And for many of Barnwell’s 88 years, people in Jacksonville did just that, as the World War II veteran established himself as a local keeper of history. People entrusted to him numerous photos of military service, family stories and personal keepsakes tied to the past.
On Monday Barnwell died at his home on B Street in the historic Profile Mill Village, a community he called home all his life.
“He’s going to be missed, obviously by his family, but I think a lot of other citizens in Jacksonville are going to miss him as well,” said Mayor Johnny Smith. “He was just a very nice guy.”
Many in the community knew Barnwell as a local historian, but others remember him for his many other roles. Barnwell was husband to Reba Tillery Barnwell for 60 years; he was a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and lifelong friend to many.
“He was raised and born in the mill village and died there,” said Dora Mattox, who like Barnwell grew up in the neighborhood for workers at the once-bustling Profile Mill.
She knew Barnwell for more than half a century.
“He was a good man,” she said.
Members of Barnwell’s family reached by phone on Wednesday declined to speak.
Barnwell began collecting snippets of history after he returned from fighting in World War II, in which he took part in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. That’s when he began collecting photos of Jacksonville residents who’d served in the military. The collection over the decades grew and grew, friends said.
In time, Barnwell would become an authority on local history, including the Profile Mill Village.
“He was a history legend, I guess,” said Moe Chaney, a lifelong friend. “We lost an icon.”
His expertise became so well known that people in the community would go to him with little pieces of history, photographs and personal keepsakes. Mattox, who knew Barnwell from childhood, gave him her brother’s WWII military uniform and a Purple Heart he received from wartime service.
“He was known as the historian here in Jacksonville,” Mattox said. “He could, you know, tell you everything about everything that went on.”
Barnwell could call local men and women in old photos by name, the same way a teacher can identify students in a class photo. Jerrod Brown, a local photographer with an interest in preservation, said he saw Barnwell exhibit his skill at a meeting about old photos a year ago at the local library.
“Most of us had no idea about any of the people in the photos, however Homer was able to tell us who most everyone in the photos were and provide lots of valuable info,” Brown wrote in an email on Wednesday.
Barnwell was known among his friends for visiting the sick and the lonely. He frequented “fellowship breakfasts” at area churches and regularly visited funeral homes to support families and friends. He attended Tredegar Chapel Congregational Holiness Church.
“I don’t know that he ever spoke ill of anybody,” Chaney said.
Barnwell worked for the city of Jacksonville and retired from the Utility Department.
In retirement he made time for other simple things, like visiting with his old friend Rufus Carr.
“He’d come by here and he’d sit on the porch and talk about World War II,” said Carr, 91.
Carr said he and Barnwell grew up playing on the streets of Jacksonville together. Both men were called into service and were present for D-Day but Carr, who is black, was in a segregated battalion.
“We were right up the beach from each other,” Carr said, referencing Normandy. “I didn’t know that until the war was over.”
In his retirement, Barnwell began frequenting Jack’s in Alexandria, where he would meet with other retirees, and McDonald’s in Jacksonville, where he became part of a group that meets in the mornings, known as the “Romeo Club.”
Mayor Smith said he sometimes saw Barnwell while stopping by McDonald’s in the morning for coffee. Sometimes, the older man would have a binder of his old photos with him.
“It hasn’t been all that long ago,” Smith said. “I think everyone will just miss him.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.