Oregon Ducks Administrator Jim Bartko Beat His Demons to the Finish Line
By John Canzano
Herald and News
March 18, 2020
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 time, drowning in anxiety, staring at the ceiling.
Bartko medicated with wine.
Then, Ambien and Tylenol PM.
“I realize now,” he told me last year, “that’s not coping.”
He got a trainer. He was working with a nutritionist. He scrambled to write his memoir and get it published. A news conference was held last week in the Bay Area to announce the book. Bartko finally exhaled. And in that, it was as if Bartko somehow knew all along he had a deadline to make.
He collapsed on Monday.
After his death was reported, the first two text messages I received were from people with ties to rival Oregon State. Both pointed out what a good human Bartko was, and how much they’ll miss him. The next was from former Oregon star quarterback Joey Harrington, in disbelief, who said, “Please tell me what I just heard about Bartko isn’t true.”
It was true. He was dead. The news was spreading.
One of Bartko’s close friends, a devastated Ken O’Neil, sent an unsolicited email minutes later and wrote: “He was a special and dear friend and I will miss him a lot.”
I kept thinking about that little coffee meeting I had with Bartko. When I arrived, he was finishing up a meeting with a college senior who was considering a career in athletics administration. He called me over and introduced us.
That’s Bartko, I thought, holding court, always helping and connecting people.
Harrington later told me, “I genuinely think he died of stress.”
The former NFL quarterback also met with Bartko recently. They’d talked and drank coffee. And Bartko passed an advance copy of his book to Harrington’s side of the table.
“He was a giver,” Harrington said. “He was that person who continually gave of himself. But with everything that he chose to reveal, it made a lot more sense why he was such a giver.”
Bartko’s gift as a fundraiser was that he never made donors feel like they were writing a check to a university or an athletic department. It always felt like they were helping with a family project. Maybe because, to Bartko, they were like family.
The book outlines a wonderful anecdote in which Phil Knight pranked Bartko by calling him on the evening of an event to honor the Nike founder and telling him he was too sick and wouldn’t make it.
Bartko thanked Knight and told him to get well, but was horrified. His guest of honor was bailing. The event was starting and it was going to be embarrassing to have to stand in front of the crowd and announce that Knight was going to no-show. But then, as Bartko walked back inside the event, he was tapped on the shoulder by a giggling Knight.
It wasn’t just a joke. It was love, safety and acceptance.
Part of what makes the death of Jim Bartko so tragic is that he appeared to have turned a difficult corner in his life. His firing at Fresno State was behind him. He’d worked through the divorce. He was so focused on being the best father he could be to his two children, AJ and Danielle, that he told me, “I just want so badly for them to know how much I love them.”
I hope they always do.
The final months of his life now look like a race to the finish line. He was finalizing the book. He’d started a non-profit to help children. He’d set himself free, but in truth, his health was crumbling alongside it. He’d lost weight and was working out more. But he looked frail. And privately, friends and family were worried about the long-term function of his organs.
I suspect now Bartko knew that time was short, even as he didn’t burden anyone with it.
Bartko kicked his demons down, one by one. He was back working at Oregon in a building he’d helped build. And when he looked out the window, he saw a basketball arena that wouldn’t be there without his fundraising. Finishing the book was a pivot point because for the first time he took control of his secrets.
Harrington said when they met recently it was the first time Bartko hadn’t started the conversation by asking, “What can I do for you?” The former quarterback took it as a sign that something good was happening in his old friend’s life.
“He said to me, ‘Yeah, I’m finally starting to heal and finally starting to feel good,’” Harrington recalled. “Then, to have this happen. To live your entire life with that pain and that hurt and then to finally get to a point where you’re starting to feel good.
“I hope at some level he was able to enjoy all the things he did during his life.”