Suffolk loses community treasures in ’09

Published 6:31 pm Saturday, January 2, 2010

Much was made in the national news this year about the number of celebrity deaths.

Singers, actors and even television pitchmen died this year. However, here in Suffolk, the city lost a number of its most involved community champions and local “celebrities.”

Eric Paul Brooks

On Wednesday, June 17, longtime Suffolk News-Herald freelance photographer Eric Paul Brooks died at the age of 66. Relatives, friends and colleagues recalled him as a talkative person with a gentle soul.

“He came home one day and said he had to buy a new jacket,” recalled Annette Brooks, Eric’s wife, a few days after his death. When she asked him where his leather jacket was, he told her he had given it to a man walking on Holland Road who was wearing nothing but a sweater.

“He was a good man,” Annette Brooks said.

Tim Copeland, editor of the Suffolk News-Herald from 1990 to 1999, said Eric was the quintessential freelancer.

“He was always smiling, always laughing,” Copeland said. “He never took s— off of anybody.”

Helen V. Daughtrey

On Aug. 15, Helen Daughtrey, former vice president of the Suffolk branch of the NAACP, died at the age of 80.

Daughtrey served on many committees and project boards aimed at revitalizing the city, including the Fairground/Phoenix Bank Revitalization Committee, the Suffolk Beautification Committee and the Suffolk Clean Community Commission. Additionally, Daughtrey helped with the development of the East Suffolk Recreation Center and served as an election official.

“Helen was considered a trailblazer, and she was,” said Amanda Rodgers, a devoted friend and colleague with Daughtrey. “We’re going to miss her.”

Family friend and “adopted niece” Sandra Knight said Daughtrey’s focus always was on making the community its best.

“She was just totally involved, and whatever she was involved in you can believe she put in 100 plus percent to make it happen,” Knight said.

James “Doc” Richards Sr.

James Richards Sr., former owner and operator of the Suffolk Professional Pharmacy, died Nov. 1 at the age of 89. The pharmacist was affectionately called “Doc” by generations of Suffolk residents.

Richards attended South Carolina University, graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1942. After serving in the military, he returned to school and completed a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy. In 1943, Richards married his childhood sweetheart, Athalia Richards, and the two had three children — James Jr., Ann and Patricia Lynn.

Richards’ drugstore became a stalwart organization in the community, in the area known as The Fairgrounds. The pharmacy became a place where blacks, even in the 1950s, could walk in the front door and be assured of service, according to a 2004 News-Herald article on Richards. Before integration, black customers had to use the back door of most businesses, and even then did not know if they would be served.

“It was an incredible service to the community,” recalled former Suffolk resident Donna Harper. “I am very much touched by his life and always will remember him fondly.”

Richards’ son, James Richards Jr., recalled his father’s love of the community.

“He had a deep regard for the community and a desire to help people,” Richards said. “People tell me they didn’t feel just like customers. They felt like they were part of a caring community. When he worked with them, he was working with more than just somebody who was bringing business to him. He exuded a feeling of caring about their wellbeing.”

George Barnett

Former Suffolk mayor and beloved dentist, Dr. George Barnett, passed away Dec. 28 at the age of 86.

Barnett was the founder of the Suffolk Leadership Academy and Suffolk Tomorrow, in addition to managing his dental practice and being a community leader.

Dr. Barnett was a councilman before Suffolk’s merger with the city of Nansemond, and became mayor in 1980. Born and raised in Suffolk, Dr. Barnett was a student at Virginia Military Institute in 1941. After serving in the U.S Army during World War II and receiving a medical discharge, he returned to the states and began pharmacy school, later transferring to dentistry school. He began his dental practice in Suffolk in 1950.

Harden Barnett, Dr. Barnett’s son, described his father as a “people person.”

“He loved people,” Barnett said. “He did those endeavors as much to be with the people as he loved the dentistry or the community work. He was one of those people who never met a stranger.”

After retiring from dentistry in 1995, Dr. Barnett delved once again into community work. In 2000, he was the driving force behind the genesis of the Suffolk Leadership Academy, which helps Suffolk residents learn more about their community and how to get involved. Dr. Barnett still was active with the academy, said Kenda Council, a member of the planning committee of Suffolk Leadership Academy.

“We were profoundly saddened to hear that news,” Council said. “He would attend almost every class and every session. It makes me so sad to think of having this next session and not having him there.”

The last meeting of the planning committee was about a month ago, Council said.

“He was there doing his thing,” she said. “He was just as involved in it a month ago as he was 10 years ago.”