s for everything.”
Witham was introduced to Brewer almost immediately after purchasing the Bar Harbor Inn, having asked his realtor whom he should meet in town.
“The broker said ‘Les Brewer,’ and they came up to my office, which at the time was right beside the fire station,” Brewer said. “We talked about a lot of different things. He asked about air conditioning for hotel rooms. In Bar Harbor at that date, it wasn’t considered needed. But in the years since, he’s added it to all the rooms in his hotels. That’s what the public wants, and he served the public.”
Witham was very involved in the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Brewer said. “When the chamber needed a boost, he helped it get along.”
And it was Witham who nominated Brewer for the Chamber’s Cadillac Award.
The Bluenose Inn was part of Witham’s holdings for many years, though the company has since sold it.
The year he bought the Bluenose Inn property, Walton said, was before the company began using visa programs to bring temporary foreign workers for the season.
“We were suffering from a shortage of housekeepers, so David worked a good part of the season cleaning rooms,” she said. “Was he driven? I would say so, and successful because of it.”
Witham was an exacting boss and didn’t mince words, Walton said. Managers called to his Bar Harbor Inn office would sit in a chair facing him — and into the afternoon sun — that became known as the “hot seat.”
“It was an incentive to make sure things were just the way he wanted them to be,” Walton said, “and 30 years later, I still follow his words of wisdom.”
But his employees and family alike are quick to point out the compassion that came with his high expectations.
Witham’s company has for many years operated an employee assistance fund and recently established the Witham Family Hotels Charitable Fund.
One employee, boarding a flight to return home to Jamaica at the end of the season, realized too late he had packed kitchen knives in his carry-on rather than the checked bag. He was dragged into court in proceedings that stretched over several weeks. Witham reportedly offered his Boston condo for the man to stay in while getting it sorted out and came to offer testimony in the man’s court hearings himself.
Witham’s public spats with rival hotel owner Tom Walsh in the early 2000s still loom large for some, but family and employees call the rivalry “overblown.”
What’s clear is that Witham was a key agent in developing and modernizing the hospitality industry in Bar Harbor over 30 years.
“He was just an all-out, enthusiastic individual that wants to see a community succeed,” Brewer said. “He has used his energies to help it move along.”