A Local Life: Karin Vartowski, 71, who traveled everywhere on two wheels

June 11, 2011

Karin Vartowski never owned a car. She rode her bike everywhere. Literally, everywhere.

She rode in rain, sleet, snow and Washington’s oppressive summer heat. Most days, she meandered along the Capital Crescent Trail or Brookville Road, running her errands along the way. Often she would hold up traffic when she would impulsively stop to pick fresh flowers from a patch on the side of the road.

“I love the smell of stuff that I bring home on my bike,” Mrs. Vartowski told The Washington Post in 1995. “There is nothing that compares with the scent of a ripe tomato that’s warm from the sun — that smell can make you happy for days.”

She shuttled her three boys to school in child seats attached to the back of her deep-green, five-speed Raleigh and carried groceries from the Safeway and farmers markets in a wire basket on the front.

After a neighbor offered her some gooseberry bushes, she started taking a shovel with her on bike trips. Once, she carried a five-foot tree on her bike.

“There’s never been a time when I couldn’t get something home,” she said. “If I want something badly enough, like the tree, I’ll get it home.”

On her bike, Mrs. Vartowski balanced large household items she salvaged from thrift stores, dumpsters and roadsides. Her home in Northwest Washington is decorated with vintage items such as cast-iron chandeliers, a trellis and a wrought-iron gate — which she tied to the front of her bike with bungee cord that she carried in a leather satchel.

She was petite at 5-foot-3, yet she managed to transport those cumbersome loads.

Mrs. Vartowski, whom many in her neighborhood knew by her floppy, wide-brimmed hats decorated with fresh flowers, died April 12 at Capital Hospice in Arlington County of complications from dementia. She was 71.

Her husband, a painter and former Georgetown University art teacher, Gerald Wartofsky, who uses a different spelling of the family name than his wife, also never owned a car.

“Both of us felt it was a contained thing being in a car,” said her husband, who still prefers to bike or take public transportation.

The bike lady, as neighbors dubbed her, had long auburn hair that turned gray as she aged. She shunned all cosmetics except for lipstick. Professionally, she taught dance, first at local churches and eventually in her home.

She had run the Karin Vartowski Dance Workshop since 1970. Her students included toddlers, whom she encouraged to be fanciful, as well as teenagers, adults and seniors. Her husband said her teaching evolved into dance therapy. She taught children diagnosed with mental disorders. She taught a woman without legs, instructing her to dance with her arms and torso.

During the late 1980s, she appeared at the Kennedy Center in an autobiographical solo dance program that she wrote and choreographed called “Moments: A Dancing Life.”

She was born Karin Waltraud Schmuck in Munich on Nov. 25, 1939, to a Catholic family. Her parents separated when she was a young girl. At the end of World War II, her mother married Yoichi Okamoto, a Japanese American who settled the family in the Washington area by the mid-1950s and who became the official White House photographer during the Johnson administration. Karin graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

In addition to her husband of 47 years, survivors include three sons, Benjamin Wartofsky of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mischa Wartofsky of Queens, N.Y., and Gabriel Wartofsky of Los Angeles; and a grandson.

Ironically, two of the Wartofsky children have a knack for cars. Gabriel studied transportation design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and Mischa, who is now a U.S. marshal, restores classic cars, motorcycles and bikes as a hobby. Benjamin is a stand-up comedian.

As Mrs. Vartowski’s health began to decline and her dementia began to worsen, she would often get lost during her daily bike trips. Neighbors would call her husband to report her whereabouts. Once, Gerald Wartofsky found his confused wife sitting on a bench on the Capital Crescent Trail.

After she stopped riding, she would tell her husband how much she missed her bike.

“You feel so much more alive when you are outside in all kinds of weather. Your body stays in tune with what’s out there,” she once said. “Bicycling is always an ad­ven­ture and a mystery.”

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