Remembering a mentor and friend

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 10:30am

“Get on that house, Houlihan, you missed a spot under the gutter.” “That grass isn’t raked enough. Keep at it.” “Tune your guitar, that E string is flat.” “Did you do your geometry? Did you study your French verbs?” The above and many more assertive suggestions were said to me by my childhood next-door neighbor and lifelong friend, who died on this past Christmas Day — after a tough battle with cancer. His name is Peter Bartis.  

For some reason, Peter — who was a year older than me — took it upon himself to interfere in my non-committal teenaged life where I was hellbent on doing just about everything the hard, wrong way. In the ninth grade, as a result of failing all of my subjects and getting into constant trouble, it was suggested that I not go to high school and find work in a local factory. Contrary to my teacher’s suggestions, one night I made the decision to attend Tolman High School in Pawtucket, and take college preparatory courses. On most mornings Peter would give me rides to school. If he beeped his horn and I didn’t come out of the house with a quickstep, I would be walking and hitchhiking — you didn’t keep this guy waiting. Historically, the term mentor — found in Homer’s “The Odyssey”  — informs us of a person who acts as a guide for a younger and less experienced person. In 1965, my neighbor took on this role.

Peter Bartis was an aggressive learner and a very curious guy; we never had a dull conversation about any topic: cars, music, politics, and history. He got me doing things like reading books, studying Rhode Island history, and finger picking the guitar. Most importantly, Peter talked to me as though I had a modicum of intelligence, which was something new for me. Once we were tearing around Boston in his old beater of a Mercedes-Benz and he told me about the restaurants and bars that were successful in Cambridge — he missed nothing about the city. In ’71, we went to a bar in Cambridge called the Plough and Stars. “Some Irish guys just opened this place. It’s a goldmine,” he said, “look at the clientele, professors, students, and merchant sailors, they all come here — good music, too.” He told me where the best coffee was brewed, and what was happening with the local folk music scene in Boston. Peter’s mind was always observing, qualifying and quantifying everything in his periphery.

After graduating from Boston University, he went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he would study folklore and receive his master’s degree. Subsequently, he went on to receive his PhD in folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania. He then was hired and worked at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress for 40 years — he was well respected by his peers. According to the Library’s Jennifer Cutting, “Peter was a great mentor to so many people who came to the American Folklife Center, interns, research fellows, and new staffers. He had a way of recognizing everyone’s best qualities.” Jennifer also noted that, “Peter’s genuine respect for veterans made him a great asset for Veteran’s History Project.” This project is the largest collection of oral history in the world — Peter served as the Senior Program Officer for this expansive project for our nation’s veterans.

During the holidays Peter would stop by to see my folks, and they would ask him about his studies — they were both very fond of him. I remember one Christmas I was next door, hanging out with Peter and his brother Jim around their kitchen table. Jim had graduated from MIT and is a nuts and bolts guy with a scientific approach to things. He was asking Peter very direct and practical questions regarding his folklore studies, and where he could apply them after getting his doctorate. In hindsight, it was very clear that Jim was mentoring his younger brother by challenging him with these questions. It was also clear that Peter was holding his own by discussing this stuff with his brother — I made a mental note of the conversation — and that Peter looked him eye to eye and had resolve in his answers. Shortly after that conversation Peter was hired at The Library of Congress.

Over the past several years, I always told Peter that we had to go for a sail on Narragansett Bay. We got together a few times but we never got on the sailboat. I would always forward my columns, because it was a way to keep him connected to his Rhode Island roots. (The last time I saw him was at the Block Island Ferry docks.) When I heard of Peter’s death, I spoke with his brother Jim and offered condolences to the family. I also inquired about Peter’s service. Jim informed me that Peter didn’t want a service, and he had told him that I knew where he wanted his ashes spread. Although we’d never discussed this Peter knew that I would understand, and this summer we’ll finally go for that sail on Narragansett Bay. Finally, we all have people in our lives who have an impact on us, and maybe get us to look at things from a different perspective. I’ll forever be grateful for my next-door friend and mentor.

Godspeed, Peter.