A Celebration of Life and Gratitude in West Hartford

At her 2023 backyard fundraiser, Barbara Gordon urged guests to “Do an act of kindness every day in the coming week.” Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Barbara Gordon’s backyard parties mix fun with fundraising, in the name of fighting cancer.

Barbara Gordon’s 9th Annual Fundraiser to benefit the Comprehensive Women’s Health Center at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center had a “Roaring Twenties” theme in West Hartford on June 8, 2016. With Barbara (center) are V.P., Chief Development Officer Saint Francis Foundation Lynn Rossini, and a West Hartford Fire Department representative with a donation to the cause. Photo credit: Joy Taylor

By Tracey Weiss

“The sun always shines on this party,” said Barbara Gordon. Whether it’s luck or divine intervention, Gordon’s annual backyard party – and the lack of rain each year – is a bit of a legend in the Greater Hartford area.

There is more than one reason everyone wants to be at this party. Politicians, area leaders and influencers always make an appearance for Gordon, who herself is a legend in the area. Governors Dannell Malloy and Ned Lamont, and Senator Dick Blumenthal have joined in on the fun in the past, too. At one party, Gordon said, “Joe Lieberman grilled burgers here.”

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, with Barbara Gordon. Gordon is still an active member of the Democratic party. Courtesy of Barbara Gordon

The annual fundraiser happens at the beginning of each summer (next year’s party, the 17th annual, is already slated for June 5), and raises money for the Saint Francis Foundation. Gordon is the secretary and a director on the foundation’s board.

“It’s always in the backyard,” Gordon said. “We get tents. We have a band – Dan Gable and the Abletones.” Refreshments include cappuccinos from Formal Indulgence Catering, Big Green Truck Pizza, and lots more.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong was one of the guests at Barbara Gordon’s 2023 backyard fundraiser. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

She sends out 400 invites to friends and family, who can also participate in a teacup auction with some fun and interesting prizes, including a Red Sox-themed basket of goodies, lunch with Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, a banned books basket, and a gift certificate to Himmelstein Farm in Lebanon, among many others.

This past year Gordon prepared 35 different baskets for the raffle.

And then there is the theme.

There’s always a theme, even though one hasn’t been picked yet for next year the save the date cards reference a fiesta. “We’ve done Roaring 20s, Asian, Wild West, Italian, diversity …,” Gordon said. Guests can choose whether or not they want to dress to match the theme.

“Eight or nine years ago, I invited a friend of my daughter (Tracy Gordon Fox), who is a firefighter, to come and ever since then, they come and do the cooking. And they clean up!” She’s referring to the West Hartford Firefighters Local 1241.

West Hartford Firefighter Jason Powers takes a break from cooking to accept a Certificate of Appreciation from Barbara Gordon at her 2023 fundraiser. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Party-goers donate any amount of money, up to $1,000, according to Gordon, although the biggest amount they ever received from one person was $2,000. The goal for each party is $20,000. So far, Gordon has raised more than $250,000 for the foundation.

The annual fundraiser is a way to give back to the hospital and the doctors that Gordon said “saved my life.”

“In 2008, I was getting symptoms, and I ignored them. It was uterine cancer. The doctors (Allen Mayer and Jim Frank) at St. Francis were incredible.” In fact, Dr. Mayer calls her every week. “We’re still friends,” she added.

Tracy Gordon Fox (left), daughter of Barbara Gordon (right), spoke to guests at the annual fundraiser in June 2023. “When my mom was diagnosed with cancer who would have known this would be what she would want to do?” Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Tracy is a former Hartford Courant reporter turned nurse, who works at St. Francis. “When she got cancer,” Tracy said, “she had this big surgery, and there was a spot on her pancreas. It was major surgery. It took 10 hours. She was really sick at the hospital. She was there for eight days.

“On the seventh day, the doctor came in. They had looked at the pathology, and he said, ‘We got it all out.’ You would think she wanted to have a party, but instead, she became catatonic. I got scared. Dr. Frank came in and talked to her, and what she said to him was, ‘My sister died of this. Why did I survive and she died?’

“I said, ‘Mom, let‘s do a fundraiser for the hospital.’ She got home in May and the first party was in July. We did the cooking ourselves.”

“Tracy made chili,” Gordon said.

At the time, Barbara’s parties were also hosted by her husband, Mark Gordon, who died in 2018 after a nine-year battle with kidney disease.

Gordon has had other issues with her health. Tracy still likes to share her memory of the recovery her mother made after a stroke two years ago, on New Year’s Eve.

“After the stroke, she was in the hospital, not talking yet, and suddenly she sat up, and said, “this is f***ing b******t!”

Gordon concurs. “I used some very foul language.”

Despite all that has happened, Gordon is still incredibly busy. She always has been.

“I grew up in Hartford back when it was a great place to grow up,” she said. “There was no antisemitism, no racism. I would walk down Albany Avenue and go to Northwest School in 24 inches of snow. We didn’t have snow days. I went to Weaver High School. I hung out in Keney Park.

Barbara Gordon (second from right) with former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, left, former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, center, and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, right. Courtesy of Barbara Gordon

“I became very involved here with the Democratic party. I remember I was at the fire station on Blue Hills Avenue and I was handing out flyers. I got bitten by the blue bug.”

Gordon is still old-fashioned about certain things and raised her children as a stay-at-home mom. But then her blue bug bit again.

“I worked for Barbara Kennelly during her first campaign for Congress, then Chris Dodd, then I worked for Bill O’Neil. I was a constituent. We solved a lot of problems.

“Then I went to work for the Jewish Ledger, because I found 14 mistakes in one issue so I called them to tell them. They offered me a job.” To this day, she is still very close with some of the staff members at the Ledger.

“I took care of Tracy’s kids three days a week, then I worked for the House Democrats,” such as Brendan Sharkey and Matt Ritter, former and current speakers of the Connecticut House of Representatives.

She was on the Democratic State Committee for 45 years. “The longest of anyone,” Gordon said. “I read the roll at conventions. It was fun.”

All of her years in the political realm taught her one thing: “When you know people, you can help people,” she said.

These days, her “office” is her living room, where she works on a number of projects and “colors” for her mental health.

“The pandemic wasn’t good for her,” Tracy said. “She’s a social being. She’s still involved politically. She’s on the (foundation) board.

“She dotes on her grandchildren. She’s strong. She took care of my father for nine years, through his kidney disease.”

And if you know her, then you know this foodie fact about her. She loves to make brownies. For everyone. Even the staff at CVS, where she got her latest round of vaccines.

“She IS the brownie lady,” Tracy said. “My whole floor of nurses waits for her to make brownies.”

A version of this article previously appeared in West Hartford LIFE.

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