Like so many others, I was stunned last week by news that banker Sam Barnes had died of a heart attack at age 63 while in Georgia to attend his son's wedding.
Sam was widely loved and respected. Since moving from Atlanta in 1993 to head Fifth Third Bank's operations in Central Kentucky, he had enthusiastically adopted Lexington as his home.
Sam devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to community organizations: United Way, Urban League, Transylvania University, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, LexArts, Commerce Lexington, Downtown Lexington Corp., the Lexington Philharmonic and the Kentucky Horse Park Foundation, to name just a few.
I saw Sam and his wife, Sue, at so many community events that I often wondered when he ever found time to run a bank.
"If I could create a model of the ideal community leader to replicate, it would be Sam Barnes," said downtown developer Phil Holoubek.
What were the traits and behaviors that made Sam such an effective community leader? What can others learn from his example? I asked a dozen Lexington leaders those questions, and their answers were surprisingly similar.
Sam had many traits common to good business people: he was hard-working, strategic, proactive, visionary yet practical. He ran efficient meetings. But what others valued most was his passion for community service, his respectful nature and his human touch. Almost everyone mentioned his lack of ego and his willingness to listen.
"Sam was a listener," said LexArts President Jim Clark. "I could always go to him with an idea, confident that his response would be thoughtful and candid. I never got the sense that he had an agenda other than aligning the interests of Fifth Third Bank with community programs that would yield positive economic and social returns for Central Kentucky."
"He made everyone feel special and important," said Debra Hensley, an insurance agent who served on many boards and committees with Sam. "He respected opposing viewpoints and learned from everyone. And, he had a sense of humor."
Urban League President P.G. Peeples said Sam was always warm and approachable, and he got things done. "Most importantly, he never cared about who got the credit, just that it was done and benefitted others," Peeples said.
Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick said Sam would never ask others to do anything he wasn't willing to do. "There was nothing too small that he would not jump into if he felt it was worthwhile," Quick said.
"When Sam became involved in an endeavor, he gave his full attention" to it, said Transylvania University President Charles Shearer. He recalled asking the banker to serve on the finance committee when he joined Transylvania's Board of Trustees in 1995.
"He responded by saying that most organizations want to put him on the finance committee, but he would rather serve in another capacity," Shearer recalled. "Following his request, Sam was appointed to the Student Life Committee, where he demonstrated a genuine interest in life on campus. He regularly attended the meetings and related well to the students."
Renee Jackson, president of Downtown Lexington Corp., was impressed by Sam's dignity and integrity. "I never witnessed him belittle anyone, even if it was clear that he didn't approve or agree," she said. "He handled issues discretely without embarrassing anyone."
"He trusted and supported individuals who were doing the work of community improvement," said Steve Austin, director of the Legacy Center at the Blue Grass Community Foundation. "He had a generous spirit."
Keeneland President Nick Nicholson was impressed by Sam's dedication to community service. "I never felt he was just going through the 'corporate motions,'" he said. "He made more of a contribution to his adopted community than many (whose families) have been here for generations."
Several people mentioned Sam's compassion for others. Holoubek remembered when his wife, Marnie, lost her father while she was working for United Way and Sam was leading the annual fund-raising campaign.
"Sam stepped up and led a great campaign, but he also found time to serve as a mentor, friend and even a father figure for Marnie during this difficult time," he said. "We'll never forget his incredible generosity and friendship, and I'm sure there are others who have similar stories about Sam."
"Sam was the type of person who was always looking at what he could do to make Lexington a better place," said Linda Gorton, an Urban County Council member. "His warm, friendly, non-abrasive leadership was a style we could all emulate."
One more thought: Sam Barnes' most visible recent accomplishment was the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside Park, made possible by a $750,000 contribution from the bank. Since opening in April, the pavilion has made Cheapside a much more popular downtown gathering space, with thousands now attending the weekly Thursday Night Live events.
Lexington officials should consider naming the pavilion for Sam Barnes. It would be a fitting tribute. The pavilion would not be there without him, and, like Sam, it has helped bring this community together.