Oregon Ducks administrator Jim Bartko beat his demons to the finish line
We met at 9:30 a.m. at a Starbucks a couple of months ago. He picked the spot. And when I arrived, Jim Bartko was tucked against a large window, corner table, mentoring a college student.
He’s frozen there in my mind forever.
Bartko died on Monday. He was 54. And before you can say, “that’s way too young,” which is true, let me tell you what killed him — his childhood.
Officially, the long-time University of Oregon athletic department administrator collapsed during a workout on Monday. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died in surgery. But I’m left with no doubt that he would be alive today to do good deeds if only someone years ago would have just done one for him.
A pile of abuse, denial and betrayal.
Bartko had been outspoken about all of it recently. He’d gone public, as part of his recovery a couple of years ago. He’d spilled his guts, talking in horrific detail about Father Stephen Kiesle, a convicted serial molester. The since-defrocked Kiesle wreaked havoc on the children of Pinole, Calif., 7-year old Jimmy Bartko among them.
“I... am... so... proud... of... you!”
Kiesle coached the basketball team. Those were the first words the predator used to cultivate the kid. Bartko would be among the first of more than 300 molested children. He never forgave himself for not speaking up. I know this because when I met Bartko for coffee that morning, he greeted me and then slid a white three-ring binder across the table. It was a draft of his memoir. He wondered if I’d give it a read.
Bartko told me, “I’m nervous, but it’s time.”
“Boy in the Mirror” was published three weeks ago.
The book is filled with stories about Bartko’s life in major college athletics. His long friendship with Penny and Phil Knight is included, too. The book underscores Bartko’s important role in a powerful, air-tight circle of close friends and allies. He had the keen ability to network, and bring entities together. It made him terrific at his job, and it’s evident Oregon wouldn’t be what it is without him.
The memoir also allowed Bartko, a guy who never had a harsh word in public for much of anyone, to finally get real. About his alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress, and a failed marriage. Also, about being cruelly cast aside by Fresno State, who hired him to be athletic director. In that, the book gave the now-grown Bartko a chance to punch back against his demons.
When the news of Bartko’s death spread throughout the state of Oregon, I was struck by something. Bartko was universally viewed as an up-beat, joyful person. The same guy afflicted by all that PTSD and smothered by terrible secrets, down deep, possessed the spirit of a merry fighter who badly wanted to win. He confessed to me once that he used to lie in bed at night all the t...