ESTERO — A longtime Collier County elementary school principal was killed Friday morning in a fiery crash on Interstate 75.
Jerry Kenneth Hartwig, 69, of Naples, was traveling north on I-75 around 8:30 a.m. when his 2009 GMC Acadia left the road, drove through the median, struck several guidewire posts, and crashed into a pillar supporting the Estero Parkway overpass, the Florida Highway Patrol reported. The vehicle caught fire, entrapping Hartwig, who died at the scene.
It appears that Hartwig suffered a medical emergency, as witnesses reported seeing him slumped over in his seat at the time of the crash, the FHP reported. Hartwig suffered from a pre-existing heart condition, reports said.
Hartwig, originally from Minnesota, moved to Collier County in the early 1970s for a teaching career, said his longtime secretary, Jo O’Reilly. He was named the first principal of Naples Park Elementary School in the late 1970s, she said.
“They will always remember him as the greatest principal ever,” O’Reilly said. “You talk to anyone that had him. He had a knack for picking out the best teachers ever and always caring for the kids, but also the teachers.”
In the 1980s Hartwig was principal at Shadowlawn Elementary School and Big Cypress Elementary School, before transferring back to Naples Park, where he retired in the mid-1990s, O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly said she and her husband visited with Hartwig and his wife at their Georgia cabin last weekend. He came back to Naples earlier this week, and was heading up to Tampa on Friday morning to attend the University of South Florida football game with his daughter, O’Reilly said.
“He was a dear friend, an excellent boss and a dynamic person,” she said.
Gene Nara, a former high school teacher, coach and principal in Collier County also remembered Hartwig fondly.
“The teachers loved him, the kids loved him. He was the perfect elementary school teacher for kids,” Nara said.
John Wolski served with Hartwig on the homeowners association board at Country Club of Naples, where they both lived.
“I think genuine is the best way to describe Jerry,” Wolski said. “A good listener. One of the good guys. A good man.”