Ocean County Freeholder Bartlett Remembered

Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

PINE BEACH – The church at the corner of Hillsdale and Huntington avenues started out as a summer church for summer people, pastored by the Philadelphia minister who, among others, felt this tiny then-section of Berkeley Township needed its own house of worship. By the time the Bartlett family moved from Lakewood to Pine Beach in the 1940s, the Pine Beach Chapel had had a full-time, unpaid local pastor. Protestants and Catholics alike would worship there.

For just over a year now, Rev. Glenn Ferguson has pastored this nondenominational congregation. He knew John C. Bartlett Jr. only a little, being his pastor for such a short time. Ferguson and several other church members were able to dig up some tidbits about the Freeholder’s relationship with the Chapel between a Thursday morning phone call and Friday evening deadline. As a child, Bartlett was part of Boy Scout Troop 31, which met in the Sunday School room in the Chapel. He was part of the Chapel’s annual Christmas pageant. He attended school in the chapel before Pine Beach Elementary School was built. And as a young man, even when he couldn’t faithfully attend services due to being away at school and other commitments, he faithfully supported the Chapel.

Freeholder John C. Bartlett (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

There’s a Victorian Era superstition that says if it rains at a funeral, the deceased will go to heaven. Although he may or may not have commented on the soundness of such doctrine, one can imagine Bartlett saying something along the lines of, ‘It rains because there are rainclouds. There happens to be a funeral.’

The morning’s drizzle turned steadier, heavier that gray Saturday, Dec. 15, where dark-clad mourners gathered to celebrate the life of John C. Bartlett Jr. at the Chapel. Sheriff Michael Mastronardy stood on the church steps, and offered handshake to those who greeted him. Inside, the rich wood-paneled walls inside were adorned with red-ribbon evergreen wreaths, the light reflecting off the panels, giving a warm glow. A white lighted Christmas tree topped with an angel stood up front where a faux-wood plastic room divider, pushed as open as possible, separates the main sanctuary from the Sunday School room. A nativity, donated by the Bartlett family at the passing of matriarch Helen in 2009, sits on the other side at the front. The hushed chatter of the packed sanctuary is background noise to the hymns coming from the organ. The only seats open a little before 10 a.m. are metal folding chairs in the Sunday School room.

Freeholder-elect Gary Quinn was seated in what would later be revealed to be the Bartlett family pew, the very last pew on the right side of the church. Other officials were scattered amongst the mourners.

Ferguson was seated in a single wooden chair just inside the Sunday School room. It was almost 10 a.m., and time to don his black clergy cloak. He did, but a recent surgery made putting the stole around his neck difficult. Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer, seated nearby, stood and arranged the stole around Ferguson’s neck.

It was time.

“I hope nobody here knows the fire marshal,” Ferguson quipped.

From the Gospel of John. Jesus said… “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Bartlett hand-picked the hymns that would be sung at his funeral, Ferguson said. The first, the Reformation anthem penned by German theologian Martin Luther in 1529 and based on Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Freeholder John Bartlett (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

  Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.

The second, written in a basement in Pittman, New Jersey in 1912: “In The Garden.”

  I’d stay in the garden with Him, Tho’ the night around me be falling. But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.

And the last, its words written in 1820 by Anglican priest Henry Francis Lyte based on Luke 24:29 and sung to William Henry Monk’s tune “Eventide,” “Abide With Me.”

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee, In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

It was John C. Bartlett III, known as Jay, who eulogized his father. It was the third eulogy he’d ever given, and his third inside the Pine Beach Chapel: his first, for grandmother Helen, 84, in 2009; his second, for his grandfather John C. “Doc” Bartlett Sr., 97, who died two days before his son John’s birthday in 2017; and now for his own father, 71.

“My father would have been awed by the great turn-out in this chapel.”

  The Politician

Jay Bartlett described his father as a Goldwater conservative when being a hippie was more the style, and an early fan of Ronald Regan. As a graduate student, he would continue lecturing his own students, refusing to dismiss them, through the pulled fire alarm and other disruptions that erupted on college campuses in the late 60s and early 70s.

This made him not super popular with his students.

But Bartlett knew from a young age he wanted to have a political career. Jay said his father’s senior yearbook listed “politics” as an ambition. John Bartlett Jr. and his wife Peggy settled in Pine Beach in the early 1970s at their Motor Road home – a home and yard he would work on with his own hands, a great source of pride – and he quickly entered the political scene. He was elected to borough council in 1974 and mayor in 1978. In 1979, at the age of 32, he would embark on his nearly 40-year career as an Ocean County Freeholder, the longest serving freeholder in the entire state.

“One of my earliest memories was holding a microphone at the Beachwood Republican picnic, and telling the assembled crowd to vote for my daddy because he wanted liberty, and justice, for all,” Jay said.

