A true statesman

Published 7:52 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One way to determine the level of commitment a politician has to the community that elected him is to examine his record of public service once he has left office. Are the efforts he undertakes designed to serve for the betterment of the community or for improving the legacy that he leaves — the way that history will remember him?

There are plenty of unfortunate examples of politicians at every level of government whose “commitment to public service” seems to have evaporated when they walked out of office. Fewer in number, but so much greater in stature are the statesmen (and –women) who have found ways to work to improve the communities and their nation from the less-public positions they have held outside of office.

Dr. George Barnett was the latter kind of public servant, the statesman who continued to work behind the scenes for his community right up until the end of his life. Dr. Barnett, who died Monday, served as a councilman for the Nansemond County Board of Supervisors and went on to become mayor of the newly formed city of Suffolk several years after the 1974 merger between Nansemond and Suffolk.

Barnett’s service, however, continued well beyond his time as an elected official. Many of Suffolk’s younger business, civic and government leaders today know him not as a dentist — his profession until he retired in 1995 — or as an elected official, but as the driving force for the Suffolk Leadership Academy. He helped start the organization in 2000, with a vision of creating a program whereby Suffolk residents would learn more about their city, its government and the programs available to help their neighbors.

Barnett was a familiar face to those who attended the Academy, and he helped with its planning right up until the most recent meeting of the organization’s planning committee, last month. “He was there doing his thing,” fellow member Kenda Council said on Monday. “He was just as involved in it a month ago as he was 10 years ago.”

Barnett was the prototypical local statesman. His example is a fine one — both for those new to elected office and to those leaving public office. He will be missed by the city that he loved.