The wreath on the chapel

Behind a beloved fixture of Christmastime on campus is a deeper meaning — the faithful honoring of a tragic loss from more than 30 years ago.

Illustration by Karlotta Freier.

Taped to the wall next to Chris Bartolone’s desk is a newspaper article. The story isn’t about him, although media outlets have highlighted his work for Marquette and his hometown, the Milwaukee suburb Whitefish Bay.

Chris, Arts ’93, isn’t one to seek recognition. It’s a trait reflective of his role as assistant director of facilities services. The department modestly performs behind-the-scenes jobs to clean, repair and maintain the entire campus, often through gritty manual labor, so the university can give students a seamless Marquette experience. The Milwaukee Sentinel article, dated Dec. 18, 1989, serves as his daily reminder to put that work into perspective. It recounts a heartrending accident that sparked an annual tradition.

Fall 1989 marked the start of Chris’ freshman year at Marquette. He was adjusting well to collegiate life with the help of his older sister Ann Marie*, a fellow Marquette student, and his father, Dominic, a supervisor in a familiar place, the university’s Facilities Planning and Management Department.

That same semester, 22-year-old Eileen Begin was at the opposite end of her Marquette journey. The following May, the senior would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Her post-college plans included standing up as her sister’s maid of honor and spending a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working with people in need in Appalachia.

“It keeps her memory alive. She was part of us, and I don’t want us to forget that.”

Chris Bartolone, assistant director of facilities services

The article reports that just before midnight on Dec. 15, Eileen was crossing the 800 block of North 16th Street, now bordered by Campus Town West and Campus Town East, when she was hit by an oncoming car. The driver fled. She died at the scene.

The tragedy shocked the Marquette community, particularly the Bartolone family. Ann Marie was also a senior, and Eileen was Dominic’s student office assistant. “The next day, her mother [called] our house to tell my father,” Chris says. “I never saw him get that emotional. It had a pretty profound effect on me.”

What happened next is not widely known. Reeling from the loss of one of their own, members of the Facilities Department wanted to commemorate their student colleague, so they took inspiration from the holiday decorations they’d installed around campus. With no announcement or formal ceremony, they hung a wreath above the front doors of St. Joan of Arc Chapel. And they’ve continued to do so every December since.

Arguably the most iconic Christmas decoration on campus is, in fact, a memorial to a friend gone too soon. “It keeps her memory alive,” Chris says. “She was part of us, and I don’t want us to forget that.” “Us” refers to more than a group of coworkers. The facilities team was and remains a family, in a figurative and literal sense. Relatives of past and current employees have gone through the ranks, whether they were children of previous student workers or sets of siblings.

“If my parting has left a void, then fill it with remembered joy.”

For 17 years, until his death in 1999, Dominic was the father figure. He gave student employees (including his own kids) advice on classwork, motivation for tough jobs, or “a kick in the pants when we needed it,” says his son. He also demonstrated a strict adherence to the golden rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated, especially when your customers are every person on campus.

Chris Bartolone strives to exemplify that respect for others while leading the very department his father once led. He shovels snow and delivers mail when an extra hand is needed. He comes into the office on days he’s supposed to be off to ensure projects get completed. He even upholds those values off-campus; he heads the annual spaghetti dinner fundraiser for Holy Family Parish School in Whitefish Bay that his father started four decades ago.

The standards Chris sets for himself come with the pressure to follow through, a struggle he knows his father experienced as well. When life becomes a strain, Chris faces his office wall. Next to the Milwaukee Sentinel article is a memorial card from Eileen’s funeral that reads, “If my parting has left a void, then fill it with remembered joy.” From the persevering camaraderie among the facilities team to the simple beauty that emanates from the wreath, Eileen’s memory continues as a source of that joy.

*Ann Marie (Bartolone) Redgate, CJPA ’90, is a Marquette alumna.