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In Memoriam: Mark Barber, a ‘painter’ with a vision

By Rhonda Dedyne
Guest Columnist

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St. Johns lost a true native son Dec. 8 with the sudden passing of Mark Barber, but his smiling eyes and hearty laugh are firmly etched in the community’s conscience – present now and for generations to come via the multitude of buildings that stand as a testament to his creative vision.

"Someone should catalog all the restoration projects and renovation work that Mark was involved with during his life," Pete Motz said, reflecting upon the accomplishments of his St. Johns High School classmate and friend. "It would be a very long list."

Indeed – and with many projects still remaining, left unfinished now with his death at the too-young age of 55.

Fortunately, as the Rev. Cayle Beagle so eloquently expressed in his funeral eulogy, the community is blessed with an array of visual reminders that showcase Mark’s passion for historic building restoration.

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Perhaps most prominent among those projects is the home of Gen. Oliver L. Spaulding that Mark literally saved from the wrecking ball, following a devastating fire in 1992 that turned the Oakland Street landmark into a mass of charred timber and broken bricks. His attention to detail and concern for always doing the best job possible that are a trademark of all Mark’s endeavors is evident in the proud and noble structure that emerged from the rubble.

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Similar projects, both large and small, dot the community’s landscape. Mark’s handiwork is everywhere, from private residences like the Emmons House on South Lansing Street, to public buildings like the Depot Center for the Arts.

Exceeding that lengthy list by far, however, is a host of friends that Mark collected from all walks of life. People seemed to be drawn to him, perhaps sensing his aptitude for listening – and telling – stories.

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Mark takes a break from painting the Depot to pass the time of day with Bob and John Sirrine in November, 2001.

"We’re all going to miss seeing Mark, painting on one project or another around town – he always made time to stop and talk with whoever passed by," Motz recalled, noting with a laugh that those frequent conversations routinely disrupted Mark’s work day. "It’s a wonder he ever got anything done."

While Mark was always open and genuinely interested in hearing what people had to say, he rarely drew attention to himself. He was content for the most part to work behind the scenes, generating ideas and offering his expertise to bring those concepts to fruition.

" Mark was one of those individuals that have an ability to think way ahead of the curve, he was really a visionary in a lot of ways," said Don Rademacher, who served for many years with Mark as a member of the St. Johns Cemetery Association. "He brought the idea to the (cemetery) board about planting new trees on an annual basis around the cemetery to replace ones that were dying and had to be removed.

"All those trees that have been planted in the past eight years or so are a reminder about Mark’s vision."

One sight that was crystal clear in Mark’s mind never materialized. As Pastor Beagle remarked, sometimes the successful outcome of a project was simply beyond his control – like Central School. Clearly, the concept for transforming the aging and vacant school building into a banquet and conference center was well beyond the scope of most people’s understanding, and as it turned out, nearly impossible from a historic preservation standpoint.

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True to his nature, Mark battled to the bitter end, only conceding when the odds became utterly insurmountable. An uncharacteristic look of sadness filled his bright, blue eyes when the Central School bell and its embracing tower were lowered to the ground prior to the demolition of the building in 1999. It was a fight he could not win.

Still, parts of that dream remain. A staunch supporter of education in general, and St. Johns Public Schools in particular, Mark helped coordinate the sale of bricks from Central School following its demolition as a fundraiser for the St. Johns Schools Foundation for Excellence. And, the old Central School bell has a place of honor today on the grounds of St. Johns High School.

"There are many projects and organizations that Mark was involved with that people may not be aware of; he helped because he wanted to, not for personal recognition," former St. Johns City Manager Randy Humphrey said about his friend’s unassuming demeanor. "He was a wonderful advocate for his hometown."

A complete obituary appears here.