Seville lost one of its most colorful figures last month: Lawrence Bartter.
He passed away Sept. 17 at age 93 after a long, vigorous and intensely independent life.
Cities have colorful people, too, of course, but they are spread out among a larger population. They are less visible. If you spent any time in the village of Seville, you would have noticed Lawrence.
A machinist by trade, he was the guy in town who could fix almost anything brought to him for repair.
Look at old copies of the weekly Seville Chronicle from the 1950s and ’60s and you’ll find Lawrence’s classified ads advertising his handyman services. He was a man-of-all-work, as they used to say on the farm.
He was the one you called when you had a roof that leaked or a tree that needed trimmed, but it was taller than you cared to climb. If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times, that Lawrence would fearlessly amble up a towering ash or old maple with nothing but a rope and a chainsaw. I’m told he’d tie himself off with the rope and swing around the tree — part Flying Wallenda, part lumberjack— trimming a limb here, cutting a limb there.
Lawrence was a passionate skier.
He skied the Alps and the Pyrenees and his favorite, the Colorado Rockies. In cold weather, he wore his ski clothes around town. He always looked sort of dashing to me in his thick, colorful sweaters, scarf and knit cap, his face rugged and tanned.
He skied into his 80s, until his eyesight no longer allowed him to drive to the slopes. Even then, Lawrence continued to run his errands around town on his riding mower.
His wife, Martha, died in 1983.
He built his house with his own two hands and raised his own vegetables — even insisting on planting tomatoes out back of the nursing home where he lived the last few months. He also built his own casket — out of Osage-orange, hard as a rock.
When I, God-willing, have lived a long, vigorous and independent life, I hope I can be so practical and accepting in contemplating my own passing.
His life is made even more remarkable because Lawrence suffered a childhood stroke that permanently damaged his sight, hearing and speech. It was his difficulty speaking that inspired him to memorize poetry.
As a youngster, children sometimes mocked the way he talked, Lawrence said. Even as an adult, there must have been those who didn’t know what to make of him. That’s true for all of us once in while and true every day for people who look or sound different from us. Learning poetry, Lawrence said, gave him something beautiful to say.
“That’s the only way I could get anybody to listen to me,” he once said.
He was famous for reciting poems — Lawrence claimed he had enough poetry committed to memory he could recite it for five hours straight.
I don’t doubt it. Among his favorites was Robert Service’s 900-word poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Anyone who’s read this column over the years knows that, being a hopeless old English major, I sometimes write about poetry. I’ve invited readers to share original poems — locally themed haiku and limericks — with small prizes awarded to the best submissions. I am always amazed and heartened by the response. By golly, there are people out there in the world who still love poetry.
I think it’s time to formalize things just a little bit. With the blessing of Lawrence’s daughter, Nancy, I’d like to institute an annual poetry contest in his honor: the Lawrence H. Bartter Poetry Prize.
In the coming weeks, I’ll put out a call for original poems by Gazette readers, giving you the rules and the deadline. Fall is a rich time for writing— with the changing of the seasons and the approach of the holidays. The very best poems I’ll share in a column the week of Lawrence’s birthday, Dec. 18. Winners will receive a certificate and a modest prize.
When I once remarked to Lawrence on his gift for memorization, he laughed.
“Anybody can memorize poetry,” he said. “All they have to do is read it. It will come to you. You have to craft the story and it will come to you. But take your time, you see.”
That’s good advice for writing, too, which can seem intimidating. Read poetry. Craft your own story. Take your time. And it will come to you.
That’s how it’s done. Poetry gives each of us a voice, the same way it did for Lawrence, and enriches our lives in unexpected ways.
Lawrence was something of an institution in our small town and he will be missed. Many, many goodhearted people looked in on him, helped take care of him when he needed it, and are richer for knowing him. I know I am.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.