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Frank R. Bartol: A Valedictory

Photo Courtesy of Bartol Family

Frank R. Bartol: A Valedictory

Meaning “farewell speech,” the word “valedictory” is commonly associated with graduation. But a valedictory address need not be limited to school. In this beautiful valedictory written before his death, Frank R. Bartol reflects on his life, celebrates his accomplishments, looks ahead to the future and bids a final farewell to his loved ones.

“This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me” said Emily Dickinson in one of her poems. Well, what follows is my letter, a brief one, I promise, to the world that sometimes wrote to me, not as often as I wrote to it, but often enough so that I can now look back on my life and declare it to have been good---mostly. If you are reading this, it means that I have, to employ a phrase from the best known soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “shuffled off this mortal coil,” so I’m having the last word here, which I can have only if you choose to read on, and I hope, to honor my memory, that you will do so.

My plan for this letter is that it should go mostly to folks who come to the Traunik hall to pay their respects or who offer condolences on my passing in some other form, so if you were in the former group, you noticed, unless you were walking around in a trance, that the casket my body was lying in was not the conventional commercial one, but a box of my own making. I cut the cedar logs for it from the woodlot where I had cut firewood and logs with my father all during my growing up years and occasionally during the decades that followed them. After Dan Pociopa sawed them into boards for me, I employed my modest carpenter skills to fashion a simple cedar box from some of them, unplaned, unsanded, unvarnished, and unadorned in any way.

And that’s just the way I wanted it to be. The prospect of lying for eternity in a satin-lined casket that would have cost my survivors several thousand dollars has never appealed to me, but I’m experiencing more than a modicum of pleasure as I write these words at the thought of doing so surrounded by wood that grew up with me, wood that I never lived more than a few hundred yards from during almost all of my life.

Yes, I know I won’t be sniffing that cedar, but neither would I have been stroking the satin of an expensive casket. And more about my life has been cedar than satin, so in death I shall be surrounded by material that harmonizes with who I was. More important, quite a few folks in need will have food to eat and/or clothing to wear because I have instructed my family to make a donation equal to the price of a commercial casket to two area charities, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul’s. I expect to derive satisfaction from that decision for as long as I have a heart with which to feel for others and a mind to contemplate the essential good sense of this gesture.

I trust you weren’t too distressed by the absence of a funeral service as such. That, too, has been as per my wish. I believe in neither a divine creator nor an after-life, but I do not want to offend my many friends and relatives who sincerely believe in both  by planning a secular service, which they might interpret as a sales pitch for what I do believe. The English poet Samuel Butler summed up my sentiments very well in the following verse:

I shall fall asleep in the full and certain hope
That my slumber shall not be broken;
And though I will be all-forgetting,
Yet I shall not be all-forgotten,
But continue that life in the
Thoughts and deeds
Of those I loved…….

As I look ahead (I don’t know how far, because no doctor has declared my death from prostate cancer to be imminent), I’m quite content to hope that some of you will respond to the invitation offered in my obituary to come to the Traunik hall to offer condolences to my family, after which I trust you’ll look around at the hundred or so photographs of early Traunik which adorn its walls and check out the photographic display of my own life from babyhood , then sign the guest register before going down the basement for some refreshments. Those just might include, if my son Mark has time to bake it, some nut potica, which he has achieved some local fame for----that delicacy being featured on the dessert table at just about every event in our hall. After that, I excuse in advance all of you to go back to the land of the living, which I’m sure will happen whether I give my permission or not.

But I hope anyone who comes to the hall who has not previously seen the Traunik Stone, which is located just west of it, will walk over to it to read the inscription on a  plaque attached there-on. It is a tribute to Traunik’s Slovenian pioneers, and I’m so proud of having written those words that I include them below.

To this place they came, beginning in 1912, and
when enough had gathered to form a community, they
named it Traunik, which means “meadow” in Slovenia,
the country they left in search of a better life.
They brought with them a willingness to work and
a determination to succeed, and out of the forests they
shaped fields, homes, and a good life for their families.
This monument has been placed here in memory
of these Slovenian settlers by their children and
grandchildren, now scattered about the world but tied
by invisible bonds to this spot, where once the night
air was filled with Slovenian melodies, and an
ethnic community pulsed with life.

