Obituary: Tom Barnes / Workhorse veteran PG reporter
Sept 1, 1946 — Oct. 11, 2016
October 14, 2016 12:00 AM
By Mark Belko / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Tom Birdsong needed a story, he could always count on longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Tom Barnes.
Mr. Barnes reported to Mr. Birdsong, a Post-Gazette editor, for about a decade in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Mr. Birdsong knew that he could turn to Mr. Barnes for any type of assignment, regardless of whether it was on his beat.
“Tom was an editor’s reporter,” Mr. Birdsong said. “Like other reporters, he loved to give his editors guff about assignments, but he would take his best shot and then go to work.
“I can’t count the number of Friday afternoons when I discovered that we needed stories for the weekend papers and turned to Tom to see what he had. It might be an hour before quitting time, but Tom would say, ‘Well, I have these two things I could write about. ...’”
Mr. Barnes, who spent 37 years as a newspaper reporter, 27 of them at the Post-Gazette, died Tuesday at home in Tucson, Ariz., of prostate cancer, which he had been battling since 2009. He was 70.
At the Post-Gazette, Mr. Barnes was a workhorse, covering a range of beats, from city hall to the state capital. He was the newspaper’s lead reporter in chronicling “Plan B” and the construction of PNC Park, Heinz Field, and the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center, as well as efforts to redevelop the Fifth and Forbes commercial corridor Downtown.
Post-Gazette executive editor David M. Shribman described Mr. Barnes as “indefatigable, indispensable and incorruptible.’’
The reporter was a jovial, easygoing sort who enjoyed chasing a story and seeing his byline on page 1. It was not uncommon to hear Mr. Barnes’ distinctive laugh pierce the newsroom silence as he trumpeted his latest scoop.
Post-Gazette reporter Bill Schackner, who sat near Mr. Barnes for a few years, loved to hear him work the phones with sources.
“Invariably, he would offer up this half-panicked, half playful sounding deadpan: ‘Hey pal, listen. You gotta help me. I’ve been looking for news in all the wrong places,’ ” Mr. Schackner recalled.
“He was dogged, yet sensitive and unfailingly kind. Newspapers are full of agnostics and professional cynics, but he was neither,” added Bill Toland, a former Post-Gazette reporter who worked with Mr. Barnes in Harrisburg.
Outside the newsroom, Mr. Barnes earned a reputation for fairness and accuracy among those he covered, even when the stories he wrote did not go their way.
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, who led the charge to build PNC Park and Heinz Field, remembered Mr. Barnes as “very sincere, honest, and accurate.”
“I always was an evangelist about building [the stadiums]. I wanted Tom to write like that. He was a pro. I couldn’t get him to bite,” Mr. Murphy said. “He was a professional journalist, which is probably the highest praise I can give him.”
During the late 1990s, Mr. Barnes often tangled with Stephen Leeper, then a top aide to Mr. Murphy. He respected the reporter.
“He clearly had a strong moral compass. I felt that he was never trying to attack me personally or my motivation. Personally, I think he was trying the best he could to do his job and I respected him for that,” said Mr. Leeper, who now heads the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation.
Mr. Barnes produced even when he was far outside his comfort zone. In 2003, he was assigned to drive to New York City when the Big Apple lost power.
A flustered Mr. Barnes called from the highway to pass the time, describing what he saw as towns vanished in the darkness. He drove into New York City and, while stuck in traffic, talked to stranded New Yorkers.
“After he managed to grab a parking space, he asked what he should do to come up with a story,” said Susan Mannella, his editor at the time. “He’d already delivered it. His descriptions of what he’d seen on the journey was a great story.”
Mr. Barnes’ favorite day at work was a Sunday morning in February 2001, when the former Three Rivers Stadium collapsed after being imploded. His was the only story on the Post-Gazette front page the next day.
Mr. Barnes ended up in journalism almost as a fluke. After serving four years in the Air Force in the early 1970s, he returned home to Mt. Lebanon desperate for work.
He knew he liked current events and writing and ended up attending the University of Missouri graduate school of journalism, where he graduated in 18 months. His first job was at the Hartford, Conn., Courant, where he worked for 10 years before joining the PG.
“That was all he ever talked about — news,” said his daughter, Margaret. “That was his whole life.”
Mr. Barnes’ Christian faith helped to sustain him after he was diagnosed with cancer. A favorite Bible verse was Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Mr. Barnes enjoyed serving at food banks and spent time on missionary trips, including one with his entire family.
“What I remember most about him is that he’s the only man I know who took his vacation to build houses for poor people in Africa,” said former Post-Gazette reporter Dennis Roddy.
Mr. Barnes and his wife, Beth, lived in Mt. Lebanon for 20 years before moving to Harrisburg in 2003, when he started covering the state capital. They moved to Tucson in 2014.
In addition to his wife and daughter, who lives in Tucson, Mr. Barnes is survived by a son, Zachary, of Palo Alto, Calif..; three grandchildren; a sister, Jane of Mt. Lebanon; and a brother, Fred of Scott.
The funeral is at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Tucson. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 12 at Southminster Presbyterian Church at 799 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.