More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
That popular advertising slogan was squashed a few years before one-time Kenmore Mercy Obstetrician Dr. Jack Bartels started his medical career.
But for the beloved Western New Yorker, an obstetrician at many or all of the area’s hospitals at one time or another, it was Optimo cigars, “very mild,” which he preferred — the cheapest and most pungent in their class.
Bartels died in 2007 and his son, Matthew Bartels, M.D., of Williamsville, has published a book about his father, a man he said was “a study in contradictions.” As the title of the memoir also makes clear, he was so much “More Than Just Cheap Cigars: The life and times of my one-of-a-kind father, a stogy smoking, gruff talking obstetrician.”
“It wasn’t intended to be published but it just kind of evolved into that,” Matt Bartels said Thursday, adding he wrote it after his father’s death, at first so that his immediate family could better understand the man he said was something like Archie Bunker for much of his life.
And there’s reason to believe many readers, both fellow members of “The Greatest Generation” Bartels belonged to and any of the 6,500 babies he delivered in a career spanning about 40 years in and around the Buffalo area, should want to hear his story as well.
“After he died I realized I didn’t know him as well as I wanted to,” he said. “What really motivated me to start writing is I didn’t feel like it was over — I wanted to put his story together so my children and grandchildren would know who he was.”
Many of the deliveries took place at Kenmore Mercy and Sisters Hospital, meaning there’s a good chance you or someone you know were one of them.
Kenmore no longer delivers babies, Bartels said, but decades ago, through interviews with those who knew Jack, a very different story emerged.
“The nurses told me he would walk in to deliver a baby with this cigar in his mouth and actually have to set it down when he was delivering the babies,” he said laughing. “You can’t get away with that kind of stuff now.”
But as promised, there was also another side to him.
“I was mad at him about eight years ago and I wrote this paper called “My Dad is Archie Bunker,” he said. “But he was really a deep thinker — his approach was always a little rough around the edges — he had a deep love of his wife and family and he was really dedicated to his patients. He took their losses to heart and he took the care of them very seriously.”
One of his father’s famous proclaimations (in addition to “be confident” and “listen to your mother or I’ll get the belt”) was that he didn’t care what profession his children took up as long as they were the best at it.
As a young man, he had been in the Navy toward the end of World War II. He and five brothers, who grew up in Buffalo, had served in the war. Around that time a young Jack Bartels took an aptitude test. The results told him he was cut out to be a factory worker.
“It not only (ticked) him off but it motivated him to become a physician,” Matt said.
There must have been something infectious about that mindset. Matt is one of seven children, four of whom are now practicing physicians. Matt is a pediatrician and medical director for Univera in Williamsville.
“What was interesting is that the love he showed for his patients was really reciprocated. He never talked about it but some of his patients did,” he said.
Then there were the journals and “ridiculously romantic” love letters he found his father had written to his mother.
In the latter third of the book, Bartels confronts his father’s slow decline in health. He had suffered a stroke and had other maladies. For a family of doctors, it was a unique and humbling experience.
“We weren’t in control and it was frustrating,” he recalled. “I think it was humbling for us as a family to be in that position.”
Through the dying process, he wrote, his father was forced to let down his defenses. In the process, he revealed a greater depth of character than he had been aware of.
Bartels said toward the end, his father was working to decide the difficult questions on things like spirituality and the choices he’d made throughout his life.
“I could see that he was just like the rest of us. He was a smart enough guy to know that he needed to keep looking,” he said.
Bartels said about half-way through the book he began in 2008, he realized the dogmatic nature of his father was also relevant to an entire generation.
He defined such attributes as reliability, strength of character and consistency.
“Intentionally or not, he showed me and others that his pride and gruffness were shields of armor, meant to protect him from the vulnerability that is so often felt when we open ourselves up ... It’s nice to pay homage to those people who really worked their tails off, sometimes to a fault ... I think the important thing about my dad is you can’t sum him up in one word. The tragedy and triumph of his life, how that affected him — his dedication to his family and wife really never faded.”
Many similar vignettes on the book are included at its Web site, www.morethanjustcheapcigars.com, where links to purchasing a copy can also be found.
The book is self published, and sold on a print-on-demand basis. In addition to online sales, it can also be found at Barnes&Noble; in Amherst and Clarence, he said. Copies have been flying out the door also at the gift shop inside Sisters Hospital, he said.
Paperbacks sell for $12; hardcover: $17.
Proceeds from all book sales will be forwarded to the Buffalo Diocese, where the money will be used to help pregnant women in need.
Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 114.
More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
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