Joseph Buckelew was the Ocean County Republican Party Chairman when John Bartlett interviewed for consideration to run as county freeholder. Bartlett was part of Buckelew’s “youth movement,” and distinguished himself immediately, though he was an unknown at the time.

Freeholder John Bartlett, Mayor Ken Palmer, and Councilman Craig Wallis present a map of the new park. (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

“I interviewed him and his wife, and that’s another part of the story, his wife has been with John all the way. We got two for one. Peg was a great person in her own right,” Buckelew said in a phone interview. “John was kind of unknown, but he had a great capacity when I met him. He was elected hands down, and from that day on, we got the best you could possibly find.”

Buckelew called John Bartlett’s death a “tragic loss” to the Bartlett family and people of Ocean County, for whom he always showed concern, especially with taxpayer money.

“He never aspired to higher office. He was very fond of saying a Freehold represented the last level of government where elected officials could actually get things done for people. And get things done he did,” Jay Bartlett said. The county’s bond rating maintained its AAA rating, even post-Sandy, a feat only nine percent of all municipal bonds in the entire country possess. Even the United States government hasn’t achieved that highest rating.

“John was epitome of what you should do in public office. Never once, there was never one any question about his integrity. His only interest was that of people that he served,” Buckelew said.

On Dec. 12, the day John Bartlett died, Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little sent out a statement on behalf of himself and the other freeholders, Joe Vicari, John Kelly and Virginia Haines.

“There are few areas of Ocean County that have not been impacted by Freeholder Bartlett’s work. For 39 years, he has served as a steward of our environment, the architect of the County budget, a champion of Ocean County College and a man truly dedicated to public service,” Little said. “John’s passing is a profound and deep loss for all of us on the Board of Freeholders. While he was the longest serving Freeholder in the state of New Jersey, we all had the privilege to call him our longest-serving friend. Saying goodbye is difficult for all of us.”

John Bartlett’s first county park, Berkeley Island County Park, was renamed for him and a ceremony held on Oct. 31. Bartlett, with the assistance of a cane, was able to attend that brief ceremony.

“He also had a great voice for public speaking. He did talk a lot publicly. I guess it was the nature of his job. But early in our lives, my sister and I realized that he sounded way, way different from behind the microphone than he did when he was otherwise talking at home. We called it ‘his Freeholder voice.’ I can’t quite describe it other than it was this bigger, deeper, kind of more serious voice than we would otherwise hear every day,” Jay Bartlett said.

Freeholder John Bartlett, with the assistance of Freeholder Director Gerry Little, shows where the donated land in Ocean Township is located. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

That “Freeholder Voice” seemed to kick in wherever there was a microphone. The Roy Rogers in town, where the long-defunct Burger Chef used to sit, had a microphone at its drive-thru window. Jay remembered one day his father, whether consciously or not, put on his “Freeholder Voice” at the drive-thru window and ordered three Burger Chef sandwiches – at Roy Rogers.

  The Educator

John Bartlett Jr. started his public education career as a student in the Pine Beach Chapel, before there was a Pine Beach Elementary School. He graduated from Toms River High School in 1965 and attended college in the South for one year before returning to Ocean County, where he graduated from the inaugural class of Ocean County College. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Western Maryland College and at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the State University of New York at Albany, where he earned his master’s degree in political science. He was one of the only conservatives on the teaching faculty at Albany.

He taught at Toms River High School North and was a political science professor at Ocean County College.

“Freeholder Bartlett had been an unwavering supporter of Ocean County College, ensuring that OCC was always able to offer quality education at an affordable cost. No matter the circumstances, Freeholder Bartlett staunchly protected the well-being of the College and its students, not only through aid to its operating budget but also by assisting the College with capital programs. He was a champion of the Kean-Ocean program and had a strong hand in the funding to construct the Gateway Building, jointly owned by OCC and Kean University,” OCC President Dr. Jon H. Larson said in a press release. John Bartlett served as Freeholder Liaison to Ocean County College. “John Bartlett was for so long linked to Ocean County College. He will be missed.”

In 2009, the John C. Bartlett Jr. Hall – a 32,000-square-foot building comprising 17 multipurpose classrooms, along with offices and lounges – was named.

But it was John Bartlett’s love of history that his son Jay focused on. One of his father’s favorite assignments was to have students interview a World War II veteran, whether a grandparent, family friend, or stranger sitting on an Ocean County Mall bench.

“Dad knew these people wouldn’t be around forever, and he wanted to be sure the students could hear their stories, understand their struggles in the war, and hopefully gain a greater understanding of the Greatest Generation,” Jay Bartlett said.

Freeholder John Bartlett addresses the crowd for the reopening of Berkeley Island County Park. (Photo by Jennifer Peacock)

  The Historian

When he became too ill to do it himself, John Bartlett Jr. tasked fellow Freeholder Virginia Haines to present Ocean County municipalities with World War I service flags, not only commemorating the centennial but recognizing those who fought in the Great War. There were 28 municipalities in Ocean County at the time of the Great War. The Board of Chosen Freeholders tasked The Seaport Stitchers Quilt Guild of Tuckerton with creating commemorative service flags for each municipality.

