Hugh Barnett has been a member of Rotary Club for more than 40 years, starting when he lived in Clarksville and continuing now that he’s in Maryville.
On Wednesday, with friends and fellow Rotarians surrounding him, he reached a milestone few others will — he turned 103. It’s estimated he’s attended 2,200 Rotary meetings over the years.
Those friends made sure the Wednesday meeting was one big party. For 24 hours, it was all about Hugh Barnett.
Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor and Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell both issued proclamations that Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, be deemed “Hugh Barnett Day” in their communities. Taylor attended the birthday celebration for Barnett at the Maryville Rotary Club meeting.
Richard Cook, an Oak Ridge writer, rented a digital billboard with Barnett’s picture on it along Pellissippi Parkway near Solway as part of this birthday bash.
Taylor shared with the crowd details of Barnett’s life, including his work on the Manhattan Project, first in New York and then in Oak Ridge. He was one of only about 300 workers on the site in Oak Ridge that knew the top secret purpose of the plants. The fuel for the Hiroshima bomb dropped in 1945 was made in Oak Ridge.
Ironically, President Harry Truman announced the unconditional surrender of Japan on Aug. 14, 1945 — Barnett’s 29th birthday. That was also the day his son was born.
Barnett was born on Aug. 14, 1916, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Mississippi.
While in Oak Ridge, Barnett worked at both K-25 and Y-12 plants, overseeing 1,000 workers at one point. His career took him all over, from New York to Tennessee, Indiana to Canada.
Taylor thanked Barnett for his service to this country and for his leadership. He also let this centennarian-plus-three know that Wednesday also was special for one more reason.
“When a citizen gets a day named especially for him, he can’t get arrested,” Taylor teased. “So from now until 12 midnight, go wild, Hugh. You won’t get arrested. If anyone asks questions, just show them these documents and say Tom Taylor and (Blount County Mayor) Ed Mitchell said it’s OK.”
Attendees also watched a video of Barnett being interviewed about his life. He talked about meeting his wife, Shirley, when he lived in Connecticut. He said his landlord and Shirley’s mother arranged the meeting.
When asked by his landlord if he wanted to meet her, Barnett said he responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”
But when Shirley was asked if she wanted “to meet a boy from Mississippi,” she had a difference reponse.
“Heavens, no!” Barnett said Shirley said.
The two did meet, and Barnett said he tried to steal a kiss that first day. Shirley pushed him away.
A second chance
But on that second day, they listened to music and she even let Barnett beat her at ping pong. “It was obvious,” Barnett said.
He also got that kiss.
The two were together for almost 70 years. Shirley died in 2011. They have two sons, Lee and Larry, who both attended the 103rd birthday party. Lee shares his father’s birthday.
Barnett also shared on the video about earning the rank of Eagle Scout in Mississippi when he was only 14. He built a log cabin for his project. He has a photo of fellow Eagle Scouts in the Rose Garden at the White House. He’s standing next to President Herbert Hoover.
That was 1931. Barnett said he and his fellow Scouts rode to D.C. on a school bus. “Some of the roads weren’t too good back then,” he said. They broke down at one point along the journey.
“We had a real good time,” he said.
When asked how he has managed to live such an active life, Barnett said he exercises every day. He loves to read and also play bridge. “And I have a good happy hour,” he confessed.
He is the oldest person to ever travel on the Knoxville HonorAir flights. Barnett was 100 when he made the trek to Washington, D.C.
At the end of the meeting, Maryville Rotary presented Barnett with a bench that he will find a permanent place for at Asbury Place.
He stood to acknowledged the gift. He told the crowd he wouldn’t take up time with any speeches but he did want them to know his heart.
“It’s so nice to be with friends,” Barnett said. “They are my biggest asset.”