Decades ago when former Mayor Jane Bartke first started getting involved with community organizations in El Cerrito, one of her primary motivations was to meet people.
“I’m a real people person,” she said. “I’m not very good with other languages, but if I were left stranded in a country where they spoke another language, I’d learn it because I just have to talk to people.”
Now after living in El Cerrito for more than five decades, serving two terms on the City Council, and holding leadership roles with dozens of local organizations, it’s safe to say that Bartke has plenty of people to talk to.
For her many contributions to the community, the El Cerrito City Council last week approved Bartke as one of this year’s two new Wall of Fame honorees.
“I think it’s very well deserved,” said Councilwoman Janet Abelson, who was part of the subcommittee that reviewed Wall of Fame nominations. “She’s an amazing person in terms of the amount of community service she has provided this city. We’re lucky to have her.”
Though she has lived in El Cerrito since 1961, Bartke is a Midwesterner at heart. Born and raised in Illinois, she attended St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame in Indiana where she studied elementary education.
Bartke has a lifetime teaching credential for all grades from kindergarten to 12th, and she has spent more than 30 years teaching in West Contra Costa schools, including El Cerrito’s .
“In teaching you actually see light bulbs go on,” she said. “As trite as it sounds, you see that you’re making a difference.”
As rewarding as teaching has been for Bartke, it was not the career she originally wanted to pursue.
She entered college intending to study math, but soon decided to change her major. Though she was interested in business, women at the time were seldom encouraged to pursue business. So instead, she turned to teaching.
Bartke felt the sting of discrimination strongly in the 1960s when, in between teaching jobs, she applied for positions with PG&E and AT&T, but was turned down because of her gender.
“Those things have always chipped away at me,” Bartke said. “I’ve been angry. So I guess you could say I’m a very a feminist person—I just want equality.”
That feminist orientation is reflected in several of the organizations in which Bartke has played active roles, including Soroptimist International, the Junior Women’s Club, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the YWCA of West County, the Alpha Delta Kappa teachers sorority, and the Rosie the Riveter Trust.
Not one to take a passive role, Bartke has been president of all of these organizations at one time or another.
Stephanie Mewha, a past vice president of the Soroptimist local chapter, has worked with Bartke over the last six years, and decided to nominate Bartke for the Wall of Fame award.
“She’s a great leader,” Mewha said. “It’s her fairness, and her willingness to be patient and listen to everyone’s point of view with certain things.”
While much of Bartke’s volunteer efforts have been geared toward empowerment of women, she has worked to help the larger El Cerrito community through a variety of other organizations.
Among her best-known contributions was , the popular mininiature Bethlehem-type village spread out on an El Cerrito hillside for many years by its creator, Sundar Shadi. Rather than see the display broken up and sold after Shadi's death, Bartke led the campaign to rescue it by founding the El Cerrito Community Foundation and organized its preservation and December exhibition each year beginning in 2002.
The El Cerrito Community Foundation meanwhile has become an umbrella organization for five smaller community groups.
She also served as the chairwoman of the city’s redevelopment agency for three terms, the chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, and a city councilmember from 1991 to 1999.
While on the City Council, she served as mayor twice, became chairwoman of the Contra Costa Mayor’s Conference, and represented El Cerrito in the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Through her countless hours of volunteer work, Bartke has always believed that people must put in the necessary effort to improve the city.
“If you live in a community and you enjoy being there, then you work to keep it as good as it is or even make it better,” she said. “It all goes back to commitment.”
Bartke said that while some of her friends are worn out from just one volunteer event or meeting a week, she is accustomed to attending several functions and meetings in a single day.
Even with her impressive resume of leadership positions, she will be the first to admit that she is not indispensible.
“If you really believe in what you do, you have to start looking for people to join and build it and expand it,” she said. “No one is indispensible, and the minute you start thinking you are, it’s time to go.”
Nowadays, Bartke is stepping back from many of the organizations she formerly led.
Her primary responsibilities now are as president of the Rosie the Riveter Trust——and the head of the Community Foundation.
Bartke may have been a member of various groups and served in numerous leadership roles, but she is unwaveringly clear about what she first and foremost considers herself: a grandmother.
She and her husband, Richard, have two daughters—both teachers in West Contra Costa—and four grandchildren, and family is the obvious priority in the Bartkes' life.
Richard Bartke, who was a , is happy his wife will be joining him among the small group of community leaders whose framed photos and commendations can be found on the wall of the foyer to the City Council chambers at .
“I just help her. There’s lots of things that she’s involved in where I’m just the water carrier,” he said. “If anything she’s over qualified. She’s certainly earned it.”
According to Jane, the Wall of Fame honor ranks alongside the the Ed Fund Teacher of the Year award and the El Cerrito Woman of the Year award as one of the most extraordinary distinctions she has received.
“This is a recognition for all the many years you’ve worked with this group or that group, and it’s really special,” she said.
Bartke and will be honored formally at a Wall of Fame induction ceremony on August 21. Their selection brings the total of honorees named to Wall to 19.
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