Op-Ed

Barnes a champion who did not seek glory

Samuel G. Barnes Sr.
Samuel G. Barnes Sr.

Avuncular.

It's not a word you come across very often.

There are varying definitions for it, but there's one I like because it fits so well in this case: "In the manner of an uncle, pertaining to an uncle; hence, kind, genial, benevolent or tolerant."

It fit Sam Barnes to a T, the type of man you don't come across very often either.

In the 21 years I've been at the Herald-Leader, I have never experienced rumors about something sweep through Lexington so quickly. Calls were coming into the paper fast and furious on Tuesday afternoon from folks who had heard something from somebody who had heard it from somebody else.

Was it true that Sam Barnes, president of Fifth Third Bank's Central Kentucky operations, had died in Savannah, Ga., just before his son was to be married?

A check with Fifth Third found its switchboard jammed, and nobody there was authorized to comment.

It was clearly a measure of concern for a person who touched many lives in Central Kentucky, even if a lot of Central Kentuckians might not have known him by name or by face.

Bank presidents and newspaper publishers usually find themselves being asked to support the same kinds of worthwhile community projects, serve on many of the same boards and committees, and sit through more mind-numbing meetings than they can count. And we did all of the above.

To me, Sam was a rare CEO in that he seemed equally content to sit at the top of an organization, being its front person, or to serve in a supporting role or simply to work behind the scenes.

He didn't need to get the credit. Getting things done was what mattered.

He helped direct a lot of money into the Central Kentucky community over the past 17 years through the bank and its foundation. And he and his wife, Sue, have been personally generous to many worthwhile causes.

Benevolent? Definitely.

Tolerant? Up to a point. When he was chairing or participating in a meeting, Sam would let the conversation and debate go on for a while, but when it became apparent to him nothing was getting done, his tolerance ended.

He did it in a genial way, but he got the message across. The time for wandering, aimless discussion was over; it was time to move on, to act.

At the last civic meeting we both attended, we hadn't seen each other in a while, and we chatted afterward about how things were going with work and our families. He told me he was thinking about retiring in a couple of years and that he was really looking forward to his son's wedding and the prospect of maybe having more grandchildren.

Hence, the confirmation of his death, at age 63, just days before that wedding feels particularly cruel.

On the wall of the publisher's office here, there's a 10-year-old photo of four Lexington guys doing a farewell wave from the Swilken Bridge on the 18th hole of The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

I talked the other three into posing for it, telling them that it's what the great champions do when they play the British Open at St. Andrews for the last time. Arnold Palmer did it. Jack Nicklaus did it. Last week, it was Tom Watson's turn, and he actually kissed the old stone bridge.

Sam Barnes is one of the guys in that 10-year-old photo.

He wasn't just kind, genial, benevolent and tolerant.

To his family and friends, his bank employees and to Central Kentuckians who knew him and those who didn't, Sam Barnes was, indeed, a great champion.

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