HANCOCK - Whether it's memories from former students or the school he worked so long to build, Gordon Barkell will have a lasting impact in the Copper Country.
Barkell, 83, best known as the former superintendent of Hancock Public Schools, died Friday of a heart attack in Hancock.
He first joined the district as a science and physical education teacher in 1954 after three years of teaching in Muskegon. He was promoted to assistant superintendent in 1960 and became superintendent four years later, a post he held until retiring in 1990.
His wife, Ruth Barkell, said Gordon will be remembered for all he did for the students.
"All the students that come up to me in the aisles in the stores say, 'He helped me so much,'" she said. "He loved to care, he loved being with people, he loved to volunteer. ... He was a wonderful Christian, very much a churchgoer, helped whenever he could. When he had a heart attack, he was on the way to the gym with donuts for the guys. He was always doing something nice for somebody."
Barkell was heavily involved in the building of a new elementary school building, a 19-year process that culminated in its construction in 1989. The building was renamed for him in 2004.
In a Gazette article that year on the renaming of the school, Barkell called that building project his proudest moment as an administrator.
"So many people came together to make it all possible - the various committees that acted on behalf of the district - pulling it all together," he said.
John Vaara had known Barkell since he started teaching in the Copper Country in the early '70s, and worked under him as Hancock Central High School principal for four years. It was an honor working under him, Vaara said.
"He was the kind of guy that whenever you had a question you could go to him. ... He had either lived it or he knew how to handle it," he said. "He had an incredible ability to review a situation and come up with a solution. Of course, his solutions were always good."
Copper Country Intermediate School District Superintendent Dennis Harbour was another young administrator who considered Barkell a mentor.
"He was the go-to guy that really was knowledgeable ... he was involved in (Michigan Association of School Administrators) as the president of that organization, he was highly thought of around the state, and of course highly thought of locally."
Even when times were tight financially, Vaara said, Barkell's first consideration was students.
"Whenever possible, he erred on the side of helping kids," he said. "That's certainly an admirable characteristic for any educator to have."
After retiring, Barkell taught for five years in Michigan Technological University's student teaching program and briefly at Finlandia University, as well as briefly serving as interim city manager for Hancock. He continued serving on a number of boards, including the Hancock Public Schools Foundation.
"You're going to be sitting back and saying 'What would Gordon do?' in situations, because he was such a person in commanding and making good decisions," Hancock Public Schools Foundation member Dave Dow said.
Barkell grew up in Lake Linden, graduating from Lake Linden-Hubbell Schools in 1947. Although he attended school with his future wife, Ruth, they didn't really know each other until they started dating after graduation. They would marry four years later.
"I thought he was wonderful," she said of her first impressions of him. "He was a very gentle, caring person, very compassionate. and he really loved his sports at the time. and he got to love other things after that."
They went on to have four children. After their son died in a plane accident in a plane crash in 1979, the couple founded Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who had lost a child.
"It was very good to know we were able to help people who were in need, just like we were," she said.
"He had so many nice traits," she said. "And he was always there to help in any time of need. And he made a wonderful father and grandfather and husband. I just can't say enough good things about him."
After finding out about his heart condition, Barkell decided he would no have surgery, Ruth Barkell said. Instead, she said, he made the most of his remaining days, staying cheerful even on the morning of his last day.
"He kept sitting on the wall and saying, 'It's a beautiful day,'" she said. "He lived every day to the fullest."
Funeral services for Barkell will be held 11 a.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Hancock. There will also be a visitation service Thursday at the Gordon G. Barkell Elementary School from 4 to 8 p.m., and also for an hour before services on Friday.