Dick Barnett could see for most of his life. It was just since the early 1990s that he has been blind.
And Barnett, of Middle Township’s Green Creek section, was 88 when he died last month, which gave him almost seven decades to see the world and do what he could.
While he could see, Barnett helped start the Green Creek Fire Company, in 1947. He was a lifetime member, held just about every office over the years, and was so dedicated that the “firehouse was his second home,” says his oldest daughter, Lillian Lord, also of Middle.
Barnett believed not just in fighting fires, but in preventing them, too. Years after he helped found the fire company, he became a district warden for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. He was also Middle’s fire-code official, and for years went around Cape May County giving the Smokey Bear forest fire-prevention talk at campgrounds, schools, Scout meetings and other places.
While he was young, he worked at Stone Harbor Lumber Co., then he bought a branch in the Villas and named it Barnett’s Hardware. Plus he had an antiques shop, the Pony Post, at home.
But he was in his 60s when macular degeneration and glaucoma teamed up to steal his sight.
By then, he had already lost two wives to cancer. Lillian Wilson Barnett, the mother of his two daughters, was just 49 when she died of breast cancer in 1976. June Tomlin Barnett was even younger when she died in 1980, of lung cancer diagnosed while they dated. Less than two years after their wedding, she was dead.
So when Dick — or Pop-pop to five grandchildren and Baboo to nine great-grandchildren — started losing his sight, he knew how to live on his own.
And as he went blind, he kept living on his own. He washed his own clothes and cooked his own dinner on his trusty George Foreman grill.
“He knew exactly where everything was in his house,” says Kim Champion, a granddaughter. “Even after he had to move into the nursing home (last year), he could tell you right where everything was at home. He had a picture in his mind, even if he couldn’t see it.”
He couldn’t see the birds or squirrels on his porch, either, but he loved feeding them and hearing them. And he had special bonds with the great-grandchildren — he knew each one by voice, even if he only got to see the first three before his vision went dark.
Plus, Barnett knew his way around the firehouse as well as he did his own house. Paul Fritsch, the deputy chief, knew him almost 35 years. He says Barnett was “ornery,” but a mentor to younger members, a guy who kept going to meetings and helping at the firehouse for years after he went blind.
But then, he did lots of things after he went blind — the same as he did before.
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