A ‘tremendous contribution’ to Vero
STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of September 22, 2011)
Photo: Barbara and Dick Stark
Along the broad river view out the picture window from the lanai of Dick Stark’s John’s Island home, a fresh new American flag flies at half-staff.
Stark replaced it just in time for double duty last week, as he mourned his late wife Barbara, and was visited unexpectedly by the firefighter who rescued him from Ground Zero.
“It will fly at half-staff until she’s buried,” he announced to a gathering of family and friends who welcomed firefighter Angel Rivera on Saturday afternoon. “I don’t know what the tradition’s supposed to be, but that’s my tradition now.”
Five days earlier, a decade and a day after her husband eluded death on 9/11, Barbara Stark succumbed, her decline precipitated by a stroke on the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Center collapse.
The Starks had just returned to their New York hotel room after a dinner honoring his rescuers, when the stroke hit. She eventually recovered her faculties, but her strength was permanently diminished.
In ensuing years, Stark committed himself to caring for his wife, making appearances at charity events and social functions whenever possible according to her level of strength.
It was a far cry from the Barbara Stark who helped shape some of Vero’s most celebrated institutions.
Highly intelligent and assertive, she was part of a close-knit group of 10 articulate, well-educated, well-read and often politically involved women from the upscale enclave of Garden City, N.Y., who settled in Vero Beach when their husbands retired. Many were avid bridge players – Barbara Stark eventually became a life grand master.
Their names filled the local paper in their day: Cartnick, Schenkel, Stuart, Mitchell, Adams, Smith, Dennis, Condit, among others.
Elizabeth Schenkel was the first woman graduate of New York Law School. Marie Cartnick graduated from Radcliffe with honors. Barbara Stark graduated Phi Beta Kappa from DePauw University, editor of the college newspaper.
They all shopped at Frances Brewster and Harold Grant on Ocean Drive, and all got their hair done by Bea at the Flamingo downtown, where the Asian restaurant Kata is today. When they all joined forces for a cause, there was no stopping them.
From McKee Botanical Garden to the museum to various musical causes, they rallied to create in Vero what they missed of Garden City – one of the husbands bought hundreds of records just before moving here, afraid of not having access to classical music.
All were proud of their long, traditional marriages.
“Divorce was not part of our group,” says Dick Stark. The men married their equals, and the women set their sights high.
“They zeroed in on us for sure,” says Dick Stark. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten to first base with any of them.”
Secure in retirement both emotionally and financially, the women went straight to work creating a cultural backdrop to their lives here.
In particular, Barbara Stark was active in the earliest incarnation of the Vero Beach Museum of Art, at one point chairing its Community Committee. For many years, the couple sponsored the Beaux Arts Ball fund-raiser.
“Barbara Stark was one of the most gracious and generous women I have had the good fortune to know in my life,” said Lucinda Gedeon, director of the museum. “Her contribution to the cultural life in Vero Beach was tremendous, not just to the museum but to the theater and beyond.”
At the same time, Barbara Stark did not hesitate to support less glamorous causes, homelessness, grief counseling and family planning among them. One year, Dick and Barbara Stark were king and queen of a Mardi Gras-themed benefit for Planned Parenthood at Oak Harbor.
A precocious student, Barbara Jones had graduated from college at age 20, a year behind Dick Stark, her childhood sweetheart.
Dick Stark went to Harvard Business School, served in the Navy, then went to law school and was hired by a prominent Wall Street firm. Barbara Stark eventually earned a master’s degree in counseling.
While she did not practice professionally, she used her psychological training in the rearing of her five children.
“She was expert at using reverse psychology to get us to do whatever she wanted,” recalls Dr. Barbara Baxter, the Starks’ youngest daughter and an allergist living in Texas. “We were in constant danger of being psyched out.”
Baxter said her mother always taught her daughters that they could do anything they wanted. She supported women’s rights, particularly in higher education, and worked with the American Association of University Women.
At the same time, the stylish woman Dick Stark calls “gorgeous” accepted the role of stay-at-home mom with relish. “In her generation, women aspired to be wives and mothers more than anything else, and that’s what she wanted. But she wanted to be well-educated,” said her daughter.
Indeed, Barbara Stark’s own father, Frederick Irving Jones, had provided for her higher education, taking out an insurance policy for that express purpose.
Married to a “Southern belle” from a Georgia newspaper family, Stark says, Jones started what would eventually become a nationwide bus company, but died when Barbara, born in 1923, was only a toddler.
By the time her own children were grown, the couple had found affluence. Fifteen years before Dick Stark retired, they bought a home in tiny celebrity-studded Centre Island along Long Island’s North Shore, dividing time between there and Vero, where they bought a home in the Moorings in 1978. They moved to John’s Island in 1982 and retired here permanently in 1990.
Stark continued to work with various clients in Manhattan. As late as 9/11, when he was 80 years old, he was dressing for a business meeting when he noticed burning papers floating past his window at the World Trade Center Marriott.
Hijacked planes had hit the towers adjacent to his hotel; Stark, hard of hearing, had not heard the evacuation alarm. Turning on his television, realizing the disaster unfolding around him, he called downstairs for a bellboy. They were headed down a stairwell at the fourth-floor level when Tower Two collapsed, essentially imploding the 22-story Marriott along with it.
Rescued by Angel Rivera, he was led across two steel beams to safety, and escorted by police to ferry to New Jersey. There, alone, badly scraped, covered in toxic dust and concerned for a heart condition, he walked, rested, and walked some more – he felt it was five miles – until he finally found a pay phone to call Barbara back home.
It was around midday. Marie Cartnick was sitting with Barbara at the request of family, who wanted someone there should Barbara Stark get word of Dick’s death.
The Cartnicks were close: Cartnick’s husband, Ned, had delivered three of the Stark children in Garden City.
To the family’s surprise, Barbara Stark was resolute about starting dinner for Dick.
Though she had not heard a word of his status, she stayed calm and confident.
“We were afraid he was dead,” said daughter Barbara.
As Barbara Stark later told Dick, she had gotten a strong, clear intuition that he was still alive and coming home. “It was an extra-sensory experience, I suppose,” he said.
Despite his own recent health problems, hospitalized with congestive heart failure and pneumonia, Dick Stark had lunch and dinner with his wife every day for 30 days prior to her death. The deluge of the 9/11 remembrances had drained him, but on Sept. 12, he visited as usual, guiding his wife in a wheelchair to the dining room, where she had a chocolate sundae.
Sensing her fatigue, he left her in the care of a nurse to put her in bed for a nap. “We kissed and told each other ‘I love you.’”
At 4:15 p.m., the nurse called to say she had passed away.
Stark’s health is not good. He says he is in a permanent state of dizziness. He needs surgery on an obstruction in his ear, and walks with a cane from neuropathy.
Angel Rivera is still traumatized by the memories of 9/11 and guilt-ridden over the loss of his trainee, Angel Juarbe, whom he had sent upstairs for a rope to help Stark. Juarbe’s body was found months later.
Rivera has never returned to the site. While he keeps a home in New York, he spends much of his time in Fort Lauderdale.
Rivera will return for Barbara Stark’s service Saturday at 2 p.m. at Community Church. His visit last week was by mistake – he had come expecting the service that day.
Nevertheless, it gave Dick Stark a chance to reflect, with even more emotion, on the fortuitous moment when Rivera and Juarbe spied him through the dust in the blown-out stairwell.
“You saved me so I could take care of Barbara,” Stark told Rivera with finality.