The founder of Compeer Sarasota, also known at "The Bird Lady of Sarasota," died July 5.
Ann Hartka’s kindness knew no bounds. So when her daughter shared her childhood desire to own a chimpanzee, she was nothing but encouraging.
“‘Then call the zoo!’” June Blaustein recalled her mother exclaiming.
Hartka died July 5, a week after her 100th birthday.
“She went out of her way for the smallest things to help people,” Blaustein said. “She was always cheerful, helping wherever she could and making the phone calls to get something going.”
Hartka was originally known as the “The Bird Lady of Sarasota” for her extensive bird rescue and rehabilitation work, but also for walking around her neighborhood singing to the parrots often perched on her shoulder, Blaustein said.
But perhaps the best example of her commitment to getting a project done was her founding of the Sarasota chapter of Compeer, an international nonprofit organization that pairs volunteers with individuals who receive mental-health treatment to foster a friendship.
Hartka founded the chapter after learning how much the Philadelphia chapter helped her cousin, Jeff Shair, who was struggling with paranoid schizophrenia. In 2011 (at the age of 92), she brought the idea to Brother William Geenan, the founder of Senior Friendship Centers, who housed the program for one year. In January 2013, Coastal Behavioral Healthcare Inc. became the sponsoring organization for Compeer Sarasota.
Compeer national founder Bunny Skirboll said Hartka volunteered to sit at a table at every Compeer event and encourage guests to volunteer with the organization. She was also always the first board member who offered to represent Compeer at public venues, helping with outreach.
Even at her early 100th birthday celebration at the spring Compeer luncheon April 9, Hartka sat with a clipboard in front of her, recruiting volunteers.
“How many of us would take the time and energy to do this?” said Skirboll. “She continued to be our number one recruiter and would never hesitate to call me with new recruitment ideas.”
Not even sickness kept Hartka from her recruitment efforts, Skirboll said, recalling a story about when Hartka was hospitalized and went from room to room telling patients about Compeer.
Hartka was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1918. That’s also where she met her husband, William Hartka, and the birthplace of their two children, June and Paul. In Philadelphia, Blaustein said her mother was active in politics and ran a Sunday school in her basement. She recalls Hartka having many friends and being able to talk to anyone, even complete strangers at the grocery store.
“She always had a very lovely way of making conversation that I find very difficult to do,” her daughter said. “I’d always say ‘how do you know what to say to people?’ ‘You just ask what they’re interested in,’ she’d say.”
The family moved to Sarasota when Blaustein was around 13, she recalls, so her father could run the old Mira Mar Hotel. Hartka helped her husband with the business, which was previously owned by her father. She later went on to manage the MacArthur Beach Hotel for about three years before the long drive to Venice became too much of a nuisance.
Many of Blaustein’s favorite memories of her mother took place at the Mira Mar, where Hartka would allow her daughter to invite friends over. They would set up a record player in the large dining room and have a dance party, which is a cherished memory Blaustein’s friends still bring up today.
Hartka was always supportive of her daughter, from her love of roller skating (she once saw a man doing tricks at their local rink and confidently said “I want you to make my daughter a champion,” a goal Blaustein later achieved at several skating competitions) to her dreams of becoming a seamstress (Hartka and her husband set up an open credit for Blaustein at a local fabric shop).
“If I wanted my own office, she made me my own office, even if it meant draping a blanket around a pipe,” Blaustein said. “Anything I wanted, she encouraged. Which has come into play today because I never stopped sewing.”
Hartka also encouraged her friends, spreading her infectious philanthropic spirit wherever she went.
“She was my true role model for how to lead a meaningful life,” Skirboll said. “And she proved that one person can make a difference.”
It’s this generosity and kindness, but also her fearlessness, that Blaustein wants people to remember her mother for.
“She was just a happy person,” Blaustein said. “And I was always amazed at what she was not afraid to do.”
Hartka is survived by her daughter, June Blaustein; brother, Joseph Lavin; grandchildren, Jeff and Mitch Hartka; four great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in Hartka’s memory be made to Compeer Sarasota.