July 4, 1993

I’ve never stopped being proud of my Slovenian heritage and of being a Traunik guy, born and raised, a resident for almost all my life in this tiny community, which most of the world has never even heard of. It has certainly shaped the direction my life has taken. As I observe where our world is now and where it threatens to go in the future, I especially appreciate how lucky I was over the years to have lived my formative years and most of my adult ones where I did and during a time when this world moved at a pace that most of us could manage to keep up with.

About a hundred and fifty kids grew up in Traunik before the beginning of World War II. Over the years I got to know almost all of them, and I can tell you that, with only two or three exceptions, we became assets to this community if we elected to remain here, or to the world “out there” if we chose to go elsewhere to seek our fortune. And I think I know why we turned out so well: it was because we worked together with our family and neighbors doing the many chores that were out there for us to do in what was then only a minimally mechanized world.

We did most of our playing together, too, with all the kids about our age, and we practiced being independent by doing it on our own. Our parents turned us loose when there was no work at hand for us to do, and we took it from there in creative ways that I won’t detail here. But because I truly believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, I can’t resist including here one of me in the middle of my childhood which suggests that those patterns were working very well for me. Though I appear alone in it, togetherness was the central ingredient in our lives, working or playing, as it sadly is not in that of today’s kids, unless one considers the artificial togetherness generated by Facebook, E-mail, texting, etc. an acceptable example of that aspect of life, which I emphatically do not!

Change having come slowly in our lives, we had no trouble getting our arms around it so that we could embrace it without too much trauma. Contrast that with the situation today, when our younger generation can’t begin to plan for a future that changes between the time they get up one morning and the time they go to bed---well, maybe not that fast but fast enough so that more and more psychologists, sociologists, and other students of our culture are talking about the increased incidence of anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional maladies that can be traced to change too rapid to be accommodated.

If there were an Aladdin’s lamp that I could rub to call up some genie to do my bidding, I would do so only once, and I would ask him to “uninvent” the computer, because it is destroying us. Properly managed---and limited---it could have been our servant, but it has now become our master, and most of us do its bidding without ever questioning why.

We stand in line in front of department stores all night so we can be the first ones to buy any new version of smart phone or some other device generated by the computer, often before we’ve learned to operate the one we have in hand. I’m glad that even if my doctors can keep me running for a few more years, I’ll be out of here before man has become essentially superfluous, and computers will do all of our thinking for us. They’re doing much of it now-----an example of that: we obey the global positioning system in our cars even when our minds tell us that its directions are wrong!

The nice thing about being where I’ll be when you read this is that I won’t have to endure the ridicule of those among you, the majority of my younger acquaintances, I’m afraid, who have unquestioningly bought into “the system.” But I wouldn’t have written the preceding paragraphs at all if I didn’t have a least a little hope that it will prompt a few of you to say no to the next “improvement” of your cell phone that comes down the pike or the next anything that promises to get something done faster. Hope springs eternal!!!

If technology gone amok were the only problem today, I think I could accommodate to it and still visualize a bright future for my survivors, but we’re also going in the wrong direction in other areas.; Wealthy people now “buy” the kind of elected officials who will see to it that only laws which put even more wealth in their hands than they already have will get passed, something they can do more easily now that the Supreme Court says it’s okay for them to do their dirty work in secret.

Culture (or, if you will, entertainment) has been reduced for too many of us to watching reality shows on TV or the kinds of trashy programs (and TV commercials) which most of us would have been embarrassed to view a couple of decades ago. Socially, we are mostly isolated. We’re too busy staring at one computer screen or another to attend the get-togethers that were an important part of life in pre-computer days.

As for the work environment we have to deal with, automation (computer-generated, of course) has taken away the jobs of many folks who used to make a good living doing the physical work that robots and other complex machines now accomplish, thus relegating too much of our labor force to marginal “service jobs” that almost insure perpetual poverty. There is little evidence at this point that the “haves” in this country care much about what happens to these “have nots.”

Recently I watched a logging operation in a large forest just north of Traunik---and I could not observe even one person at work!!! All I saw were several gargantuan machines grasping standing trees, cutting them down, bunching them, and then dragging them to an even larger machine, which chewed them up and spit out the small pieces into semis, which then hauled them away. It occurred to me then, as it does now, that communities like mine could never have been created if those machines had existed back in 1912.

Quite a few other things occurred to me, and I confess to just having written a dissertation of half a dozen pages enumerating them, but I realized in re-reading those pages that what I may perceive to be a dissertation, many of you would call a diatribe, so I pressed the “delete” button of my computer on them---for which I suspect most of you will be grateful----and decided that it’s time to move on to the rest of my story.

