Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Unfinished business at the football stadium
We all know what killed Jim Bartko.
His liver gave out during a workout, but I have no doubt about what really killed Jim Bartko.
It was a priest, a secret, and a betrayal.
Bartko collapsed a couple of years ago in a gym in Eugene. He was rushed to a hospital. Doctors tried to save him, but the long-time college-athletics administrator died of a massive abdominal hemorrhage.
He was 54.
Oregon State will play Fresno State on Saturday inside a football stadium that Bartko had big plans for. He’d worked for years at the University of Oregon, mostly as a fundraiser and a liaison to mega-booster Phil Knight. But Bartko eventually set out on his own, and called me one day not long after he landed the job as Fresno State’s athletic director.
“I’m going to rebuild Bulldog Stadium,” he announced.
Six months into the job, Bartko unveiled a $60 million stadium-renovation project, complete with renderings. He never got the chance to finish it. Bartko’s closest friends will tell you that it was the combination of wine, Ambien and Tylenol PM that did him in at Fresno State. But that’s missing the point.
It was that priest — Father Stephen Kiesle — the now-defrocked, convicted serial-molester. He preyed on a 7-year-old Jimmy Bartko, grooming him with compliments and affection, while coaching his youth basketball team.
Bartko would become one of 300 children that Kiesle allegedly abused. The college administrator would marry, have a couple of beautiful children, and hold the secret of his repeated sexual abuse for more than four decades. Bartko rose through the ranks at Oregon, then at Cal, and Fresno State, holding himself together, until he couldn’t take it anymore.
Over coffee, in 2018, Bartko told me: “It never bothered me during work. Never during the day. It bothered me at night. It was the quiet times; driving the car long distances, being alone on airplanes, lying in bed at night awake, staring at the ceiling.”
Bartko could not shake that priest.
I first met Jim Bartko in 2003, after arriving in Oregon to write columns at my sixth newspaper. I was covering the Ducks’ football game at Mississippi State and noticed a quiet man scampering alongside Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, as he entered the press box.
Bartko held the door for Knight. I wondered who he was and what his job was exactly. Later, I heard a story about a UO fundraising banquet in which Knight’s wife, Penny, wasn’t expected by the event planners, but showed up alongside her husband.
The staff saw her walk in the room and went into a tizzy. They’d prepared lavish gift baskets for the high-profile donors. They were now one gift-basket short. Bartko, I’m told, went around the room, apologizing to donors, whispering and trading baskets from table to table, until he secured an acceptable one for Penny.
“I wouldn’t be alive without Phil and Penny,” Bartko told me in 2018.
Two years later, he was dead.
Kiesle was convicted of lewd conduct in the 1970s, for tying up and molesting two young boys. He was sentenced to three years probation. We know now there were hundreds of other survivors, including Bartko and his best childhood friend. The priest finally went to prison in 1995 after he was convicted of molesting a young girl. The church denounced him, but years later, Bartko confessed it was of little consolation, and far too late.
“I should have spoken up when I was a 7-year-old kid,” he told me, “maybe I could have stopped him from hurting others.”
That guilt and shame is the stuff survivors suffocate themselves with. Bartko turned to alcohol, then prescription medication, to cope. His liver disintegrated. He died in mid-March of 2020. One of the first text messages I received was from former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, who wrote, “Please tell me what I just heard about Bartko isn’t true.”
It was, sadly.
Bartko appeared to have turned a corner just before his death. He wrote a book — titled “Boy in the Mirror” — and asked me to read a proof before it published. He slid a binder with single-spaced pages of copy in it across the table at a Starbucks. I opened it later that night, and walked through a door that included horrific details and dark secrets.
The book explained so much about the gentle man I came to know over the years. He smiled during the day, but wrestled with demons at night. Amid that, at Fresno State, Bartko did some hopeful things. He inherited a 1-11 football program, fired coach Tim DeRuyter, and replaced him with a gutsy hire — long-time friend and former Oregon assistant, Jeff Tedford. It had been five years since Tedford had worked as a head coach.
The first season, the Bulldogs won 10 games. The next, they won 12. It was a home-run hire, designed to fuel the rebuild of that old football stadium.
“We turned that thing around,” Tedford told me this week.
Behind the scenes, though, Bartko’s life was crumbling. He was drowning in anxiety, unable to cope. His wife filed for divorce. Co-workers noted his breath sometimes smelled of alcohol. And finally, one day, Bartko was called into a meeting with high-level campus administrators.
They demanded his resignation.
“I was blindsided,” Bartko said.
Bartko later alleged in a court filing, that he was labeled an “incompetent alcoholic” by university president Joseph Castro and vice president Deborah Adishian-Astone. He was told that he could either be fired “for cause,” or he could resign and receive a severance. Fearing what a public-termination would represent, Bartko quit.
Oregon hired him back as a fundraiser a few months later. He got substance-abuse counseling, hired a trainer, lost weight, and started writing that book.
“Self medication was one of my coping mechanisms,” Bartko told me. “I’d have a glass of wine at night because I couldn’t sleep. That’s fine. But then you start doing that and you mix that with Ambien or a Tylenol PM and it’s not a healthy thing.
“That’s not coping.”
Bartko published his memoir in 2020. He held a news conference to publicize it. Four days later, he went to work out in that gym, collapsed, and died.
Cirrhosis of the liver, the medical examiner said.
We know better, don’t we?
That ex-priest gave a 7-year-old boy sips of communion wine and built trust. Then, he systematically abused him, along with so many others. Stephen Kiesle is 75 now. He’s still alive, and apparently living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I wish I could tell you he’s no longer hurting people. But earlier this year, police say Kiesle got into a car while intoxicated, veered onto a sidewalk and ran over a 64-year old man who was out for an evening walk with his wife. Kiesle now faces charges of gross vehicular manslaughter.
Bartko’s book was an important victory. The Catholic Church failed him. The system betrayed him. A priest abused him. The words on those pages were supposed to help him heal, and raise money for children of abuse.
I think he did heal some.
Maybe someone who read it did, too.
The place known for years as “Bulldog Stadium” was built in 1979, when Bartko was just a boy. It has been the site of some incredible feats, and is a place in the Central Valley where families come together. On Saturday, more than 36,000 fans are expected to sell it out again, watching Oregon State play Fresno State.
I wrestled with how to finish this column. The disgraced priest doesn’t deserve the final word. The story is heavy. But I suppose I’ll just say that I’ll think about Jim Bartko at kickoff.
The stadium turf has been replaced. It looks nice enough on TV, but those who work there say the venue is badly outdated. The press box roof is caving in, and they can no longer open its giant windows. Just this week, the university announced it is “exploring options” to make improvements.
Is there anyone at Fresno State still willing to take Jim Bartko’s vision and complete the work he started?
He always saw the good in things. I just wish he’d had more time to see the good in himself.
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