He had a warm smile and a signature wave, religiously wore pink flip-flops and cooked gourmet meals for his friends. In his first and only semester at the GW Law School, Chris Bartok made a distinct imprint on the community, according to many of the more than 200 friends, acquaintances, professors and family members who gathered Friday to remember the student.
Bartok’s body was found in the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial Dec. 19. Metropolitan Police officials have yet to determine the cause of death, and friends said they do not know what happened to Bartok after he left a bar Dec. 18 where he was celebrating the end of final exams.
With officials still investigating his mysterious disappearance and death, members of the GW community recounted their memories of the 26-year-old California native.
“He made everyone he talked to feel special,” said Joseph Mastrosimone, a member of Bartok’s Legal Research and Writing class. “Few people have that combination of a fabulous personality, great sense of humor and a brilliant mind.”
Bartok’s parents said Chris had numerous interests growing up ranging from cars to music to cooking. A classically trained pianist, Chris also loved cars, memorizing every aspect of every model.
“Whenever he was interested in something, he went after it 150 percent,” said Carol DiNolfo, his mother. “He always went all the way and tried to become an expert.”
Bartok, the son of two engineers, grew up in Morro Bay, Calif., about four hours south of San Francisco. Excelling in school from a young age, Bartok enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s top engineering schools.
While he earned exemplary grades at Caltech, he took a two-year break midway through school and worked at some Internet firms and took a cooking course at the Pasadena Culinary Institute, DiNolfo said.
After spending two weeks as a prep chef at a gourmet restaurant, his mother said Bartok realized the difficulty of being a chef and decided that he “just wanted to cook for himself and his friends.”
He returned to Caltech and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and applied sciences in 2002. After encountering a tough job market and realizing an interest in the law, Bartok applied to GW’s nationally-known patent law program.
Many friends who spoke Friday said they remember meeting Bartok at the first “meet and greet” in June.
“There was something warm and engaging about his personality that reduced my fears about starting law school,” Jessica Toplin said.
Bartok cooked a July 4 barbecue for incoming students, ensuring that “all burgers were the same size,” Toplin added.
“Chris could never be ordinary and always went out of his way to make things special,” she said.
Friends recounted how Bartok loved to cook and ensured that every aspect to a meal was perfect, starting with how the silverware was set to supervising dishwashing. He also served every drink with crushed ice.
Law Student Heidi Anderson said she will most remember dancing with Bartok, regardless of where they were.
“He was my dance partner …whether we were in his living room or at a bar we would dance,” Anderson said, adding that he would dance for hours despite the fact that “he just wasn’t that good.”
“He had the warmest heart and the biggest smile; he would try to put you in a good mood even if he was in a bad mood,” she added.
Bartok’s roommates also spoke at Friday’s memorial, noting that he made their short time in their Arlington, Va., apartment fun.
“He knew how to have fun and keep the stress off,” roommate Jamie Conn said. “He made our place a sanctuary away from law school. He really made our a house a real home.”
Conn said he once came home to see Bartok dancing to “It’s Raining Men.”
Bartok’s professors remembered an attentive student who was always prepared to answer their questions, and Roger Transgrud, a senior associate dean of the Law School, referred to Bartok’s “towering intelligence” and “exemplary character.”
“He was one of those students professors love to have in their classrooms … he was so clearly listening,” said Sonia Suter, an associate professor. “He would always have the right answer when he was called on.”
Suter read from a questionnaire students filled out during one of her first classes. She said Bartok’s was filled with imagination and lightheartedness.
He wrote, “If I had it all to do again I think I would be a race car driver.”