Monday, May 28, 2012

Lawrence Gooley: Remembering Charlie Barney

The ranks of those who love nature and history were badly diminished earlier this year with the loss of an old friend. I found out about it in terrible fashion a few days ago. The subject of my next book had been narrowed down to three possibilities. The one I was leaning towards was Clinton Prison at Dannemora. An old school friend had urged me several times to get to work on it, and at the top of my list of contacts that day was his name, Charlie Barney.

I began the day as usual with a brief scan of the headlines in a few online newspapers. After a quick look at the local obituaries, I would reach out to Charlie. I knew he would be a big help, and he’d be happy that I was finally doing it.

And then, there it was: Charlie’s picture in the Press-Republican obituaries. I thought at first I must have clicked on his Facebook page by mistake, and that’s why his face was on my screen, but no … it was really him, and he was really gone. I was further stunned to discover that he had died three months ago. If the story was publicized here (he lived in the Buffalo area), I hadn’t seen it.  He was a very young 58.

For the next hour, I must have viewed 15 news reports from western New York … television clips, newspaper reports, obituaries … and just sat there, shocked. He had been on one of countless nature outings, planning to photograph a waterfall in one of the Finger Lakes gorges. He somehow slipped and fell perhaps 100 feet.

I first met Charlie in our freshman year of high school at St. Mary’s Academy in Champlain. The Catholic school in nearby Rouses Point only went as far as the 8th grade, after which students had the option of going to the public school or continuing their Catholic school education at our school in Champlain. Charlie was among the group that joined us.

He seemed at first to be quiet and studious, and was clearly very smart. But in short order, his sense of humor became evident, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. From my perspective, he and two of his close friends were the three amigos, always hanging out together. I spent a lot of time with them, and we became good friends for a while.

A few years ago, via the Internet, Charlie and I reconnected. He sent me some old photos of my hometown and included several jokes in his comments. It had been nearly four decades since we had been in touch, but honestly, it was like we’d never missed a beat. I always thought Charlie Barney was a special guy, and it felt great to hear from him again. There were a few messages here and there, some interesting history and nature links, and a million things of interest on Facebook.

Besides history, he loved nature and had become a prolific and talented photographer (someone noted that he had over 20,000 images on one website).  His critter photos, especially of reptiles, were shared with many of us. He was unfailingly interesting and funny, and was knowledgeable in so many areas of history (Fort Montgomery, Dannemora Prison, and Rouses Point among them), addressing all of it with what seemed to be boundless energy.

I knew he would be a huge help with the prison book, just as he was a great help to Jim Millard with his book on Fort Montgomery (near the Canadian border on Lake Champlain). I was looking forward to some interesting chats and seeing some great photos.

Since the moment a few days ago when I realized he was really gone, I’ve felt a great sense of loss, deep sympathy for his friends, and great sadness for his family. Imagine how wonderful a man he was if I haven’t actually seen him in 40 years, and yet his death has impacted me so.

Though he was my age, this has nothing to do with my own sense of mortality. The Charlie I knew in high school, and the man I reconnected with in the past few years, was one of the good people in a world that is so often disappointing. And that’s why it hurts even those of us who weren’t closest to him. The Barney family was lucky to have Charlie, but there is surely a huge hole in their lives that can never be filled.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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