I interviewed local resident Elaine Hansen Bartosavage during the course of four days. A light breeze eased the humidity as we sat under the shade of trees by her well-loved swimming pool. On the last day, Elaine sipped coffee from a mug with the inscription “101% Norwegian.” With her cropped blond hair, round face, and blue eyes, she is the picture of her Scandinavian heritage.
Elaine told me stories of her childhood and womanhood and of those years marked by joy and profound loss. She has a distinct belly-deep laugh and the kind of saucy phrasing that reminds me of Elaine Stritch at her Broadway best. Like Stritch, Elaine is an astute scene-stealer, whether she’s yelling her mantra, “Keep your head down!” or giving swimmers a critique worthy of reality-television judge Simon Cowell.
“Sebastian?” she will often ask swimmers—in reference to Disney’s Little Mermaid sidekick—pointing to their arms as they execute a crab-style butterfly stroke instead of the streamlined position she expects them to practice. My son has been renamed Sebastian on numerous occasions. After three summers spent with Elaine or, as the children call her, Ms. B, his strokes have improved dramatically.
Yet watching a swimming lesson with Ms. B can be a challenge for many parents. Fearful children often resort to screaming fits as she instructs them to put their faces in the water. After decades of teaching water-safety practices to thousands of children, Ms. B is unwavering when confronted with little tantrums. To objecting parents she says, “It’s easier for them to cry now, then for you to cry later.” Although this statement may seem unclear, Ms. B’s life is a testament to its truth.
A Brooklynite Is Born
Shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration as president in the spring of 1933, Elaine Hansen was born in Brooklyn on May 7, the last of 13 children to Norwegian immigrants Arthur Henry Hansen and Jennie Tolleffsen.
Elaine learned strong work ethics and diligence from her mother. She recalls that “on the same day she had her baby, Mother would have her laundry up on the roof in Brooklyn and dinner on the table.” Despite a rapidly growing family, the Hansens thrived and moved back and forth between Brooklyn and Staten Island, which they referred to as “moving to the country.”
A Sears Roebuck Catalogue of the era warned, “Thrift is the spirit of the day. Reckless spending is a thing of the past.” Following that philosophy, Arthur Hansen, a New York University graduate and Certified Public Accountant, worked two jobs while Jennie volunteered for the Salvation Army.
Though money was scarce and life at times difficult, Arthur and Jennie were resourceful, keeping the children occupied and entertained. Jennie organized the Police Athletic League in Tottenville, N.Y., to keep local youth off the streets by promoting physical fitness through its programs. Elaine was thus exposed to a variety of sports and outdoor games from her infancy.
On Sept. 6, 1939, the Tottenville PAL participated in the New York World Fair and placed 54th in the “Fife and Bugle Corps” division. Elaine, then six years old, was dressed as a majorette. She was the youngest participant and marched proudly in her white uniform. It was during its association with the league that the Hansen clan learned to swim, often venturing into Arthur Kill Strait (now Staten Island Sound) near their home.
Teaching their children proper swimming technique was of utmost importance to the Hansens, since as a young NYU student Arthur had suffered from decompression sickness (known as the bends) during a diving incident, which had kept him in poor health for two years. Following her elder siblings’ example, Elaine became a capable swimmer at a young age, sometimes crossing the strait to Perth Amboy, N.J., a half-mile away.
Nursing and the Army: Becoming Mrs. Bartosavage
When Elaine was 12 years old, her family relocated to Tampa, Fla., where beaches became central to their lives. After completing her high school education at age 15, Elaine returned to Brooklyn to study nursing. She was only 16 when she began her studies at Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital (now Lutheran Medical Center), which provided her with room and board. In the 1940s, nursing students had lessons in the morning, followed by eight-hour work shifts at the hospital. “It was a year-round occupation,” Elaine recalls.
After receiving her nursing degree, Elaine trained for a year with the United States Army as a medical technician. At 19, she was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where she met a “dashing, baby-faced” soldier by the unusual name of Chester “Chuck” Aloysius Bartosavage. Elaine was formally introduced to Chuck when he and a few friends followed her in their car while she was walking home from her favorite billiard hangout. “What does it take to get a date with you?” Chuck hollered. “You could start by asking,” Elaine replied smartly.
They married in 1952, after a nine-month courtship that began on January 1. “We went out every single night, usually to the park, where we played ball and roasted hot dogs,” Elaine remembers. Although their honeymoon was spent with Elaine’s mother—who had flown in from Tampa to visit the couple and requested that Chuck sleep on the couch—Elaine was soon asked to resign from the Army when she became pregnant with her daughter Jennie.
The following years were marked by numerous relocations as the Bartosavages left Texas for Hanau, Germany. They subsequently lived in Fort Hood, Texas, and Camp Yokohama, Japan. Chuck and Elaine eventually raised five boys and two girls.
The Family Tragedy That Changed Everything
While stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, the Bartosavages frequently visited the outdoor swimming pool at the Officers’ Club with their four children. Chuck was given a commission in the Army, affording the family such privileges. Elaine’s love of the water had not diminished over the years.
June 24, 1962, was a typical Sunday at the swim club. Sounds of splashing water and laughter filled the air. Adults and children swam in the larger pool, while toddlers played freely in a separate shallow pool. The young Bartosavages wore bright orange swimsuits, permitting Chuck and Elaine to gather their troop easily.
At ten minutes to 7 p.m., lifeguards announced closing time and signaled children to clear the pool. During the bustle of the following minutes, one of the Bartosavages requested a drink from the snack bar. Chuck and Elaine then realized that Blake, their third child, aged five years and nine months, had not followed. They called out to their son, searching the showers and dressing rooms. Blake was nowhere in sight.
Nicknamed “the professor” because he wore small horn-rimmed glasses and had an inquisitive disposition, Blake was not as keen as his siblings to immerse his head while swimming. This fear hindered the young boy as he fell in deep water that evening, unseen by the lifeguard who sat directly above him. A woman screamed that she spotted his orange swimsuit near the bottom of the pool.
Mere minutes had passed. A doctor enjoying a Sunday evening party at the Officers’ Club was called to help and an emergency medical team made several attempts to reanimate the child. After an hour, Chuck and Elaine received news that broke their hearts: Blake’s short life had ended.
The story resumes next week in the .