All of my criticism above notwithstanding, I still want to stay around to view the next chapter in the history of this world, and to that end I’ll endure any kind of medical treatment that will prolong my life up to the point where the attempted cure has become worse than the disease, at which time I will certainly consider giving nature a boost to get me to the finish line. Having seen too many relatives and friends take the long route to final relief from their cancer, I fear the miseries they went through more than death itself. Some day society---and the medical community---will stop saying that all life is precious and should be extended at whatever costs, at which time there will be instituted a “death with dignity” department in every hospital, to which folks suffering from terminal diseases can go for final relief from their misery and pain.

A couple of states, Oregon among them, do offer such an option, and I can tell you, from where I sit now, that I would face my future with greater equanimity if Michigan were one of them. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, wrote the following:

“If I can choose between a death of torture and one that is simple and easy, why should I not choose the latter? As I choose the ship in which I sail and the house which I inhabit, so will I choose the death by which I leave life.”

Two thousand years later, I don’t think I could have said it better. Only you, reading this, can know the way things turned out for me! For now I’ll live my life one day at a time, which, in the final analysis, is the only way anyone can live it----the notion just surfaces more dramatically for people in my situation. I’m not totally preoccupied with the prospect of not being here too much longer, but I do spend more time these days looking back on just who I have been over these past eighty-four years.

Had I opted for a conventional funeral service, I’d like to think that there would be a few folks willing to step up to say some nice things about me during it, but since that can’t happen, I’ll now do a self-eulogy, sort of. I’ll try to tell it like it is---or was---but, as is the case with all eulogies, the emphasis in what follows will be on the positive stuff.

I’ve always believed that good luck plays a greater role in the success of most people than they are willing to admit, and I acknowledge having had more than my share of it, with enough bad luck thrown in to keep me humble. The best luck I’ve ever had, hands down, was meeting my Judith in 1952, when we were students at NMU, and convincing her that it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for her to marry me. On August 6th of last year (2013) we celebrated our sixtieth anniversary right here in Traunik, where we’ve lived full-time for the past forty-eight years.

I hope I won’t be considered a braggart when I say that I think I’ve done quite well with my life. I overcame almost pathological shyness as a teen-ager to become an English teacher for thirty-one years, five of them as an assistant professor at NMU. I enjoyed being called “professor” with the status that accompanied the title, but my preference was for high school teaching, to which I returned for the last fifteen years of my career as an educator. I liked it all, but in 1985 I had had enough of teaching and spent the next decade of my life being an almost-full-time volunteer.

For five years I was an AMCAB board member, two of those as its chairman. During that decade I was also on the Alger County Historical Society board and served a term as its president. And I was co-coordinator, along with Lynn Nebel, of the largest project the society had ever undertaken: the conversion of the old Washington School into the Alger County Heritage Center.

For a dozen years I edited Alger Footprints, the society’s newsletter, and for several years I did a weekly radio program for the society during the winter months. In 1994 I received the Charles Follo Award, presented each year to the person in the U.P. who has done the most for local history during it. And in 1997 I was cited by then-Governor John Engler for my work in promoting Alger County history.

By 1997 I had backed away from much of my volunteer activity, but I continued to spend some time, and a good deal of energy, working for  the Traunik Slovenian Club, which I had played a substantial role in organizing in 1993, and I’ve been active in that group for the past twenty years. Those of you who know me well also know what I did for the club. Those of you who don’t will not be interested in details so I’ll spare you them. Suffice it to say, I’m willing to accept credit (when that credit is offered) for telling Traunik’s story in a variety of ways and strengthening the connection between our community here and the several in Slovenia from which Traunik’s pioneers emigrated. I did my share of the connecting by going to Slovenia eleven times since 1972 to visit my many relatives over there, and several have reciprocated with visits here.

My book, To This Place They Came: The Traunik Story in Pictures, tells my community’s story in over 200 photographs, each one accompanied by a one-paragraph commentary. It is the writing project I’m the most proud of, and the one most enthusiastically received by readers of my work. For several years in the ‘90’s I wrote a weekly column for the Escanaba Daily Press and the Marquette Mining Journal, and I self-published three collections of those columns. I also wrote Still Sits the Schoolhouse by the Road, an account of my grade school days in the Traunik school, and just two years ago, for the sheer fun of doing it, I wrote a novel entitled A Boy and His Chanticleer, which I printed l50 copies of, mostly for friends and family. It pleases me, as I consider the prospect of not being here any more, to know that there will be about 4,000 copies of books with my name on them around for folks to read if they’ve a mind to. That’s not much of a career as far as book publishing is concerned, but it’s fame enough for me, and I hope you didn’t mind my having devoted this paragraph to telling you about it.

