FBI special agent James Barnes got one of those ominous phone calls late on a weekend night. The kind of call that an agent dreads.
His partner was chasing leads in a girl’s kidnapping. The trepidant partner was about to enter an African American nightclub in Greenville, Miss. “Look,” Barnes heard over the phone, “if you don’t hear from me again …”
Barnes had taken the Mississippi assignment when no one else at headquarters near Washington, D.C., would. He’d be a black man working for the fuzz in the Deep South. Perhaps Barnes went because maybe rural Mississippi would remind him just a bit of home back in Roaring River.
The partner walked out of the nightclub with nothing. Black nightclub patrons in Mississippi do not talk to a white FBI agent. To the agent’s surprise, there in the parking lot waiting was James Barnes.
When the partner said no one inside would talk, Barnes said, “C’mon, let’s go back in there.”
James Barnes loved the FBI. As a kid playing cops and robbers with his young cousins, James Barnes became movie idol James Bond, catching the bad guys.
I remember James as the first football star of East Wilkes High School. They started the program in 1969 with a debut jayvee team only. At the big season finale at the Elkin High football field (we didn’t have a football field at East yet), I remember James in the first prime-time game hitting and hitting the line, a little bowling ball of a running back who’d knock back North Wilkes defenders.
James, a co-captain, scored the winning two-point conversion in the fourth quarter in a 16-14 win as, again, he ran up the middle and bowled over the big guys to hit pay dirt.
Near the end of 2016 I noticed a stranger sitting behind me in church one Sunday morning. After the service I turned and introduced myself and asked the stranger his name. “James Barnes,” he said.
All of those old football memories from nearly 50 years ago came flooding back. When I asked James what was he doing these days, he only said that he was a minister.
I did not know that James Barnes was FBI, and big time, until I read his obituary. That’s just the way he was, they tell me. James died Feb. 10 at the age of 64 from medical complications.
FBI special agent James Barnes entered the Mississippi nightclub and headed to the deejay booth. He grabbed the arm of the record player and stopped the music. The filled hall froze.
There was a girl missing, Barnes yelled out. And if he didn’t get any help finding her, Barnes threatened: “I’m going to bring in the National Guard. You don’t want the National Guard here.”
Oh yes, they talked. The agents got their leads. And they cracked the case.
East High’s first football star had not forgotten the home folks, returning after his playing days to help as a volunteer assistant coach.
Elkin businessman Eddie Settle played football at East and had gotten an offer to continue play at Lees-McRae College up in Banner Elk. So he asked coach Barnes, who had spent some time there, about it.
“Do you like cold weather?” Barnes asked.
“Well, no,” replied a young Settle, who’s now a Wilkes County commissioner.
Settle didn’t go to Lees-McRae.
Barnes fulfilled his childhood dream and entered the FBI, a black man in a sea of white faces.
“I don’t think Jim saw himself as white or black,” remembered fellow agent Robert Gaskamp, who came from Texas to speak at Barnes’ funeral, where he told the Mississippi nightclub story and others. Gaskamp broke in with Barnes at the FBI. He called Barnes his role model.
Gaskamp told me that he remembers Barnes as a calming influence in a fast-paced, high-pressure work environment at the FBI’s National Terrorism Center near Washington.
“While everybody else was doing 75/80 miles per hour,” Gaskamp said, “Jim kept on going at 55. He might’ve run over people in football, but he didn’t run over people there.
“That place changed a lot of people. It didn’t change him.”
From where, exactly, do men like James Barnes come? Solid. Steady. Cool under fire. Tough as nails.
What produces leaders with Barnes’ determination, drive and grit, mixed with caring, faith, humility and a touch of humor?
Gaskamp led me to believe that my hometown area had something to do with it. Gaskamp said while at lunch Barnes would talk not about cases and work like the others but instead talked about home and parents and picking peas and greens and eating corn bread.
Barnes was buried FBI style, in dark suit and tie. He had it stipulated in his will. He loved the FBI, still at cops and robbers. He rose from special agent to supervisor to unit chief. He was in for 30 years before returning home in 2011.
“For Jim, I think it was a mission work,” his fellow agent told me. “It was his way to serve.”
Thank you, James, for your service. We’re proud that you were one of our finest.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.