James C. Barbieri · 2010
James C. Barbieri was a true hall-of-famer.
It’s too bad he didn’t live to learn of his induction into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame — he probably would have written the story himself. But he might have been just too busy covering the news in Bluffton, Ind., to attend the induction ceremony had he not passed away on April l, 2006.
Barbieri never retired. He was full-time editor and reporter at The News-Banner in Bluffton, a half hour south of Fort Wayne, until he died at 77 on April Fool’s Day after 56 years on the job. But he’s probably still pounding out stories. On the occasion of his 50th anniversary at the paper in June 2000, he wrote: “I like to hope that when the time comes, I’ll end up working on the Celestial News-Banner, which I imagine is a lot like the one here on earth.”
Longevity wasn’t Barbieri’s only attribute as a newsman. Far from it. Take, for example, his volume. He is said to have written five or six stories a day, every day, six days a week. He not only had three to five bylines on the front page of the paper every day, he wrote the daily editorial as well. And he took his own pictures.
“He’s probably written more words than anybody in the history of the world,” said Joe Smekens, who worked at The News-Banner for 46 years and was managing editor when he retired a year ago. “Every day all those years. I don’t know of another journalist who could have written more.
“He was the ultimate news guy. He was 24-7 for over 50 years.”
Barbieri began his days around 1:30 in the morning. He’d start out writing his stories from the previous day’s reporting. And the daily editorial. The News-Banner’s deadline was 11:30 a.m. (it is a 5,000-plus circulation evening paper that publishes Monday through Saturday). Then at night he would cover meetings of county commissioners or county council or whatever was going on. And he might head for home around 10 p.m. unless news would happen along the way — a bad accident or fire. Then he might not go home at all.
Smekens said Barbieri virtually slept at the office on the weekends. “He would sleep at home on Saturday night if there was nothing going on,” Smekens said. “Most of his sleeping was catnaps here or there.”
Barbara Barbieri, a Rockford, Ill., native who still works at The News-Banner, said at least she knew where her husband was when he didn’t come home. “He worked awfully hard,” she said. “His community was precious to him, and it was important to him to tell them about what was important. It was his top priority.”
Jim was born and raised in Park Ridge, Ill., outside Chicago. After graduating from DePauw in 1950 — Barbara is a DePauw graduate, too — he worked a short time at the Chicago American as a reporter. He rejected an offer from the Indianapolis News, he said, because he wanted to be more than just a reporter. He wanted to do everything.
While in college, Barbieri visited Bluffton with a classmate who had grown up there. That visit convinced him Bluffton was going to be his new hometown.
He was hired by The News-Banner on June 18, 1950, and never left, save for serving in the Army from 1950-1953 as a radio operator in Germany and as a News-Banner correspondent until returning to Bluffton. He sold ads and wrote stories. He worked his way up to managing editor, later became an officer and director of the corporation and was named general manager in 1975, then editor in chief. In 1986 he became co-owner and publisher. In 1997 he relinquished his role as publisher and business leader of the newspaper but continued as editor and chief reporter until he died.
Even though he worked for a small-town paper, Barbieri made several trips to Washington. Sometimes he was invited with other small-town journalists to the White House for briefings and luncheons. Barbieri had photos in his News-Banner office of himself with presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
He met with or questioned six presidents and was one of the first Americans to meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He was invited as a delegate to an economic conference at the Kremlin in the Soviet Union in 1991 and at a U.S.-China conference on trade and market economy in Beijing in 1994.
Barbieri reported in extensive detail, and he wrote prolifically and long. He wasn’t above making a point in his news stories now and then. But he did it all from his passion for his community, his adopted hometown, the place he chose to live out his life and into which he chose to pour his lifeblood.
Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis wrote, “There is probably no single individual in my memory who has influenced our community more than Jim Barbieri.”
Fort Wayne News-Sentinel reporter Bob Caylor, who lives in Bluffton, wrote an editorial about Barbieri after his death, saying, “Barbieri found not just news, but a real-life morality play, in every day that passed. He saw villainy in criminals, cheats and high-handed officeholders and spotlighted it. He saw great honor in the ordinary good people of a community — solid cops, inspiring school teachers, diligent laborers, public-spirited merchants and bright volunteers — and celebrated them all. … Bluffton was better off for his devotion.”
Barbieri received the DePauw Alumni Citation and the DePauw Distinguished Achievement in the Media Award. In 2003 he received the Indiana Judges Association’s news media award for excellence in information on the judicial system and courts of Indiana. He received two Sagamore of the Wabash awards, one from Gov. Otis Bowen in 1981 and one from Gov. Frank O’Bannon in 2000. He was the first recipient of the Charlie Biggs Commitment to Community Award by the Hoosier State Press Association in 2005. He won many state press association writing awards.
But it may have been his local honors that meant the most to him: He received the Wells County Distinguished Citizen Award in 1981 and was grand marshal of the Wells County 4-H Fair parade; he was the 1996 Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Citizen of the Year; and he was grand marshal of the Bluffton Street Fair parade in 1998.
And he was involved in his community in many ways: He was a member and an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. He served on the board and as an officer of the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club, was a director of the Wells County Foundation and served as a scoutmaster and baseball coach.
All the while, he and Barbara raised two children, a son and daughter.
In an Associated Press story after Barbieri’s death, Gov. Mitch Daniels related an anecdote from his 2004 campaign for governor, when he visited a Bluffton elementary school before it opened. He recalled Barbieri walking up to him.
“(Barbieri) grilled me, took the pictures, turned down a lift back to town, and (went) back to cover a City Council meeting,” Daniels said. “Back on the RV, my young road companion said, ‘Who is that guy?’ and I told him, ‘Ben, you just met a legend.’”
By Kerry Hubartt, The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel