Bill Barnes, a legendary educator and coach who mentored thousands of Long Beach students and left a legacy as a trailblazing civil rights leader in the community, died Monday, Dec. 16. He was 89.
Surrounded by his family, Barnes, a former City College dean, died peacefully at Long Beach Memorial Center after struggling with health issues following a stroke two years ago and kidney disease, his wife of 62 years, Virgie, said Tuesday.
“Bill Barnes was a giant in the community, especially in education,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said. “What he did was a forerunner to the College Promise we have today, which extends the promise of a college education to every student in the Long Beach Unified School District. He will be greatly missed.”
Garcia adjourned the Long Beach City Council meeting Tuesday in honor of Barnes.
Barnes was “a shining example of how people can work together to improve the community even if they may disagree on how to get there,” said Beverly O’Neill, former Long Beach mayor and president of City College. “I don’t know of anyone who ever had anything bad to say about Bill. He was so special.”
O’Neill and Barnes were students together at Poly High School in the 1940s and worked together at City College when O’Neill was president and Barnes was a dean.
Naomi Rainey-Pierson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said Barnes was a pioneer in promoting diversity and inclusion in Long Beach, long before those words became fashionable.
“With his big, beautiful smile and his gentle manner, he was an icon who had friends of all colors,” she said. “He left an indelible mark on race relations in Long Beach.”
Barnes also was a star athlete. While at Poly, he was the only African American to play on the basketball team. He and Ed Nichols were the first two African Americans to play on the basketball team at City College, where he was an All-Western States Conference guard in 1949-50. He played on the Pepperdine University basketball team from 1953 to 1955 and was team captain his last year.
William Cornelius Barnes was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 27, 1930, to William C. Barnes, Jr. and Jo Ella Moore Barnes; he was the eldest of two children. Barnes’s father, an auto mechanic, moved the family to Long Beach’s west side when he began working at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard during World War II.
Barnes attended Washington Middle School before going to Poly High, where he had two nicknames, Corney and Hawk. Corney came from his middle name. It was on the playgrounds where he earned Hawk, for his ability to use his hands like Kid Gavilan, a champion boxer back then who was known as The Cuban Hawk. Gavilan in Spanish means Hawk. Barnes liked the nickname so much he had Hawk printed on his license plates.
He graduated from Poly in 1948. He attended Long Beach City College and San Jose City College before serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 53. When he got out, Barnes enrolled at Pepperdine University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education; he later received a master’s degree in education administration at Cal State Los Angeles.
On Sept. 1, 1957, Barnes married Virgie Brown and helped her raise three sons.
While going to night school for his master’s, Barnes was an attendance supervisor at Centennial High School in Compton. He worked as a teacher and counselor in that school district for 11 years before becoming a volunteer basketball coach at City College in 1961. He joined the staff there in 1966 and began a steady upward climb, becoming dean of student affairs and dean of community relations. In 1980, he moved to City College’s Pacific Coast Campus and became executive dean there. He retired in 1997.
Barnes has been inducted into the Hall of Champions and the Hall of Fame at City College.
In 1993, Barnes supported a major change in electing members to the LBCC Board of Trustees. The proposal, which voters approved, meant trustees would be elected from districts instead of at-large; the at-large system, Barnes had argued, meant the chances a person of color would get elected were slim or none.
He said voters would favor the new format.
“They’ll start to realize that five white people elected at-large can no longer represent the entire community,” he said at the time. “It’s an embarrassment in the 1990s to deny representation to minorities in a district the size and (with the) ethnic makeup of this one.”
Barnes also had a major influence on race relations involving his alma mater, Poly High. In 1972, a fight involving black youths and an usher who was a white Poly student led to racial tensions in following weeks.
But Poly came through stronger, largely because of the leadership of Barnes and others through the Poly Community Interracial Committee, a group of black and white members who worked to create a new future for Poly.
Barnes’s work in the community is legendary. Many observers have wondered how one man could have been involved in so many organizations and be effective — but he was.
At one time or another, Barnes served on the boards of Leadership Long Beach, the California Conference for Equality and Justice, the Long Beach Community Foundation, the Long Beach Community Action Partnership Agency and the California State University Building Commission.
He also served as chairman of the Long Beach Board of Health and Human Services, vice chairman of the California Commission on Athletics, and adviser of Long Beach Care, the Red Cross and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach.
He also was an active member of the Los Altos United Methodist Church, along with his wife, who plays in the church’s “Bell Choir.” Barnes also was a fierce competitor on the tennis court and could beat many players younger than he.
“I don’t know how he did it all,” said Doug Otto, a City College board trustee. “He was amazing at getting things done.”
Otto also remembered Barnes’ kindness. When Otto was 10 years old, he won a 100-yard-dash track meet at Wilson High as part of the city’s parks and recreation summer program. But Otto’s joy was smashed, the trustee said, when two other youngsters attacked him and stole some money he had. Otto was stunned and crying — when an older man came by and comforted him.
That man was Bill Barnes, who was working for the city’s parks department during the summer.
“I’ll never forget how Bill made me, this little kid, feel better,” Otto said Tuesday. “We became good friends, and I was always inspired by the way he could make other people feel better in very difficult situations. He played a central role in making Long Beach a better place to live.”
Barnes is survived by his wife of 62 years, Virgie Barnes; three sons, Blake, Brian and Bradley Barnes; and four grandchildren, Cassondra, Cameron, Michael and Deborah.
A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 5950 E. Willow St., Long Beach.