A ‘pretty good man’

sgilman@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

Jake Barnes’ old haunts are full of life, just what he would have wanted.

His great-grandchildren now play in the room where he spent his final days. In the bright dining room of the spacious white farm house his father built, three generations still gather for dinner.

It’s a Wednesday evening, and the room is full of conversation.

Stories about Jake.

His fudge. His pranks. How he would pull out his dentures and chase his granddaughters around the house. How, when he was a boy, he switched the furniture in the dining room with the living room furniture, making his father livid.

How he held parties in the barn on the family farm.

“Countless parties,” said his granddaughter, Laura Parrish.

And how he could eat more than anyone else on Sundays after church.

“Don’t let the slenderness fool you,” said another granddaughter, Suzanne Walker.

That narrow frame was a familiar sight in Clayton, where he stood, for decades, smiling behind a counter selling flowers. He arranged flowers for weddings, funerals and proms for much of Clayton.

“I dare say you could count on one hand the people over the age of 40 who grew up here whose lives Jake didn’t touch through his talented hands,” said longtime friend Carlton Vinson.

And, of course, if you saw him, you could never forget how he won Clayton’s Miss Catastrophe contest in 1976. Those long, slender legs made just the right imitation of Cher.

“He was a sight for sore eyes, and anyone who saw him got sore eyes,” said Clayton Mayor Jody McLeod, who counted Barnes as a mentor.

“I will miss him and be forever grateful for what he has done to help me be successful in the floral industry and be successful as mayor,” McLeod said.

Barnes never went to school to learn the flower trade but had “God-given talent,” said his daughter, Donna Parrish.

Truth be told, he didn’t even want to be a florist at first.

In 1952, after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Sally Gardner, Barnes turned down an offer from florist Annie V. Longwell, who begged him to work in her shop.

Two years later, a florist named Evelyn Baugh in Wendell saw arrangements Barnes had done for a Thanksgiving service at his church, White Oak Baptist, in Archer Lodge.

Baugh must have spotted talent, because she also asked him to work for her.

Bored in the quiet winter months on the farm and with two small children to feed, Barnes finally took a job at Baugh’s Florist in Wendell. Six years later, his wife suggested they buy a shop of their own; with the crazy hours a florist has to work, it would allow the family to be together more.

“We’d have to call long distance to tell him goodnight,” Donna Parrish recalled of her and her brother, Alan Barnes.

In January of 1967, Barnes and his wife opened Clayton Flower Shop at 232 E. Main St. They competed and collaborated with Annie V’s for years, sometimes working through nights together or borrowing materials from each other.

Not only was the flower shop a source of excellent arrangements, it was a social hub.

It was home to the “coffee club, a group of ladies who showed up early at his shop every morning and solved all the world’s problems,” said McLeod, the mayor and current Annie V’s owner.

Friends knew they could drop in for a cup of hot coffee, a cold Coco Cola or even a nap on the vinyl couch Barnes kept in the back of the shop.

Family practically lived in the shop.

“I’d come home from school, and he had all these drawers and little compartments I could put my toys in and my coloring books,” said Walker. “When I was not in school, he’d find a cardboard box and cut a door and windows in it. I’d sit in there all day and read and play.”

A Christian influence

Not only did Barnes run a popular flower shop, he was also active in his church. For more than 30 years, he served as chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee at White Oak.

Barnes could tell you that in 1881, his grandfather, Elias Barnes, donated an acre for the church and helped build the original building from white oaks on the property. He could tell you that the church cemetery began as the Barnes’ family cemetery and that in 1944 his father helped build the brick church that stands there today.

Barnes was a deacon for years and always took his family to church.

“He was always supportive and just a good Christian influence,” Laura Parrish said. “He lived for God, and he loved others, and he put everybody else above him. I probably wouldn’t be the Christian I am today if it weren’t for him taking me to church so much and being the kind of person he was. He bent over backwards for everybody.”

Freddy Creech, who worked for Barnes for 38 years, agreed.

“He was just my hero,” he said. “He was always real friendly to be around, and if he told you something, it was true, and if he promised you something, he stood up to his word.”

Creech started working for Barnes at age 15, took 18 years off to work as custodian for Clayton Elementary School and worked again for Barnes until Barnes retired in 1998. He now works for McLeod.

Creech recalls that Barnes wore a necktie to work every day, “like he was going to a church service.”

“And his flower shop was just as clean as his house,” he added.

After work, Barnes would drive Creech, who didn’t have a license, to his house, where the two men would pull weeds and plant shrubs and flowers. When Creech’s mother developed Alzheimer’s, Barnes would visit her every day on his way home. And if Creech ever needed money, Barnes would loan it to him.

“After his son died in 1990, I feel like he adopted me as a son,” Creech said.

Kindness often comes full circles.

“And in his last days,” Creech said, “when he got disabled, I would walk him, I would give him a bath, I would change his clothes, help him get his clothes on. I would rub his feet. And he would always tell me, ‘I’m your white daddy.’ ... I can honestly say he was the best friend I had.”

Nearly six years ago, Barnes developed a muscular disorder. His daughter, Donna Parrish, and her husband, David, fixed up the “home place,” the house where Barnes grew up. They moved in and took care of Barnes.

He died March 1 at age 86.

“I feel like I’ve lost my daddy, and I lost a child, because I took care of him so long,” Donna Parrish said.

Now the house where he grew up and where he grew old stands a little emptier. But in the house next door is his granddaughter Laura; and in the house next to that one, his granddaughter Suzanne, her husband Jonathan Walker and their two small children, James and Charlotte.

AnnieRuth O’Neal, who grew up working in the tobacco fields with Barnes, said she is comforted knowing Barnes is in a better place.

“I know, I believe in my heart, that Jake’s at rest, and that’s what counts most when we are at the end of the road,” O’Neal said. “Even though it’s sad, it’s been a good life and a lot of good memories.”

But tears still come, though Barnes wouldn’t have wanted them to.

“When Daddy died, he said, ‘I don’t want no tears. I want you to gather in the barn and have a party,” Donna Parrish said, adding that they plan to do that very thing.

The best description of Barnes might be from his 5-year-old great-grandson, James Walker, who called him Papa Jake.

“He was a pretty good man, and his family loved him,” the youngster said.

 

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