EAST GULL LAKE - A few years before the late John Mariucci died of cancer in 1987 he asked Charlie Bartels to make him one promise.
The Minnesota hockey legend asked Bartels to continue the Mariucci Fiesta held annually to kick off the Confidence Learning Center's Fishing and Golf Classics, which raise funds for the center and its year round programs for people with developmental disabilities. Now called the Sertoma Mariucci Fiesta, it's an opportunity for the anglers and golfers to mingle before the tourneys. The events were held this weekend with the fiesta on Friday night.
And Bartels, a North Long Lake resident and retired speech pathologist, kept his promise. He has been cooking and helping to organize the Sertoma Mariucci Fiesta for the past 37 years since the second year that Mariucci started the fiesta. The fiesta serves more than 700 people at Confidence Learning Center with about 40-50 volunteers who help with the dinner. The fiesta also hosts a silent and live auction. The Brainerd Sertoma Club has taken over the event. Bartels is a charter Sertoma member since about 1968.
Charlie Bartels added toppings to the homemade pizzas for the Sertoma Mariucci Fiesta Friday. Bartels has been involved in organizing the annual fiesta for the past 37 years. He took over the responsibility for the event from the late John Mariucci. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"John Mariucci thought this would be a great opportunity to bring people here to show what the camp does," said Bartels.
Bartels said Mariucci never had a recipe for the large quantity of food they would serve and back in those days the fiesta was a celebrity event, which would draw about 1,300 people. Mariucci's favorite sayings were "Add what it needs" and "Maybe you should double the garlic," said Bartels.
They didn't have a kitchen, ovens or large walk-in refrigerators at Confidence Learning Center as they do now in Mariucci Lodge, so Bartels and the crew would borrow space at various locations throughout Brainerd, including nearby Madden's Resort and the state hospital.
While Bartels enjoyed cooking, he didn't have experience cooking for large crowds until Mariucci took him under his wing. Bartels began collecting large quantity cookware for the event throughout the year from garage sales, auctions, restaurants - anywhere he could get his hands on them. When he took over, Bartels began developing recipes of the food they made, to make it easier for the next year.
Friday's fiesta included 150 pounds of French fried onion rings, 3,000 meatballs, 14 large trays of Focaccia bread, 45 homemade pizzas and 40 pounds of linguini with 20 gallons of red sauce. They also served brownies, courtesy of Cub Foods in Baxter, and fried fish, fried up by Gary Loge. Cub Foods is a major sponsor of the event. Leftover food is frozen and served at Camp Sertoma, a weeklong camp for the deaf and hard of hearing held at Confidence Learning Center.
"It's just fun when you do all this and you see it all come together and everyone enjoys doing it," said Bartels. "You need to have fun when you volunteer."
But like the promise Bartels made to Mariucci back in 1983, that he would make sure this fiesta continued on, he, too, is looking for someone who will give him the same promise.
Four years ago Bartels, 67, was diagnosed with cancer and given a 5 to 15 percent chance of survival. While he's beaten the odds, Bartels is hoping that someone will step up and continue on with Mariucci's legacy. Last year Julie Sullivan fully took over and it was the first time Bartels hadn't worked at the fiesta. Sullivan has since moved to Nebraska.
Even if Bartels were to no longer organize and cook for the fiesta, he plans to continue to volunteer for the rest of his life, however long that may be.
"It's been four years and I'm still here," Bartels said with a smile. "I made a pact with God if I'm still around I'm going to do as much as I can to help other people. It's a blessing to be able to do this. It's bigger than me, it's more important than me. ... I've had the opportunity to have cancer so I could find out what a gift life is and how wonderful people are who pray for you and help you. Cancer's a gift if you live through it."
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.