Short Rows: Barlow lived life of service to community, state

Published 4:26 pm Friday, October 28, 2022

One of today’s most hackneyed phrases is “giving back.” Somewhere in most interviews with people who have done something nice for the community, they will say they were just “giving back.”

I doubt that Bill Barlow ever used that phrase. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to him, and it wouldn’t have been accurate anyway, because Bill didn’t “give back.” He simply gave. He gave his professional expertise, his low-keyed and gentle personality and his innate ability to calm the waters around him. He used those talents — or more accurately, gifts — in his law profession, his years in the General Assembly and the uncountable hours he gave to his church, civic groups and individuals who sought his advice. 

From his student years until cancer sapped his energy some months before his recent death at 86, Bill Barlow (lovingly stuck with the childhood moniker “Billy K”) lived a life of service to the people of Isle of Wight and Virginia, be they close friends and associates or people he had never met. 

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During 20 years in the Virginia General Assembly, he was one of the House of Delegates’ most approachable members. He was a Democrat and proud of the label, but when it was time to roll up his sleeves (figuratively, because he would never have done that literally while at work), he was comfortable working with anyone who might share his views, or be persuaded, by them. And he was open to the views of others if they met the selfless and moral standards that guided him.

Whether he was in Richmond or Smithfield, he was also one of the Assembly’s most available members. We now live in an age of “messaging” when legislators, if they speak to constituents at all, like to do so in controlled situations with “safe” audiences, and most often through carefully prepared statements. Bill just spoke to you face to face or promptly returned a phone call to hear your concerns or tell you very candidly, but always politely, how he felt about an issue. If he ever issued a “formal” statement, I don’t remember it. 

While he readily supported numerous pieces of legislation, he was never afraid to go it alone and was perfectly willing to be the sole patron of a bill if he felt strongly about it. 

He may have seemed Quixotic, for example, when he singlehandedly introduced a constitutional amendment that would have created a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Virginia. He tried six times, and six times he failed, to see that amendment forwarded, but long after he left the Assembly, Virginia moved in that direction with a different approach, but one that philosophically intended to do what Barlow had promoted years earlier.

He twice introduced, as the sole patron, the concept of instant runoff elections. That bill was also killed, but a version of random choice voting is now gaining in popularity among Democrats and Republicans.

He tried, again on his own and again unsuccessfully, to have Virginia’s miserably weak conflict-of-interest regulations tightened. A tiny bit of progress has since been made on that front.

Much of his time, though, was spent promoting the needs of his local constituents. He worked tirelessly, though again unsuccessfully, trying to give localities the right to impose a severance tax on sand, one of Isle of Wight’s primary exports for decades.

He repeatedly attempted to give localities the right to tax cigarette sales, and back before cellphones became ubiquitous, he worked repeatedly to have telephone service call areas consolidated, so that Smithfield residents wouldn’t have to pay to call Windsor and vice versa.

That was Delegate Bill Barlow’s legacy, and it would be legacy enough for most public people, but Bill’s greatest contribution to Isle of Wight may well have been his work more than 50 years ago. 

In 1969, U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. ordered the complete desegregation of Isle of Wight’s public schools. It was a decision that had been expected for several years. Virginia had instituted what it called a “freedom of choice” system allowing any student to transfer to another school. The system was doomed to fail, and most everyone knew it. 

Across Southside Virginia, including Isle of Wight, white parents frightened by the prospect of their children going to school with black neighbors created private academies and, until a federal court struck it down, Virginia gave the academies a financial incentive in the form of a “tuition grant” program to underwrite the flight of any student.

Given Merhige’s no-compromise order, the Isle of Wight School Board merged county schools, and the flight of white students accelerated.

In January 1969, ahead of Merhige’s order, Bill Barlow consulted with other concerned residents and wrote a letter to the School Board and Board of Supervisors urging a renewed commitment to the public school system.

That letter was typically Bill Barlow — optimistic and conciliatory.

“I am optimistic that under your leadership and that of the Board of Supervisors, the present problems can be overcome, and that the public school system will not only remain strong, but will actually steadily improve in the coming years.”

In a cover letter sending the epistle to The Smithfield Times, he wrote:

“I appeal to all people of goodwill that we not only pray for our public officials during this trying period, but that we express to them renewed support for our public school system. The institution of public schools is one of the major factors, if not THE major factor, which has made our nation the greatest on earth.”

He then compiled a list of more than 130 county community leaders of both races and contacted them to organize a steering committee for an organization that would become Citizens for Better Public Schools.

A biracial board soon emerged. Barlow characteristically stepped back to have others become its spokesmen, and instead became its secretary, quietly working for its success during a couple of very trying years.

The group was able to serve as a moderate force for constructive change as integration took place, and within a couple of years the flight of white students ebbed and began to reverse.

The Isle of Wight public school system barely missed a step. The Smithfield High School football team in 1969, with players who came from previously separate Smithfield High and Westside High, became an unbeatable biracial team.

There were racial tensions and they would continue, but they would abate over time, and Isle of Wight’s public schools emerged and remain among Virginia’s strongest rural systems. Bill Barlow played a huge role in making that happen during a very trying period. 


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is