Westerville lost one of its biggest and most influential advocates last week.

Jeff Hartnell, executive director of the Westerville Visitors & Convention Bureau, died Aug. 21 at Mount Carmel St. Ann's at the age of 72.

Hartnell was born in Michigan and went to Michigan State University, where he was a walk-on football player. He received his bachelor's degree from the university in 1967, followed by a master's degree in 1971, according to his obituary posted at hillfuneral.com.

He went on to teach American history at Leslie High School in Michigan and also served as the defensive coordinator for the football team, according to his obituary.

He moved to Westerville in 1978 after a sales job with Abbott-Ross Pharmaceuticals turned into a regional manager opportunity, the obituary states.

In retirement, he became the executive director of the Westerville Visitors & Convention Bureau in 2006, and helped found Mount Carmel 4th Fridays, which grew into one of Uptown Westerville's biggest draws.

Glenda Mihaly, marketing coordinator with the bureau, said Hartnell became virtually irreplaceable.

"It's unimaginable how things are going to go on," she said. "They will, but it's hard to think about what that's going to look like."

Mihaly, who worked with Hartnell for more than 11 years, said she and Hartnell were often jokingly compared to "a married couple."

She said Hartnell's family would prefer to keep the circumstances of his death private.

She said she considered it "an honor" to have worked with Hartnell, and described their work as "sheer joy."

"He had a passion for telling people about Westerville," she said.

"He had a passion for telling people about this community and everything it has to offer. As anybody who ever sat in a meeting with him or had a phone conversation knows, he had a passion for a lot of things."

Hartnell's work with the bureau affected both business owners – particularly in Uptown – and the city itself.

Debbie Bennati, Westerville Uptown Merchants Association president and owner of A Gal Named Cinda Lou, said Hartnell was key in the Uptown district's revitalization.

She described Hartnell as a "dear friend" who will be missed.

"Jeff was an important person to the promotion of Uptown as the heart of Westerville," Bennati said. "He readily helped the Uptown merchants and advocated for us.

"He knew that Uptown was the draw for many people in the decision to move here, but was always quick to remind us that his job was to promote the whole city," she said.

City spokeswoman Christa Dickey worked regularly with Hartnell, and wrote in an email that he "built something that's meaningful and lasting for the entire Westerville community."

"Jeff had a tradition of writing a post-event report after each 4th Friday, and every single time he talked about gratitude," she said.

"He thanked the police officers and the service crews and the electric division – just everyone who lends a hand at the event. From the city's standpoint, 4th Friday will be part of Jeff's legacy," she said.

City Manager David Collinsworth echoed that sentiment.

"It's difficult to imagine that he won't be at the table with us talking about special events and ways to make 4th Friday even better next year," he said in an email. "Everyone who attends 4th Friday should know how committed he was to making it a success and how much work he put into it."

At the Dog Days of Summer 4th Friday event on Aug. 24, volunteers from the bureau passed out green ribbons in memory of Hartnell. The choice of green was a nod to Hartnell's Michigan State past, as the school's colors are green and white.

The bureau's board of trustees is in the process of naming an interim executive director, and will soon begin a search for a full-time person to fill the role.

In the meantime, Mihaly said the priority will be to prioritize the goals that Hartnell had for the organization.

"Our obvious priority now is to just keep 4th Friday going and keep everything going that meant so much to him until we can sit down and figure out where we go from here," she said.

Preceded in death by his parents, Louise and Jack Hartnell, Hartnell is survived by his wife of 44 years, Val; children, Ben (Molly), Nathan (Katy), and Sarah (Micki); grandsons, Connor, Liam, Fraser, Kaelin and Ethan; brother, Jack (Bonnie); and nieces and nephews, his obituary states.

Hill Funeral Home, 220 S. State St., will host a celebration of Hartnell's life from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, with a funeral service set at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 31, at St. Paul the Apostle Church, 313 N. State St.

According to his obituary, in lieu of flowers, donations in Hartnell's name can be made to Westerville Honor Flight c/o Columbus Honor Flight, P.O. Box 12036, Columbus, Ohio 43212.

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