The Sandpointer as a Writer

Journalist Frank Bartel leaps a literary boundary with new novel

By Marianne Love

Business journalist Frank Bartel has taken a giant leap from writing about his usual world of investments, mergers and economics. His first novel, World That Never Was, hit bookstores in September.

The 304-page book tells an intriguing story centered on the return of an American prisoner of war who refused to be repatriated. It is a story of politics, murder and intrigue, and an exploration into the clash between generations. The book also adds another achievement to the resume of a man whose disciplined talent coupled with the encouragement of a local English teacher rescued him from a course of aimless meandering.

And you could say it all started in Sandpoint, for Bartel spent his high school years here. He came to North Idaho from Kalispell, Mont., after family troubles caused him to be "parceled out" to a relative in the early 1950s. He made good friends while attending Sandpoint High and playing halfback on legendary coach Cotton Barlow's football team behind Bulldog stand-out Leonard Plaster. Bartel and his girlfriend Velma Warren (now Wescott) reigned as homecoming king and queen. At graduation time in 1953, when classmates accepted their signed diplomas, Bartel received a blank certificate.

"I think I ranked at the bottom of the class," the 63-year-old newsman said in an interview shortly before the release of his novel. But Bartel's time in Sandpoint contrasts sharply from the fictional environment of corruption and intrigue that he's created in his first novel.

"To me Sandpoint was the perfect place to be a teenager in the perfect decade of the golden '50s ... when everything was right with America," he said. When he wasn't working as a delivery and stock boy at the Frances Jay Market, Bartel played football, chased girls and fought fair.

"It was like it was out of that movie version of the golden oldies," he said. "We didn't know prejudice; we were too ignorant. Squeak Evans' mother ran the Teen Canteen where we played pool, drank pop and danced. And if a guy said something wrong about a girl, you duked him out ­ ask Leonard. We got into it once. I got lucky and shoved Leonard up against a steam pipe." Plaster seldom lost a fight.

He credits Mary Parker's English class with setting him on a positive course. Parker recognized a talent after reading one of his essays. "I was so excited with her praise that I decided I was going to be a journalist," he says. "I became proud of my writing and took it seriously."

Attending Idaho State College on probation, he ditched classes and partied almost a year before contracting a mild case of polio. Spending nearly a month in a hospital and checking out almost 50 pounds lighter, he joined the Air Force to grow up. It was Korean War time, but Bartel wound up on Alaska's Fire Island as a radar specialist. He spent the next 18 months on the island reading every difficult or classic book available. After his tour of duty, and by then married, he returned to ISC and earned a 4.0. Transferring to the University of Wisconsin ­ Madison, he earned a degree in journalism.

Since then, the father of five has worked as a newspaperman in Butte, Mont., Spokane and in Portland for the Oregonian. Now as associate editor for the Spokane Spokesman-Review business section, his column for retirees appears every Sunday, while his "Notes" column runs Wednesdays.

For the past 15 years, however, he's been journalist by day and fiction writer by night.

While creating World That Never Was, Bartel prepared mentally for marathon sessions at the typewriter by listening to music for long stretches on Friday evenings.

"I had to relax and try to escape from the world of the job, the married man, father of five," he explained. "By about 2 a.m. on Saturday I could get into writing this novel. ... I'd write for maybe 15 hours at a shot."

Bartel wants to write two or three more books. "I have some ideas" he said. ·

World That Never Was (Aegina Press, $10) is available in area bookstores.

Marianne Love taught at Sandpoint High for years, but recently embarked on the ne'er-do-well life of the freelance writer. She's author of two books, Pocket Girdles and Postcards From Potato(e) Land. Check out her web site to learn more.

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