Column – Genteel Barlow was model public servant

Published 5:13 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2022

“End of an era” is tossed around loosely in public service, but the recent passing of Smithfield’s Bill Barlow is reason to lament a closed chapter of civility and bipartisanship in politics.

Unless annihilation of democracy as we know is acceptable for the current cast of partisans on both sides of the aisle, they’d be wise to heed the spirit of Billy K. — approachable, humble, soft-spoken, trusting, open-minded, to name a few of the adjectives that have flowed freely in tributes from former colleagues on the left and right since Barlow’s passing on Sept. 21.

Our paths hadn’t crossed in five years or more, but if they had, I’d have asked him if voters’ 2011 ouster of him from the Virginia General Assembly after 20 years of distinguished service was just as well. Barlow’s loss to upstart Republican Rick Morris marked the beginning of the nationalization of state politics, and now even local politics, when the important issues affecting Virginians and Isle of Wight Countians are drowned out by whatever MSNBC and Fox News tell us we should be angry about. Then the party that stirs up the most anger wins the next election.

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Barlow wouldn’t have had the stomach for it. He was unusual in the political set for his willingness to listen and appreciate the sincerity of an opposing viewpoint. He’d have made a good mediator in the modern debates about public education.

When tempers briefly flared between spectators during a recent Isle of Wight School Board District 2 candidate forum I co-moderated, I thought of Barlow, who’d have been slow to ascribe motives to those who have strong feelings on hot-button questions like transgender policy and racial equity.

Parents with concerns about indoctrination of school kids on sensitive topics aren’t all white supremacists and bigots. Likewise, parents and school officials who want a level playing field for kids regardless of their race or sexual orientation aren’t all Marxists scheming to take over public schools.

Sometimes people with good hearts and sound minds just see issues differently.

It takes a deep breath and a little emotional intelligence to appreciate the gray areas in controversies that are too quickly reduced to black and white. Bill Barlow was gifted in that sense. Politics misses him.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is