Gordon and Janet Bartels were college sweethearts who were fiercely devoted to each other, their family and the causes that moved them to action.
Gordon was diplomatic with a great sense of humor, a balance to Janet’s more serious nature. They were committed to the communities in which they lived, and their energy was most recently directed to community- and youth-oriented gardens in Hagerstown.
Over the years, the Bartels participated in anti-war protests, for both the Vietnam and Gulf wars. They helped start and taught at an alternative school on Long Island, N.Y., where they lived with their children for a year.
After having a biological son, the couple, concerned for the high number of babies and children in need of homes, chose to adopt an infant daughter. They also took to gardening, raising much of the produce their family ate, long before the “eat local” and community garden movements became popular.
Gordon and Janet chose to live in downtown Hagerstown, where they could walk most places, and in the hope that they could help improve the community.
After 47 years of marriage, the Bartels worked as a well-oiled team. Gordon’s death from pancreatic cancer in January, just weeks after his diagnosis, has really rocked Janet.
“It’s the great tragedy of my life,” Janet said. “We were such partners.”
Gordon was an only child, born Sept. 21, 1942. His parents lived into their 90s, so Janet said his death at 69 wasn’t even on their radar.
Instead, they thought they had at least another 20 years to work together on community projects.
“Gordon and I balanced each other out so well,” Janet said.
They were in the same graduating class at Muskingum University in Ohio, and started dating in their junior year. Janet grew up outside of Cleveland, with a mother who was active in social movements.
Gordon was raised on Long Island. While he was smart, his studies were not a priority.
“He wasn’t quite the student his parents wanted or teachers expected,” Janet said.
Janet said their first date was “kind of a joke.” A friend of Gordon’s set up dates with Janet and a female friend of hers. The guys arranged to go out with the women Friday, then switch dates Saturday, but the women found out. Nonetheless, Janet and Gordon started dating after their date that weekend.
They were married Aug. 1, 1964, months after they graduated from college. The couple moved to Long Island, where Gordon, a sociology major in college, worked for an insurance company for three years and Janet taught in an elementary school.
Janet quit teaching after son Scott was born in 1967. They adopted Stacey in 1970.
While she has the same February birthday as Janet, Stacey shares Gordon’s sense of humor and personality, Janet said. Scott, a hand therapist, has two children, and Stacey is an art therapist/art teacher for special-needs students.
Neither Gordon nor Janet was thrilled with their careers; Gordon switched to teaching and Janet got a master’s degree in library science. Gordon taught elementary school, primarily third and fourth grade, and was known for his storytelling and guitar-playing skills.
After 13 years on Long Island, it was time for a change. Through a career bulletin from the school where Janet got her master’s degree, she learned of a librarian position in Merrimack, N.H.
With the completion of Interstate 93, New Hampshire was booming. New schools were built and Gordon got a job teaching there. The Bartels lived there for 26 years, until Gordon decided to retire in 2001, sensing that No Child Left Behind would change teaching.
He was head cook for the family during the week because he got home earlier than Janet, and parent-in-charge when he was off for the summer with the kids and Janet had to work.
“We led an alternative lifestyle because I couldn’t do the suburban lifestyle,” Janet said. “Gordon didn’t think I was crazy. He was right there.”
Scott said his parents were very involved in their children’s lives. They traveled as a family, often in the VW camper they still have, and went to cultural events and museums.
“We were always doing something, going somewhere,” Scott said. “They were carrying on that same tradition with my kids. That’s why this is so hard.”
He said every year, his parents — Gordon was called PopPop by his grandchildren — traveled to Greensboro, N.C., for their grandchildren’s birthdays, taking them out of school for the day to take them some place of interest to them.
“They were more people- and experience-oriented than materialistic,” Scott said.
He uses his parents as role models for his parenting and said that although they had different styles, they complemented each other.
“They were best friends for the last 47 years,” Scott said. “They shared the same interests. They did everything together. They were a team.”
Stacey said the thing she remembers most about Gordon is his belief that everyone was equal.
“He was very passionate. Everybody loved him, from all walks of life,” said Stacey, adding that he used his passion to improve the community.
She shared his love of people and teaching, following a similar path.
Stacey said she loved listening to her father’s stories and guitar playing, and that when he played Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” for her, “he used to just make me howl.”
Realizing that neither of their children would return to New Hampshire after college, the couple decided to move halfway between Scott in Greensboro and Stacey in Cleveland.
Hagerstown, 300 miles from each, proved to be a good gathering spot for the family. The Bartels moved to a Kenley Square apartment in December 2003, while deciding whether to move to Hagerstown, West Virginia or Pennsylvania.
They heard Carolyn Brooks speak and were drawn to the idea of working with youth through C-Safe’s after-school program.
“Here we decided we would carry on our vein of working with children,” Janet said.
They settled in Hagerstown on South Mulberry Street in March 2005, where they were transforming their backyard into an edible garden. They helped start the Neighborhoods First for Elizabethtown East and were active with that group, as well as working with youth.
“We are looking for community solutions all the time,” Janet said.
The first Master Gardeners course in Washington County was offered in 2005 and the Bartels signed up, prepared with an idea for the required project. Their plan was to teach children to garden, and they helped establish gardens at Bester Elementary School and earth boxes (for container gardens) at Winter Street Elementary School through C-Safe.
The Winter Street program shifted to Girls Inc., where they hoped to start an urban 4-H program. A garden they started at Memorial Recreation Center generated more than 600 pounds of produce for Community Action Council last year, Janet said.
Janet hopes a Community Foundation of Washington County grant will keep the learning gardens project going while a fund created to honor Gordon is established.
“I really so believe in what we were doing,” Janet said.
The Master Gardeners group has really stepped up to help with the projects in Gordon’s absence, Janet said. She said there are different models for the different gardens, the ultimate goal being urban gardening with youth, schools and families.
Janet was so unprepared for Gordon’s death that she said she couldn’t bring herself even to prepare an obituary. Despite that, many former students and their parents somehow got the word and have flooded the Bartels’ mailbox with cards.
Janet and the immediate family gathered for a private service at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hagerstown, which the Bartels attended.
“Gordon would have liked it. It was just very small. We sat around and shared Gordon,” Janet said.
The couple used to walk together downtown and Janet said people have learned of Gordon’s death when they see her walking alone and ask where he is.
To honor Gordon’s memory, Janet has established a fund through the Community Foundation of Washington County, the “Gordon and Janet Bartels Learning Garden Project,” to which people can contribute.
“He was really all people say he was,” Janet said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Gordon A. Bartels, who died Jan. 22 at the age of 69. His obituary was not published in The Herald-Mail.