Retired now for twenty-nine years from teaching, I’ve had plenty of time left after my volunteer work to do things for myself and my family. After my parents’ deaths (my father’s in 1996 and my mother’s in 1999), Judith and I sold our place on the hill overlooking Dexter Creek and moved into the “home place,” where I had been born and where I hope to be lucky enough to die when the time comes.

I spent several years renovating the old house and adding a master bedroom and bath to it. In the process I worked as a carpenter, mason, electrician, and plumber. I’d like to say that I became quite good at those trades, but I can’t. Nevertheless, almost always working alone, I got all the necessary jobs done without anybody nearby to watch me tearing down my mistakes and starting over again now and then. The result, I must say, has been quite satisfactory.

Enough remains of the house I grew up in to evoke memories of life there as a boy, and I can enjoy some of the same odors emanating from its kitchen because after I retired, my mother taught me to make apple and cheese strudel, nut and raisin potica, filajna, struklje, porbiks, and quite a few other ethnic foods. Those of you who share my ethnic background are probably salivating as you read this, and those of you who don’t are probably thinking: “What in the world are porbiks?”

This valedictory is turning rapidly in the direction of memoir, so I’ll end it here, but not before I elaborate on a comment I made at its beginning: that I believe in neither a divine creator nor an after-life. I know that statement offended some of you. Perhaps you’ll be placated somewhat when I now say that I believe man has a soul and that prayer works.

But the soul I recognize as mine has been a work in progress all the days of my life, and it keeps emanating from me to reside in the hearts and minds of the people I make contact with in one way or another. And there, in my belief system, is the only place it can reside, emerging only when those people bring it out into the open when they think of me (positively, I hope) for something I said or did. I do not visualize my soul departing my body at the moment of my death and rising into some ethereal world to become a bodiless being communicating with fellow souls, which it will somehow recognize by name in an inchoate heaven.

As for prayer, I say one at the end of every day, which begins with the following words: “May the world be a better place tomorrow than it has been today, and may those I love find happiness and security in it,” after which I spend some time thinking about those in my family and among my friends who may be having difficulties with their lives. Thus I go to sleep concentrating my thoughts on others rather than on myself. I’m convinced a world full of people spending a few moments daily doing the same thing would generate an all-encompassing atmosphere of concern for the welfare of others, and good deeds and thoughts would follow the next day and all those thereafter---a simple concept and maybe even a simplistic one, but I believe in it whole-heartedly.

And so I come to the end of this goodbye message. Contemplating the inevitable, I’m saddened to realize that I’ll very likely never take another trip to Slovenia to visit that beautiful country and to reconnect with relatives for whom I’ve developed a deep and abiding affection, but I have the memory of those many trips I did get to take. How much my life has been enriched by them!

I shall say my goodbyes to my beloved Judith, my sons, Mark and Daniel, my grandsons, Isaac and Ethan, my sisters, Marge and Kathryn elsewhere, so this goodbye message is for you other “kinfolk”on this side of the Atlantic---my eleven first cousins and my dozens (literally!) of second, third, and fourth cousins, as well as my nephews and nieces and other assorted relatives. And I hope, of course, that this valedictory will find its way to my relatives in Slovenia.

I’m grateful for the kind of clan we’ve been, distant from one another both socially and geographically sometimes, but “close” when it counted. I want to thank you here for your many get-well wishes, in person, over the phone, or through the mail. It meant everything to me to know that you cared, and I will stay with you as long as I can, at least in part because you have demonstrated with those messages that you want me to.

My last goodbye I save for you, the many friends I’ve made over the years. Thank you for being that. My relatives were obliged to put up with me. You were not, but you did anyway, and I have formed bonds with some of you that have been as tight as those I’ve had with my family. I am thinking now especially of you, my fellow members of the Thoreau Sauntering Club, who once a month, and occasionally between meetings, made my life more fun and more interesting than it would have been if you had never invited me into your club. As for you “friends in general,” I’ll mention no names here: you know who you are. I wish all of you as good and as long a life as I have had---and as many happy and successful moments as have been mine. Farewell!

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain-
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.