McEntee: Brian Barnard, civil-rights champion, we hardly knew ye
In court, Brian Barnard was a relentless advocate for his clients and worked all hours seven days a week. Off duty, he was a private man, given to the occasional dry joke but never forthcoming about himself.
"We knew him, but we didn't," says Tim Funk, Barnard's friend of 30 years. "He was quiet about his personal life and wanted to keep it that way."
I knew him as a civil-rights attorney who unfailingly returned my calls and always took the time to explain things completely.
The 67-year-old Barnard died in his sleep a few days ago, possibly from a "condition" he didn't discuss, Funk says. "He got really testy right around New Year's. I think there had been a diagnosis."
Barnard had developed a palsy in his hands a couple of years ago and told his friend if his right hand shook too much, he'd use his left.
To a surprised Funk, even that morsel of information was like a "true confession."
What everybody mentioned, though, were the Fourth of July parties Barnard used to throw at his Salt Lake City home on 1200 East.
He'd invite friends, clients and former clients, community activists, all kinds of people to enjoy hot dogs, beer and fireworks.
Funk tells the story about being a younger man who drank a little too much beer at one of the bashes and ended up falling asleep on the grassy, tree-filled median strip out front.
The next morning, he says, Barnard was gracious and kind about it. The people I talked to all echoed that thought.
Barnard was the same way with reporters. Three years ago, I sat down with him for an update on the then-17-year-old lawsuit that ultimately ended up getting a $33 million settlement for San Juan County Navajos, who for decades had been denied their rightful oil-drilling royalties.
Over about 90 minutes, I was treated to a lesson about the history of drilling on reservation land to the present day.
"It's about time," he told me. "This case needs to be resolved, and we need to get the money back in the trust fund."
Then he added, "I take great satisfaction in being able to help marginalized people."
A year later, the suit was settled.
"Brian was kind of a unique person, pretty low-key," says Bruce Plenk, a former colleague who now lives Tucson, Ariz.
"He took on a lot of cases that seemed to inflame other people," he says. "He was not a yeller or screamer; it was the people on the other side who were yelling and screaming at him."
Stewart Gollan, Barnard's associate attorney at the Utah Legal Clinic, says his colleague was a mentor who "taught me more about being a lawyer, and a respectable one, than any law classes."
Barnard also held the view that he had an obligation to right wrongs, fight injustice and work for "people treated poorly by people in power," Gollan says. "He lived that every day of his life."
Barnard was known for checking every bill after each legislative session to ensure none violated civil or other rights, and if he did, he'd take it to court.
I asked Gollan if he would keep that up.
His answer was swift and sure, "I certainly will."
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.
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