By Sharon Wisch-Ray
The secret to long-life is simple, Fort Worth’s Lou Barnett said a few days before his 100th birthday Nov. 22.
“Good wine, good cigars and good cognac,” he explained with a twinkle in his eye.
Barnett is not your average 100-year-old. He reads almost a book a day often into the wee hours of the morning (He was making his way through John Grisham’s “The Reckoning” at the time of the interview). He lives in the home he built with his wife in 1950. His has been a full and rich life
Born on Nov. 22, 1918, and raised in Malden, Massachusetts, to Molly and Max Barnett, his parents were first-generation Americans and his father worked as a “warehouse man and shipping clerk,” according to Barnett’s autobiography.
The Great Depression hit the family hard, and they struggled. In high school, Lou worked on a government student program for low-income people and made about $12 per week. His mother did piecemeal sewing work from home.
When it was time for college, Barnett was offered a half-year semester scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, because he wasn’t sure how he would pay for future tuition — or food, for that matter — he enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston. He augmented his Northeastern education by taking “as many chemistry courses around Boston as I could.” Ultimately, he graduated from Northeastern with a double degree in engineering and management.
Barnett was drafted into the National Guards of Massachusetts in October 1940. His time in the Army was short, as he developed an ulcer and was discharged. He began to contemplate a career in plastics.
In the early ’40s, he met the love of his life, Madlyn, of blessed memory.
“My cousin called me. He was dating Rowena Kimmel and he said, you’ve got to meet this girl [Madlyn], and that was it. We had a telephone romance and she came up to visit me. We had cats and dogs, and she got fleas, and then she asked me to marry her, so I did.”
They married on May 5, 1946. Theirs was a love affair that spanned 66 years and was filled with family, fun, hard work and philanthropy.
“It was great luck. We had a lot of mazel,” Barnett said. “God moves in mysterious ways; we had a hell of a ride.”
At the time, General Electric was the only plastic company in the Boston area. Initially, he wasn’t able to work in the plastics division because he hadn’t finished his degree yet. He took a job as an expediter for the division that made turbines and other power trains for ships and submarines.
Barnett would frequently visit the plastics group in building No. 75, hoping a job would open up. Finally, one did in the engineering group and laboratory. There, he learned how to run machine tools, lathes and milling machines, and also how to run a plastics press and to operate laminators.
The Barnetts moved to Fort Worth in 1946 to join Madlyn’s family there. They started their family, first Laurie, then Eliot, followed by Rhoda.
By 1952, Barnett’s sister Ruthie and husband Milton Hammil, and brother Stanley and wife Myra also had moved to Fort Worth — as did his parents.
Barnett started his business, Loma (for Louis and Madlyn), in 1948 with one rented model of a molding machine. His first order was for plastic fishing lures. In that first year, Loma’s profit was slightly over $1,000, according to Barnett’s autobiography. In 1962, the company was producing 157 plastics articles and using more than 1 million pounds of raw plastics each month.
By 1965, Loma had grown by leaps and bounds, and Barnett had many firsts to his credit. They were:
• Plastic roll-top bread box.
• Plastic wax paper and paper towel dispenser.
• Oval-shaped wastebasket.
• First wastebasket to incorporate “feet.”
• Wastebasket with decorative imprinting embossed on it.
• Plastic picnic basket including dinnerware and eating utensils.
• Plastic clothes hamper.
• The first polyethylene “boat-like” baby bath, followed by a complete line of stylized nursery accessories including the covered diaper pail.
• The first plastic outdoor trashcan.
Many members of the Fort Worth Jewish community worked at Loma, including the late Irv Levine, Barnett’s childhood friend from Malden, who became Loma president after Loma was sold to Standard Oil of Ohio in 1966. Milton Hamill, who was married to Barnett’s sister Ruthie, moved to Fort Worth and worked for the company. So did Barnett’s father and his brother Stanley.
Barnett attributed his success to those friends and family who supported him.
“You don’t do anything by yourself. The self-made man in my book is not in my vocabulary. People help you,” he said
Barnett reminisced about some of his favorite memories over the years.
“You look back, my God, I don’t know what happened,” when discussing how fast his life has gone by
He is known for a number of unique hobbies, and he talked about a few of them.
Cooking and Entertaining
Barnett explained how he became a gourmet cook and author of two cookbooks. It started out of necessity.
“When we got married, we moved to Boston. When Madlyn burnt water. I knew I was in trouble, so I started to cook. Grandma Brachman sent her to Fannie Farmer’s cooking school; it didn’t help. So, in order to survive, I had to start cooking.”
He has several favorite recipes, among them his sought-after salami.
“There’s one recipe that everyone in the family still makes that I never wrote down, and that was salami. You cut the salami in eighths. You dip it in soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and mustard. Make an extra one, because they’ll eat ‘em up.”
His great-granddaughter, Mia, started eating them at age 2.
“It was easy and, Oh My God, if I made two they wanted four, and I used to serve them before a meal.”
As a New Englander, fish also was a mainstay.
“I also made a poached salmon and cucumber. To make good fish, leave it alone. Good fish in itself is excellent,” he advises.
