Remembering Lillia Bartlow, who captured Berkeley's heart

"I was living with an angel," her father said Sunday. "She was as near perfect as perfect can be in a human being."

Remembering Lillia Bartlow, who captured Berkeley's heart
Berkeley High student and cheerleader Lillia Bartlow, 16, died Friday at her home. Courtesy

By Frances Dinkelspiel

Lillia Bartlow, who as a 9-year-old captured the hearts of Berkeley residents with her resilience after a taxicab hit her while she was crossing Claremont Avenue near John Muir Elementary, died unexpectedly on Friday, March 17.

She was 16 years old.

Lillia was a sophomore in Berkeley High School’s International Baccalaureate Program, a member of College Bound Academy, and on the junior varsity cheerleading squad at the time of her death.

Fluent in three languages — English, French and Arabic, and conversant in Berber — she died at her family's Ashby Avenue apartment where she lived all her life.

"I was living with an angel," said her father, Darryl Bartlow. "She was as near perfect as perfect can be in a human being."

Scroll down for details about Lillia's memorial.

The news of Lillia’s untimely death spread rapidly in the Berkeley High community and among her teammates and the many friends of the Bartlows, who have lived in Berkeley for more than 50 years.

Berkeley High planned to set up a memorial space in the gallery in Building C on Monday where students can reflect, leave notes for Lillia and her family, and talk to grief counselors.

"Words cannot express how sad our College Bound Academy family is right now!" the group posted on Facebook. "We will forever remember our College Bound Berkeley Academy Scholar, Lillia Bartlow! Such an inspiring and intelligent CB Scholar full of life!"

Tiffany Sutherland, the coach of Berkeley High’s cheerleading program, said she and Lillia’s teammates were reeling from the news.

Lillia was "amazing," said Sutherland. "Her energy and her smile and her laugh — it helped the morale of everyone. She never gave me a hard day, she never missed practice, she never missed a game."

Lillia (left) with her mom and dad as well as one of her cousins. Courtesy

Moni Law, a family friend, said Lillia had a "sweet and vibrant demeanor" and was a "lovely person inside and out."

"She had an infectious enthusiasm for life and people," said Law. "She had a maturity beyond her years. It was impressive how hard she worked to recover from that horrific car incident in 2016."

On March 8, 2016, Lillia and her mother, Khadija Aitouali-Bartlow, had just left a PTA meeting at John Muir Elementary School around 7:40 p.m. They were in a crosswalk on Claremont Avenue when a taxicab heading north struck them.

The collision broke both of Lillia’s legs. The fourth grader had to miss many months of school as she recuperated.

At first, family members thought she would have to use a wheelchair for a year, but Lillia worked hard to recover and started walking sooner than expected.

While she was convalescing, the UC Berkeley cheerleading squad and Cal’s mascot, Oski the Bear, came to visit.

Lillia and her father frequently attended Cal (and Berkeley High) women’s basketball games and Lillia used to stand close to the cheerleaders to try and learn their movements, said Bartlow.

A friend even made Lillia a miniature Cal cheerleading outfit. Soon, members of the Cal squad were holding Lillia’s hands and allowing her to go to the dressing room.

"The girls showed her a lot of love," said Bartlow.

That early connection to cheerleading may have led Lillia to try out for the Berkeley High School cheer squad, especially since gymnastics became difficult after the crash on Claremont Avenue, her father said.

She joined the squad in the spring of 2022.

After the crash, on the first day of her return to John Muir Elementary, Lillia — now a fifth grader — got to ride in a shiny red Berkeley fire engine.

Berkeley firefighters offered the ride, as well as a swim membership at the YMCA, to Lillia and her mother as part of their Random Acts of Kindness program.

The smile on Lillia’s face that day was huge.

Lillia Bartlow got to ride a fire engine to school after she recovered from a serious collision in 2016. Kelly Sullivan

The collision intensified calls for better lighting and traffic controls for the crosswalk on Claremont Avenue where Lillia was hit.

Then-City Councilwoman Lori Droste helped fast-track funding to improve safety at the intersection, where pedestrian LED flashers were eventually installed.

Lilllia loved to swim — in part because of the Random Acts of Kindness gift.

"She could go swimming seven days a week," her father said. She loved to paint and loved talking and texting with her friends. Lillia and her father also "battled in Monopoly," frequently.

Most of all, Bartlow said, Lillia loved spending time with her mother.

They were exceptionally close and enjoyed shopping and having fun outings like getting their nails done, visiting the Santa Cruz boardwalk and doing dance videos for TikTok. They mostly spoke in French.

Aitouali-Bartlow was born in Morocco, but her family moved to France when she was 5.

The family went to visit regularly, and Lillia and her mother moved there for a year to take care of Aitouali-Bartlow's mother.

Lillia was named after her female ancestors, said Bartlow.

Her full name was Lillia Khadija Fatima Bartlow: Lillia is a variation of the spelling of her grandmother’s name; Khadija is her mother’s name; and Fatima was the name of Lillia’s other grandmother and great-grandmother.

After John Muir, Lillia attended Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, a French immersion school, for three years.

The International Baccalaureate program at Berkeley High is demanding and when Lillia first told her father she wanted to join the cheerleading squad, he was concerned it would impede her studies.

But she successfully juggled her academics and extra-curriculars and even took a part-time job at Shirley's Designs & Alterations on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland.

Lillia, in many ways, was the cheerleader for the cheerleading program, according to her coach.

In group texts, "she would always be the one to come on and say something sweet," said Sutherland. She would come to Sutherland’s office at lunch to hang out with other squad members.

"Listening to her laugh was just infectious," her coach said.

Members of the cheerleading squad recently attended Rep. Barbara Lee’s formal announcement that she is running for the seat now held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Lillia Bartlow with Rep. Barbara Lee. Courtesy

Lillia took a photo with Lee, who told her she had a bright future, said Law.

Lillia was also active in the community in other ways. She testified in front of the Berkeley School Board about the positive impacts of the College Bound program.

The family had just gone out to dinner Thursday night to celebrate Bartlow's 75th birthday and Lillia proudly told her father that she had brought her chemistry grade up. (She was doing extremely well in all her other subjects.)

On Friday, she came home from school because she was not feeling well. Lillia had been suffering from intense headaches since January, but the cause had not yet been diagnosed. She died at home.

A memorial for Lillia will be held Saturday, March 25, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Oxford Theatre at BUSD's West Campus at 2020 Bonar St.

The Berkeley City Council will adjourn Tuesday night's meeting in Lillia's memory.

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning journalist and author of two best-selling books, Tangled Vines and Towers of Gold.

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