Late councilman was a beloved family man, city leader

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published May 23, 2015


UTICA — Utica Mayor Pro Tem Russell Barthelmeh had a presence that was hard to miss, with his deep, booming voice and bushy gray mustache, and those who knew him said he did his best to represent the people of the city he had called home since 1973.

Barthelmeh died at the age of 70 on May 6 after a battle with adrenal cancer.

Barthelmeh’s son, Paul, recalled his father as the ultimate family man who always told Paul and his wife, Cathy, that they were his life and he would do anything for them and his grandsons, Gavin, 7, and Landon, 5.

Paul said his father enjoyed spending time outdoors, fishing, hunting and hanging out with his family at the family’s cottage on Secord Lake, near Gladwin. He said his father was always sitting on the front porch waiting for them when they arrived.

After retiring as an executive at Ford Motor Co., his father decided to get his feet wet in politics because he did not always agree with the mayor, Paul said.

Russell Barthelmeh served on the Utica City Council from January 1995-2001. He was re-elected in 2005 and served until his death. He was appointed mayor pro tem in 2006 and served until his death.

“After he took on that role, he kept saying to me that people kept voting for him, so he must be doing something right. He put the city ahead of himself, even if it was good for some but not good for all,” Paul said. “He would take the other side and make sure everybody had a fair share.”

Paul said his father was popular with the city’s fire and police personnel, and his father’s funeral at Wm. Sullivan & Son Funeral Directors in Utica was well-attended by public servants. He said many firefighters appeared in full uniform, and police officers in their patrol vehicles escorted the procession to the cemetery.

“The house (on Custer Avenue in Utica) was the only house I grew up in,” Paul said. “(My dad) was always a Utica man, even when he was still working.”

Paul said his father always made sure to attend Paul’s sports games while Paul was a student at Utica High School. His father would go to work around 5:30 a.m. to make sure he could get out by 3:30 p.m.

“He was always a huge supporter, whether it was financially or someone to talk to. He was a good shoulder to lean on — that’s what everyone said,” Paul said. “I’m OK with the fact that he’s not in pain anymore, but I’m going to miss him.”

His father was incredibly organized, Paul said, and he kept a binder that contained his will, which verses and songs he wanted at his funeral, and instructions about what to do if something happened to him, such as canceling credit cards.

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan said Russell Barthelmeh was generous with his time and attended most of the city’s major downtown events, including the Old Mill Arts and Crafts Show and the Riverwalk Festival.

“He prepared for meetings well, and he talked to department heads and visited all the different departments at one time or another and, in general, was an extremely intelligent and, thankfully, a well-informed council person,” Noonan said. “I felt that he researched items and looked into things very carefully. He was thoughtful and had strong opinions, but was always reasonable and wanted to serve the public well.”

She said Russell Barthelmeh had experienced tragedy — she said he lost his son, Russell, Jr., 19 years ago, and his wife, June, had developed dementia in her 60s.

Paul said his father faithfully visited June in the nursing home in which she resided for the last four and a half years. In his father’s final days, Paul said, Russell and June had a similar experience to the couple in the movie “The Notebook.”

“The last week of his life, he was with his wife (in the same nursing home),” Paul said. “He got to spend time with the woman he was married to for 45 years. The nurses heard him (telling her he loved her.)”