Boxwell Greats: Jerry Barnett
One of the great towering legends of Old Hickory Boxwell is Jerry Barnett. For several generations of Parnell-Craig staff, Barnett WAS Boxwell. Along with Tom Willhite and Ernie Ragsdale, Barnett was a driving force in the “Silver Age” of Boxwell, better known as the 1980s and early 1990s.
Barnett began his run on Boxwell staff at Stahlman in 1964 in the Activity Yard as a Program Aide, the 1960s equivalent of the modern CIT (counselor in Training). About halfway through his second year in 1965, he became the Kitchen Director at Stahlman, a position to which he returned to in 1966. Barnett then left Boxwell for a few years to serve in the US incursions in Vietnam. After completing his tours in Vietnam, Barnett returned to Stahlman in 1970, again serving as Kitchen Director under the Schleichers. This run continued until 1971 when Barnett became part of the short-lived Commissioner System. Barnett left Boxwell for several years, serving on the Tennessee Highway Patrol, but returned in 1980 as Activity Yard Director at Parnell under Perry Bruce as Program Director.
It was in 1981 though that the Barnett legend was born. From 1981 to 1992, Barnett began a long, stable run as Program Director at Parnell-Craig. He took a year off in 1986 for alcohol rehab, but overall had a long sustained run at Boxwell as Program Director.
Barnett’s years were ones of stable, quality program. He emphasized uniform, appearance, and the good of the group. His primary focus was always program. Indeed, he often spoke of “what was good for the program,” convincing young staff members to do work they never would have considered, but were guilted into for the good of the group. In later years, he would say he had a socialist-like “Five Year Plan” for each of his two five year runs as Program Director. But at the end of the day, Barnett always saw himself as a teacher. He wanted to impart knowledge, skills, or experience to whomever would listen.
Stories about Barnett are legion and legendary. Barnett could be erratic, often exploding into a rage. His staff called these “Barnett Panics,” or BP’s. But at the same time, he could be a father figure. Parnell-Craig staff often referred to themselves as “Jerry’s Kids,” a reference to Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy telethon, but also a more personal reference to the influence of Barnett on their lives. Talk to a staff member who worked for Barnett in the 1980s and he will likely tell you Barnett was either the father they never had or was like a second father to them. He cared for his staff and they cared for him.
Indeed, perhaps one of his most powerful and memorable legacies came at the end of camp. Every year, Barnett gave a speech to his staff. He told them the “circle was broken. This staff, this group, will never be together again.” In short, Barnett instilled a feeling a family amongst those who worked for him.
Barnett left Boxwell Camp Staff after the summer of 1992. His departure was abrupt and unexpected and for many years, those who had worked for him wondered what happened. Barnett is alive and well and occasionally comes back to Boxwell, bending the ear of any of who will listen of years gone by and still trying to teach a new generation.