Former radio personality and Tribune-Courier owner/publisher Harl Barnett proved himself a multi-talented man throughout his long, colorful career.
Barnett, 98, died Dec. 3 at Circle of Life Hospice in Bentonville, Arkansas, just a month short of his 99th birthday. The last five years, he had lived on his son, Geoff Barnett’s farm in Garfield, Arkansas.
During his working years, Barnett not only owned and published the newspaper, he also became a well-known radio personality, owned three different restaurants and owned a sight-seeing paddlewheel riverboat taking vacationers on tours of Kentucky Lake. He continued his radio career, which began in his youth, far into his eighth decade.
Most of those radio years were spent at WCBL in Benton working for station founder Shelby McCallum and the station’s current owner, Jim Freeland. In 2017, he crowned his career by writing a heart-rending book about his wife’s struggle with dementia titled, “Loretta’s Days The Alzheimer Chronicles.” He published it with the assistance of Darryl Armstrong, one of his former employees at the Trib.
Barnett’s former colleagues at WCBL and employees at the Trib remember him as “great guy,” a dedicated journalist and a kind friend. Chris Freeland, station manager at WCBL, met Barnett at the station.
“He was a fixture here for quite a while,” Freeland said. “He was one of the biggest personalities you could ever imagine, just a super nice guy and I always loved his voice. I always thought he had a great radio voice.”
Freeland recalled Barnett talking about people telling him he would never make it in the newspaper business. Barnett instructed his reporters to take a photograph everywhere they went. His strategy worked and he succeeded in publishing a high quality paper.
Freeland also recalled it was Barnett who started the station’s successful program “Bargain Line,” through which businesses sell merchandise via radio. The program is still running and is now hosted by Aaron Clayton.
Jeff Waters, WCBL’s longtime sports voice, met Barnett in the early 1990s when he began his own career. “Harl was here working in a variety of capacities. He had had so many life experiences professionally,” Waters said. “He had traveled a lot, had lived in different parts of the country. He had been in World War II and had some interesting experiences. The one thing I always admired about Harl — he wasn’t afraid to try new things. He was on the internet — had the internet set up in his home a long time before any of us younger people were getting on it. Harl was bringing in stories and different things off the internet and none of us knew how to get on it.
“I remember Harl talking about working at CBL when (the late Judge-Executive) Mike Miller worked here. He may have actually been a manager for Shelby at one time,” Waters said. “Harl was a prankster too and that’s kind of a thing here. We all play jokes on each other all the time, and Harl fit right in even though he was significantly older than most of us. He could give as good as he got, and he enjoyed a good joke. I always appreciated that about him. He was a great guy, I’m proud that I knew him as long as I did. I learned a lot from him. … You always felt better after you talked to Harl.”
Waters and Sherry Darnall remembered how much Barnett loved his wife, Loretta. “He would just light up when she walked in,” Waters said. Darnall remembered how much Barnett helped her when her mother was battling a memory robbing disease.
Darnall also met Barnett at the radio station in Benton. “I worked in the office and he worked back in the back (studios). We worked together 10 to 15 years,” she said. “He was so funny; you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth — he had this sense of humor that was really dry, but it was just hilarious. Of course, everybody loved him on the air; he had that gift of gab that he could just talk and talk and talk.”
Barnett was a friend to whom his colleagues could go if they needed someone to lend an ear. “He was sort of like a father figure to a lot of us, and just a close friend,” Darnall said. “We certainly missed him when he left; he just left a big hole.
“I had a connection with him that maybe other co-workers didn’t have and that was Loretta, the love of his life,” Darnall said, noting that as Loretta’s illness progressed, he was forced to put her in a nursing home. “The connection that we had was when my Mom got Alzheimer’s. I had sort of lived it with Harl. So I asked him for a lot of advice. … I had a lot of questions — what was going to happen next? I just wanted to know where I was going. … I always had great respect for him the way that he had taken care of Loretta.”
Darryl Armstrong of Eddyville who owns a behavioral public relations firm, worked for Barnett at the Trib from 1971 to 1973. Armstrong had just finished his bachelor’s degree at Murray State University. “I needed a part-time job due to other professional work commitments I had,” he said. At the Trib, Armstrong covered the city/county beat “where relations were pretty fractured.” And he became the editor of the summer weekly magazine Leisure Scene and Kentucky Outdoors monthly magazine.
Armstrong maintained a strong relationship with Harl and Loretta Barnett after he moved on in his own career. Barnett had believed in and encouraged him “at times when I doubted myself and my abilities,” Armstrong said. “He taught by example. He led by action. He inspired me through constructive criticism, followed by reaffirming his belief in me as a good person and an aspiring professional. He challenged me to learn continually. He taught me the importance of understanding my personal values and standing by my self-determined principles. He taught me the importance of actively listening and fairly reporting what I heard and letting the chips fall where they may. He taught me the importance of research and investigation. And he taught me to stand up for what I believed and to use the pen, which he always said was mightier than the sword, to achieve change.”
Barnett’s radio career began in Arizona where he met country music legend Marty Robbins and booked him to perform live on the local station, Geoff Barnett wrote on his Facebook page.
Harl Gilbert Barnett was born Jan. 6, 1922 in Kuttawa to Harl Gresham Barnett and Violet Gertrude Rogers Barnett. He was a member of one of Kuttawa High School’s best basketball teams, which also featured a young Joe Fulks who later became an NBA star. He grew up during the Great Depression and remembered “going to town with his father when gold and silver was being hauled out of banks and illegal to own,” his son wrote. Barnett joined the U.S. Army and fought in World War II “helping pull soldiers off the field at Iwo Jima.”
After the war, Barnett married his high school sweetheart, Loretta, and moved to Arizona where his radio career began in sales. With his family, he returned to Kentucky in the early 1960s, went into the restaurant business, and returned to radio working for the late Shelby McCollum, founder of WCBL. He became known for his distinctive voice and his outgoing personality.
In 1970, Barnett bought the Tribune-Democrat and the Calvert News from Bill and Mayme Nelson of Benton. As publisher, he brought a high degree of professional journalism to the two community newspapers. In late 1971, he closed the Calvert News and incorporated Calvert City happenings into the Tribune’s news columns. In October 1970, Walter Dear III, owner of the Gleaner Journal in Henderson, bought the competing Marshall Courier. Then in January 1972, Barnett and Dear established Kentucky Waterland Press and merged the Trib and the Courier to form the Tribune-Courier.
Barnett continued as publisher of the merged publication until 1978 when he sold his interest to Dear, and bought a paddlewheel boat to ferry tourists around the Lakeland.
After selling the boat, Barnett returned to his first love, radio and WCBL where he excelled until retiring at age 86.