Andy Barta was remembered as a man who always had a smile and a willing helping hand during the 2019 Kewaunee County June Dairy Month Kickoff Breakfast on Thursday (June 6) at the Rendezvous in Luxemburg.
Barta, who died last August at age 35 after a three-year battle with cancer, was honored by the Kewaunee County Dairy Promotion Committee with this year’s Volunteer Recognition & Appreciation Award, presented to his wife, Allison, and two of their four children, Clayton and Chase.
Aerica Bjurstrom, the county’s University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agent, said she’ll always remember the day she met Barta, an agronomist and third-generation general manager and co-owner of the Rio Creek Feed Mill.
“It was a dreary, cold January day, and I remember seeing him getting out of his truck, and he was smiling,” Bjurstrom (pictured) said. “And I thought, ‘I wonder who this guy is, boy, he’s got a big smile on his face … He filled out some paperwork to become a 4-H leader and he was on his way, smiling all the way.”
That brief encounter told her a lot about Andy Barta, she said.
“He greeted every day with a smile,” Bjurstrom said. “Here was this young man of 23, 24 years old, signing up to be a 4-H leader, and that said a lot about him. He had a passion for agriculture – he was always learning and always teaching, and he had a passion for working with kids.”
Although she worked with him on a number of projects, Bjurstrom admitted her fondest memories of Barta were “ordinary days when he had something clever to say about something that couldn’t be all that interesting. He had a real talent for finding the positive and the humor in everything.”
She encouraged people to honor him by “doing what Andy did: Always greet people with a smile, always have time for people, and always make sure they matter. By being that kind of person, we can always keep Andy’s legacy with us.”
Bjurstrom’s voice caught a time or two as she talked about her late friend, but her co-presenter, Randy Ebert – well-known for wearing his heart on his sleeve – had an admittedly tougher time keeping his emotions in check.
He described Barta as a leader as a volunteer, businessman “and most important a family man.”
With the challenging spring of wet weather and a long wait for warm temperatures to settle in for good, Ebert said he thinks about how Barta would encourage “taking a step back” and advocating a philosophical approach, maybe even saying “Let’s have some fun with this.”
Barta gave himself to his community even as he fought his illness, Ebert said, calling him “the best darn parking volunteer I will ever know” as he talked about parking cars at Breakfast on the Farm and other events.
“His last couple parking gigs, his body wasn’t letting him do what he wanted to do,” Ebert said, fighting back tears. “Yet it was his heart that – any lesser person would not have been there with the rest of the Barta family and all the other volunteers getting people in and out. That’s what really makes Andy special.”
Ebert praised Barta’s parents, Jerry and Tammy Barta (”You raised a good one”), his brothers and his wife, Allison, telling their children they can be proud of their father.
“He laid a path for all of us to follow, and follow his leadership in both his values and his volunteerism,” Ebert said.
Allison thanked the audience, which rose for a standing ovation in her husband’s memory, first saying that Andy was the public speaker in the family.
“He absolutely loved where we live and where he grew up,” she said. “He made some great friends through work and through Farm Tech Days; those are lasting relationships that I know he carried with him till his last days.”
She echoed Ebert’s conviction that Andy would be encouraging his friends through the tough farming conditions.
“I think he would want us all this year especially – weather, prices and stuff like that – to just kind of keep on going, because we’re not guaranteed tomorrow and we’re lucky that we wake up every day, and you will get through it,” she said.
Tammy Barta added that a few Sundays ago in church, Andy’s godson started waving toward the ceiling above the altar.
When his mother later asked who he was waving at, the little boy replied, “Uncle Andy, and he’s not in his wheelchair anymore – and he was smiling; he looked really happy, Mom.”