“He himself was a constant student of history. For the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, he decided to read 100 history books about the Great War and had arranged for the centennial celebration of the United States’ entry into the war at the county courthouse in April of last year. He summed up his reverence of history at that event, when he said, ‘It is only appropriate that we should always remember what we have here today, that we didn’t invent it. That those who came before us sacrificed their time, their talents, and in many cases their lives to give us what we have,’ ” his son said.

  John, Dad, Papa

John Bartlett was born on Jan. 28, 1947, to John C. and Helen Bartlett. The couple had met in Lakehurst, lived in Lakewood, and settled in Pine Beach, where their children John Jr., Van, and Nancy grew up.

Bartlett spent his summers as most children did back then, outdoors, swimming.

He met Peggy while teaching in Albany. They too settled in Pine Beach, and had two children, John III and Meg.

As a teacher, John Bartlett still had summers off, which he spent with Jay and Meg, visiting historical sites around the state or sitting atop the Ferris wheel at the Ocean County Fair, peering across the Pine Barrens and able to see Hangar One at the Lakehurst Naval Base in Manchester, where John Sr. and Helen first met.

John had a beautiful singing voice, and with Doc on guitar and Van on piano, would sing when the family got together. He loved to sing the hymns that he chose to have sung at his funeral.

Jay Bartlett’s eulogy lasted about 20 minutes. There were no huge revelations, except maybe this, though probably not: what you saw is what you got. John C. Bartlett Jr. was in public who was in private.

“My son and I are also both proud to be named after my father, and after his father. My father’s name will live on not only in the park and the building named after him, but through me, and his grandson, and possibly for more generations to come, but I guess that’s up to his beloved grandson Jack.”

His four grandchildren – Jack, Julia, Elias and Katherine – were the “light of his life.” The four live less than two miles from each other in Middletown, with Jack and Julia living across the street from a duck pond. Their grandfather bought special food, just for ducks, that he kept in a coffee tin in the trunk of his car. John and Peggy bought a home to be near their children and grandchildren, and John would often make the ride from Pine Beach to Middletown to see his grandkids. He would take all four to the pond to feed the ducks, and then explore the nearby woods with them.

“My father told us he had few regrets about dying, other than one: that he wouldn’t live to see his beloved grandchildren grow older. He recently called them the light of his life. …He really did hope he would have had more time with them,” Jay Bartlett said. “When they were born, he figured he’d have 10 good years with his grandchildren. His own father lived to be 97 and died just 2 years ago, so 10 years certainly seemed possible. However, as it turned out, Dad got less than that. But he certainly made the most of the years he had with is grandchildren.”

John C. Bartlett Jr. (Photo by Patricia A. Miller)

He planted seedlings from a Southern Magnolia tree in his children’s yards. The fast-growing trees would be there long after he wasn’t, to remind his grandchildren of him, Jay said. The tree in his yard is already stands above seven feet, and Jack remembers watering the sapling with his Papa.

John Bartlett had been battling cancer for several years. When it returned and was diagnosed this past summer, he knew he had to step down from his reelection bid with running mate Little. Gary Quinn, Lacey Committeeman, would take his place on the ballot. John Bartlett focused on other things.

“When my father realized his end was near, he made it his priority to get all of his remaining projects in his house completed, so that he could have the peace of mind that he was leaving the house to my mom in very good working order,” Jay said. On the Sunday before he died, his father asked him if he would take care of his mother. Yes, Jay said, although Peggy is the strongest person any of them know, and can take care of herself. She is the one who took care of all of them. She never left her husband’s side, making all his doctor’s appointments, ensuring he took pills, sleeping next to him at the hospital, staying with him in their Motor Road home until his last breath around 7:30 a.m. Dec. 12.

When she learned that her father would be giving the eulogy, six-year-old Julia Bartlett, whose favorite memory of her grandfather was jumping on him, also wanted to say a few words. Her father read them for her.

“‘Those who knew my Papa know he was a very good Papa. Thank you for coming to those who did know Papa. Some of my friends, my Papa didn’t know them, but they should have met him. Everyone knows we all miss him. And thank you Papa, for all the fun we had with you. I love you Papa.’ Julia, thank you for writing that.”

John C. Bartlett Jr. is survived by his wife, Peggy; son John III and his wife Shannon and their children John IV and Julia; daughter Meg Bartlett and her husband Zach Hosseini and their children Elias and Katherine; brother Van Bartlett; and sister Nancy Keczkemethy.

“He reflected on his life in the very matter-of-fact way in which he lived it. He was 71, and he told me that 71 is not old, but it’s also not young. I’ve gotten to do a lot of very good things in my life. A lot of things to be proud of. I’ve lived a full life,’” Jay Bartlett said.