Former President & CEO of the Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce, Jerry Bartels, passed away at 91 years old on May 8, 2023, at Tranquility Hospice, in Marietta, Ga. It was a high honor for me to have been asked to give the Eulogy on his business career at a Celebration of Life held for him on May 26, 2023, at the Capital City Club in downtown Atlanta.
I had the privilege of working for Jerry Bartels three times in my 40-year chamber of commerce career, which includes the Greenville, S.C., Chamber, the Atlanta Chamber, and finally, the Fremont Development Group.
Personally, my connection to Jerry goes back to 1969. As I was finishing graduate school at the University of Georgia, Jerry hired me for the seven months that I needed a job to bridge me to my active-duty date with the U.S. Army. While in college, I had already worked for two chambers on a temporary basis, which helped me get the job with Jerry.
Eighteen years later, I was the Chamber CEO in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I saw Jerry at a chamber event in New Orleans. He told me his number two position — executive vice president — at the Atlanta Chamber was open and asked if I would be interested. Even though I had been a Chamber CEO three times at this stage in my career, I jumped at this opportunity for several reasons.
I recognized Jerry as being the best in the business, and I felt that my seven months with him way back in Greenville was just not enough exposure for me to his experiences. Also, Atlanta was on a roll. The National Democratic Convention was coming to town along with 15,000 journalists, a new downtown 50+ story skyline was in the making, and Atlanta had just won the U.S. designation to bid internationally for the 1996 Summer Olympics, etc.
Jerry’s first job was with a chamber consulting firm called Harry Cruze in 1955. His last job was his own consulting firm, Fremont Development, which he owned, as partners, with Neil Mabry, a fellow chamber associate going back to 1969.
Jerry managed chambers in Macon, GA, Greenville, SC, and Jacksonville, FL, during his career. However, he reached the pinnacle of success in this business when he managed the Atlanta Metro Chamber for 14 years (1983-1996) and retired in style, having closed out a very successful 1996 Summer Olympics!
In 1988, the team of Billy Payne and Mayor Andrew Young was focused on bidding for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The campaign needed a financial boost at two critical points that year. One was the creation of a color sales booklet at a cost of $50,000, which was needed to present to the U.S. Olympic Committee as a final sales pitch to be designated the U.S. city to go on to international competition.
When Atlanta won that contest, the next challenge was early funding for the international sales campaign. I was in Jerry’s office when Billy Payne requested $125,000 from Jerry to use ASAP in Seoul, Korea, where the International Olympic Committee’s 90 IOC members were going to be attending the 1988 Summer Olympics. Jerry, using the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s “Forward Atlanta” marketing funds to meet these needs, provided Billy Payne with the funds for both projects, thereby providing that early critical boost for the competition.
Billy had created an impressive strategy, and he gave Jerry a list of about ten things that he needed the $125,000 for. The plans called for renting a house in Seoul for three weeks entertaining small groups of the 90 IOC members each night for dinner and selling them on southern hospitality! It worked well!
So, the Atlanta Chamber was responsible for funding the initial cost of the international marketing campaign for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Soon after that, seven million was raised to fund the rest of the 27-month campaign!
During Jerry’s years managing the Metro Atlanta Chamber, some significant accomplishments occurred, including saving the Peach Bowl and managing it as a department in the Chamber, regular international trade missions supported by Atlanta’s key business leaders and headed by Mayor Andrew Young, generating new jobs through business attraction and existing industry expansion, the attraction of foreign banks, foreign airlines, and foreign consul general’s offices.
The Atlanta Chamber played a major role in military relations and retention objectives. In addition, a major focus was placed on public policy, transportation, environmental issues, cultural arts, and education initiatives in addition to the support for the Olympics, bringing Centennial Olympic Park to life, and hosting Super Bowl 28 in 1994. Our Sports Council had 600 members, and they supplied the volunteers each year for the Peach Bowl.
During Jerry’s 14 years at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, membership tripled, annual income quadrupled to $13 million, and the staff grew from 46 to 115.
Jerry served as board chairman of several state chamber of commerce executives associations — South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. For the 1982-83 year, he served as board chairman of the international professional chamber executives group known as ACCE (the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives).
Jerry was always very generous with me. A significant example was when he developed third-degree burns from a tragic accident. He and his wife Sara were scheduled to go on a VIP trip to Paris as guests of Delta Airlines. He was kind enough at a time like that — six weeks in the hospital — to suggest that Delta invite my wife Joan and me to go in their place, and we did.
Jerry was a very thoughtful leader. He was patient and avoided crossing bridges prematurely. He always did his homework, and he never exaggerated a situation. He knew that generating revenue was the key to accomplishing anything significant in the Chamber, and he knew how to make that happen!
In the spring of 1993, it was Jerry’s tenth year at the Atlanta Chamber, and I organized a tenth-year anniversary celebration. I included all of his board chairmen and just the senior staff for a luncheon at the Commerce Club.
I stayed at the Atlanta Chamber for five years and followed that with eight years at the Oklahoma City Chamber and nine at the Charleston, SC Chamber. In between Oklahoma City and Charleston, Joan and I became grandparents for the first time, and I joined the Fremont Development Group, and we returned to Atlanta.
Before Jerry retired in December of 1996, our national professional organization ACCE held its annual conference in Norfolk. We arranged to have a group photo taken of Jerry with all the chamber executives who had ever worked for him and who attended the conference. All of those who are in that group of former employees were often referred to as “Jerry’s Kids” back in the 1980s and 1990s. For us, it was a badge of honor to be one of Jerry’s Kids!
Serving as a most successful mentor, many of Jerry’s staff vice presidents went on to manage chambers in numerous other U.S. cities. I counted approximately 20 chambers that benefited from his influence.
When Jerry retired from the Atlanta Chamber, I returned from Oklahoma City to attend his retirement dinner and roast. It was an elaborate event and was held at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead. It was a fun event, and I was able to roast Jerry about some of his idiosyncrasies. Twelve years ago, Jerry spoke at my retirement dinner and roast from the Charleston Chamber. He then roasted me, revealing my idiosyncrasies.
A year ago, we celebrated Jerry’s 90th birthday with a small group of ten people at our house. We had a professional photographer there to record the event. Jerry deeply appreciated the attention and recognition.
The last time I saw Jerry, Feb. 21, he was still a very thoughtful person. He was always interested in discussing a variety of topics and always interested in what others had to say. Having known him since 1969 and later becoming very close friends, Jerry was never one to seek the spotlight for himself; he will always be the Premier Model of what a Chamber Executive should be!
Jerry led a full life. He enjoyed his retirement, where he played bridge twice a week, played golf twice a week, was a member of an investment club, enjoyed a telephone Bible study with his two daughters, Little Jeri and Susan, and he enjoyed an occasional drink of Scotch. He also cooked, and I recall him making a delicious dinner of breaded and pan-fried Orange Roughy fish on a number of occasions.
I rejoice in having known him and am thankful that our paths crossed along the trail of life! His was a life well lived! Living to age 91 is a worthy goal to reach! Thank you, Jerry, for all you have done for me and all you have meant to me over the past 54 years!