The 2017 Republic Woman of the Year allows that she’s a bit notorious for saying things out loud that other people want to say, but never do.

That characteristic has endeared Annette Barnes to friends and associates in Columbus, who sent nearly two dozen nominations to the newspaper saying she is the perfect recipient for an award that recognizes a local woman for unselfish contributions toward creating a vital community.

Barnes said she had an inkling something was up when fellow church members at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church began a conversation referencing writing a letter on her behalf, and then abruptly stopping when they realized the nomination was supposed to be a surprise.

“I think one person said they sent a four-and-a-half page letter,” Barnes said during an interview in her north-side Columbus home. “I’m not supposed to know that,” she said, smiling when thinking of the person who tipped her off about her nomination.

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Barnes speaks what’s on her mind in various leadership roles in the community, as a member of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, as an ordained minister volunteering at Columbus Regional Hospital and local extended care centers, and as a church leader and volunteer.

She has spoken up for the marginalized in society, for people who aren’t being listened to and for people of color who sometimes feel ostracized in a community that only has about a 2 percent African-American population.

She’s participated in Muslim-Christian dialogues, and according to her pastor, the Rev. Clem Davis, she is “indefatigable when it comes to the defense of everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Barnes is comfortable in her own skin and will fight to allow everyone to experience that same comfort in theirs,” Davis wrote in his nomination.

“When I go silent, you know that I am thinking about what my mother taught me,” Barnes said of her tendency to speak up when others won’t. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Sometimes I think my mother is still on my shoulder,” she said, tapping her left shoulder for just where that voice is coming from.

Discriminated against

In her lifetime, Barnes has experienced the pain of being singled out for hurtful discriminatory treatment, and has no tolerance for people who do not understand the damage it causes to individuals and to the community.

Born in Central City, Kentucky, she was younger than a year old when the family moved to Indianapolis, where she grew up, except for a short time living in St. Louis, Missouri.

Married and late in her pregnancy with her first child, she walked into a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in St. Louis in the early 1960s and was surprised to be told that the restaurant employee was sorry, but the family would not be served in the restaurant.

The fact that a restaurant was allowed to refuse service was appalling to Barnes, and she said she was glad when she left the community to return to Indianapolis.

“I always look for a place where we can come away from it feeling some sense of value,” she said. “I do have patience, but I’m still learning patience,” she said. “I honestly don’t have patience for foolishness.”

Her second marriage in 1981 brought her to Columbus, when she married the late Delmar Barnes, a vice president for tax administration who worked for Cummins. She had five children, the youngest still in high school, and was working at L.S. Ayres in Indianapolis when she decided to set out in a different direction in her own life.

She was encouraged by a church acquaintance to apply for a youth advocates position in Columbus, which was a job connecting troubled youth with available social services. In that role, she would attend juvenile hearings and make recommendations to judges about whether juveniles should stay in their biological home or go into foster care, and what programs might benefit them.

After four years, emotionally spent from the stories that included serious ongoing abuse, fractured families and other issues, she moved into a customer service position at Irwin Bank and awaited the next calling, which turned out to be training as a minister.

Called from God

“God was calling me to something and I answered, ‘Put me where you need me to be,’ ” Barnes said.

When she was encouraged by her church family to go to seminary at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, she pointed out she was short a semester at Indiana University.

“Take a class,” they said. “Talk to the dean.”

After taking a few classes, she was invited to enroll at the end of the first semester. She earned a master’s degree in divinity at the seminary, embarking on using the degree to provide pastoral counseling, she said.

The training taught her to listen, she said, something that is particularly important in a world where some people have few advocates and options, and even fewer people to share their fears and concerns with, she said.

When Barnes arrived in Columbus, she and her family saw few black people in the circles they traveled in the community, in church and in the workforce. However, when she and her husband attended parties at Cummins, they were embraced by the workforce and leadership there and never, never, never felt unwelcome, she said.

Barnes credits her late husband’s boss, Robert A. Orben, at Cummins, with making sure the Barnes family always felt welcome.

