Glouco native traveling the world dies in Cambodia

Donnie Hart is hugged by his father, Jim Sr., as they reflect on James Hart Jr., 29, who died this past weekend after falling ill in Cambodia while traveling through Asia with a friend. "Jimmie" Hart had quit his job to travel the world.
Donnie Hart is hugged by his father, Jim Sr., as they reflect on James Hart Jr., 29, who died this past weekend after falling ill in Cambodia while traveling through Asia with a friend. "Jimmie" Hart had quit his job to travel the world. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 04, 2014

Those who adored James Hart Jr. didn't know where in the world he would go next. But online, the 29-year-old left a digital trail of his adventures as he embraced his natural wanderlust.

His blogs quoted Jack Kerouac. He shared photos of maps and art, and inspirational quotes.

"You can buck tradition and others' expectations of you. You can triumph over your fears, by conquering your mind. You can take risks. And most of all, you can travel," he wrote on Facebook in June.

"Jimmy" Hart, who grew up in Mantua, died doing all of those things. He had quit his sales job in Philadelphia early last year with no real plan other than to see the world.

It was across the globe that he died last weekend from cardiac arrest, while traveling in Cambodia with a hometown best friend, Derek Miller. The 2002 Clearview Regional High School graduates had both felt sick for several days - dehydrated, nauseated, and vomiting.

"But I'll live," Hart had written to his father, as Jim Hart Sr. recalled Wednesday. "Those were his last words to me."

The family is still unsure what caused his illness and death. He had last communicated with his family Friday to say he was feeling better.

Hart collapsed in the street in Siem Reap over the weekend and died hours later at a hospital. Attempts by the family to have lab tests conducted in Cambodia were unsuccessful, and his body was not preserved because the morgue in Siem Reap lacked refrigeration. His family learned of his death Saturday.

Hart had consulted a travel doctor in Philadelphia and received vaccinations prior to the trip.

On Tuesday, Miller, 29, took part in a farewell ceremony at a Buddhist temple in Cambodia. Hart's body was cremated, and Miller wore a shirt belonging to his friend, a maroon button-up with white dinosaurs.

The cremains will be returned home in coming days, thanks to an online fund-raising effort by friends that on Wednesday, after only one day, had reached nearly $15,000. But the answers won't come.

"We can dig from here to eternity and it's not going to bring Jimmy back," Hart Sr., 61, of Bucks County, said.

"I feel powerless," added Jimmy Hart's brother Donnie, 26.

Most of Hart's possessions now fit into two boxes stored at his mother's home in Burlington County. He had sold his belongings, including a truck and laptop, to help fund his travels.

In a blue Adidas box, the family has kept photos, varsity letters from when he was a wide receiver for the Clearview Pioneers, and merit certificates, including one for a successful skydiving session.

Last spring, he traveled throughout Europe, including Iceland, Spain, and Italy. He stayed on farms and in hostels, taking trains at night to sleep. "As he would come back, that's when he was planning the next," said his mother, Donna, 60.

He departed for Thailand on Jan. 17 from New York City with a large backpack, and was scheduled to return at the end of May after travels through Asia.

Now, his father said, "we have his legacy to live on."

Hart was known as an athlete - he also played soccer - and was called "88," his number on the football team at Clearview. The 6-foot-2 player told his teammates to trust that he would catch the ball, recalled Matt Egge, who was quarterback during Hart's senior year.

"He always would," Egge, 29, said.

Hart went on to study at Widener University, Arizona State University, and later film at the Art Institute of California in Los Angeles.

It was in Arizona that he began to blossom into the creative traveler he would become, family members estimated.

"That's when he started changing from football to art," said his sister, Brooke, 27.

He ultimately returned east, where he worked at the Apple Store in Philadelphia, living with roommates at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties. But all the while, his desire to travel about Earth's natural wonders loomed.

A longtime friend, Michael Kundrotas of Mullica Hill, recalled what Hart said of his profession in recent months: "I walk the Earth," he would tell others, mainly girls.

"You probably never met a guy that more girls adored," said Donnie Hart, smiling.

Kundrotas, 30, said Hart's knack for adventure played out locally, too.

"Whether it was going to the beach, whether it was to the Poconos, whether it was walking through the Pine Barrens or going to see lighthouses," he said.

Kundrotas and a group of other close friends - Jim Hart Sr. called them a "band of brothers" - followed along as Hart documented his travels and new friends overseas on his blog, ifiweregoing.com. He wrote about his adventures river rafting and interacting with elephants and tigers.

"I never even knew he was such a good storyteller," said friend Bill Hand, 30, who traveled in Hart's Nissan Xterra with him in 2009, when Hart moved to Los Angeles.

"He just wanted to make a change" in the world, Donnie Hart said.

Jeff Swain, a lifelong friend, said: "The world has lost a superhero."

Hart's traveling companion, Miller, plans to finish out the journey, something family members said Hart would have wanted. Services for Hart will be April 12 at the Church of the Incarnation in Mantua.

There are more stories on Hart's cellphone, waiting to be posted online by either his family or Miller. Hart's family said those missives will come, and his tales will continue to make their mark on the world.

Like when, at a Thailand saloon, Hart inscribed the names of his buddies on a piece of furniture.

"It was also proper to grab a marker and make your mark on wherever you choose," he wrote in February on his blog. "On the chair next to mine I listed the names of our close friends back home so they could be there in spirit, 'Jimmy, Derek, Big Kun, Foster, Bill, Jeff, Tom, Brandon.' "

He finished the post in his signature way: "As Ever, J. Hart."


afichera@philly.com856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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