Orben was among those nominating Barnes for Woman of the Year, saying she has been “tireless in her concern about others and has provided countless hours sharing her ministerial personality with others.”

“Annette is not outspoken,” Orben said of his friend. “She just moves freely, enabling others in an unassuming way.”

In her nomination letter for Barnes, Christine “Tina” Vujovich, a retired Cummins vice president for marketing and environmental policy, talked about Barnes’ civic, social and spiritual calling to contribute her gifts to help people.

“Annette responds to a need with her inclination to serve people, her concern for social justice and her penchant for calming souls and hearts,” Vujovich said. “It is not surprising that in a single day, Annette can be seen comforting a family with a dying relative at the hospital, later making a visit to friends at Four Seasons (Retirement Center) and finishing the day working with young adults at a church ministry meeting.”

Christian journey

Barnes was ordained into the Christian Church Disciples of Christ denomination, but eventually found her way back to her Catholic roots and is now an active participant in the day-to-day St. Bartholomew church’s worship. She attends Mass daily throughout the week, finding a spiritual peace there, and has been a lector and was trained and commissioned for the Eucharistic ministry as well, assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion.

Although she had to seek reconciliation with the church for a divorce that she did not want in order to be reunited with the Catholic faith, Barnes credits Davis with “loving her back into the church,” she said. “He said, ‘Come back and try us again,’ ” she said, smiling at the memory.

“I knew then I was in the right place,” Barnes said of rejoining the Catholic faith.

Going to Mass each day “feeds my spirit,” she said.

She participates in the church’s bereavement ministry, which is an ongoing support group for people who have lost a loved one. She was particularly touched that St. Bartholomew parish representatives visited and prayed for her husband when he was in Four Seasons prior to his death.

Barnes also loves the time she volunteers at Columbus Regional Hospital in the cancer center treatment area, visiting with patients who are in a fight for their lives.

“I don’t have a cure for them, but I have a heart for them,” she said.

She sometimes sees patients she talked with and prayed with out in the community, doing better, and has been told they remember what she gave to them during those hospital visits.

“I always say whatever you can give to a cancer patient, you get it back 10-fold,” Barnes said. “I’ve been given so much. I am so blessed by people who have been put in my path. That’s what life is about — doing the work of the Lord.”

Barnes says she believes one of her strengths is the capacity to stay in an adverse situation and not run away, even when it’s difficult.

And she admits that sometimes, she asks God to “watch her mouth,” as she moves among the entities where she volunteers and serves each day as a counselor and helper.

She prays each day to be somebody who emulates God in everything she does, and to reach out her hands as God would want her to do, she said.

“God is good, all the time. In the midst of all of our valleys, God is good,” she said.

About Annette Barnes

Age: 81

City of residence: Columbus

Occupation: Retired

Community service and memberships:

  • Secretary of the Columbus Human Rights Commission, appointed by the Columbus City Council in 2013.
  • Volunteer for Mill Race Center and past volunteer for the Columbus Area Visitors Center.
  • Provides chaplain support and volunteers at Columbus Regional Hospital in its cancer center.
  • Served as executive director of the Youth Advocacy Commission and as a guardian ad litem for the juvenile justice system in Bartholomew County.
  • Member of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, where she serves as a Eucharistic minister and lector, serves on the Parish Council and performs in the church choir.
  • Is a retired board-certified chaplain and serves as an appointed chaplain for the Columbus Police Department.
  • Served on the 2015 ad hoc subcommittee for the Columbus Human Rights Commission to give a recommendation to amend the city’s ordinance to include sexual orientation, gender identity and age as protected classes.

Education: Graduate of Indiana University, and received a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Family: Was married to the late Delmar Barnes; five children, Earle Robinson III, Kenneth Robinson, Diane Robinson King and twins Timothy Patrick Robinson and Michelle Robinson; a stepdaughter, Cynthia Barnes, stepson Michael Barnes and 11 grandchildren.

If you go

What: The Columbus Republic’s Woman of the Year Celebration

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Donner Center, 739 22nd St., Columbus

How much: Free, reservations not required, light refreshments will be served

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.