There have been cooking mishaps from time to time. For one party, Barnett served peanut soup.
“Oh boy. I’ll never hear the end of that. I made some peanut soup, which was atrocious. We had a big crowd of people around. Everyone spilled it on the grass. And a few days later, the grass died.”
He and Madlyn loved to entertain their family and friends.
“We had a couple of hundred sometimes at a party around here. It was wild, and the kids came along and we had a ride with them….It goes by fast.”
Wine and cognac
It’s no secret that Barnett has always enjoyed wine and cognac. He partially attributes reaching 100 to the pair. He is a member of the distinguished Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the order that has 12,000 Chevaliers worldwide.
He explained that he learned about wine while traveling to France on Loma business.
“I was in France an awful lot. I had a guy who must have been a German Jew, and he was in Paris and I would report to him as the Loma representative, and I got into the wines pretty quick.”
Barnett keeps a wine cellar in his home office. He likes to drink Pinot Noir. “It’s a good wine and goes with everything,” he said.
He also enjoys cognac.
“I like to drink cognac. I drink it with everything. I’ve drunk enough to float a battleship.”
Going to the Dogs
With his constant companion, yellow lab Casey, 10, at his side, Barnett explained he was always a dog lover, He developed a passion for raising, showing and judging them.
“I always had dogs. I took it as an escape hatch. It was wonderful to get away from the business, the family and the kids That was my real escape: judging dog shows all over the world.”
He also raised dogs both as pets and for show. “I’ve had some great ones,” he said.
His German Shorthaired Pointer Columbia Rivers Jeep was a six-time Best in Show champion.
The family’s first pet was a German Shepherd named Prince Rex King.
“We went to Leon [Madlyn’s brother] and Faye’s, and my daughter Laurie was afraid of dogs. I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m not going to have a kid who’s afraid of dogs.’ Madlyn was not too keen on dogs. Our next-door neighbor had German Shepherds. He got me a German Shepherd pup. I take the pup and ring the doorbell of my house, and Madlyn comes to the door, and I shoved it into her arms and said, ‘How can you be afraid of a little piece of fur like this?’ Laurie named the dog Prince Rex King, who grew into the biggest Shepherd the Barnetts ever had.
The Barnetts loved to travel, and Lou traveled the world both for business and pleasure.
Among his favorite places to travel were Italy, Acapulco and Israel.
“I love Italy. Spent a lot of time there. Acapulco. Spent a lot of time down there. That was our escape. Acapulco was wonderful in those days.” The Barnetts took active vacations.
“I fished Mexico quite a bit,” he said
Everyone got into the fishing act, especially son Eliot and Madlyn, who caught a huge sail fish in Acapulco.
“We were goers. We didn’t sit. I have a doll from every place we went.”
Often, the Barnetts visited synagogues when they traveled.
“I visited a synagogue in Aruba. It had a sand floor.” He noted that every Jewish community he ever visited had one thing in common. “A Love of God — that’s the concept of all of them. Like Maimonides said ‘If I’m not for me, then who is for me, and if not now, when?’”
Perhaps the place has loved the most is Israel, where he and Madlyn first visited in 1961. Madlyn, like her mother, Ella Brachman, before her, and her children after her, had a passion for Hadassah.
“I’ve been in Israel maybe 50 times. I had a love affair with the country and the people. I set up many clients. Some are still going. There was a Formica-type plant in Israel that I helped start.” Barnett became involved in Israel’s plastics industry, consulting, educating and advising.
During his travels to Israel, Barnett met some of the country’s early leaders.
“Hell, I knew them all. From Golda Meir. She loved to smoke cigarettes. Chain smoked.
“She was quite a lady, oh boy. She was smart and she was decisive. She was probably the best ‘man’ Israel ever produced.”
Others he met and spent time with were David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Levi Eshkol and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.
“Teddy Kollek used to come up to my suite and take a nap. Teddy was a real force,” Barnett said.
In his memoir, Barnett said he probably has spent more than two years of his life in Israel. He loved to walk Jerusalem and was known for walking around the pool of the King David Hotel every morning while he read the Jerusalem Post.
One of his favorite hangouts was a restaurant and bar called Finks.
“They made goulash. It wasn’t too kosher, but it was delicious,” he said.
Barnett said he was proud to have been able to support Madlyn and now his daughters, Laurie and Rhoda, in their passion of Hadassah. The family not only volunteers their time for the organization, but also supports the hospital financially.
Barnett has been extremely philanthropic, especially to Hadassah and Northeastern University. His philanthropy seems to always be innovative and have far-reaching effects.
He and Madlyn supported Hadassah in many ways, most recently through the Madlyn Barnett Healing Garden in the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. One of the first many years ago was the Ella Brachman Rehabilitation Garden at Mount Scopus campus, also in Jerusalem.
The Barnett institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis at Northeastern University was founded in 1973. “Today, with over 50 scientists and a $8 million endowment, the Institute is recognized internationally as one of the premier centers for cutting-edge research and advanced training in analytical chemistry for biomedical applications,” the Institute’s website states. “The Barnett Institute’s close ties to the Boston medical industrial communities, along with an active program of spin-outs and licensing technology, provides for many ‘real life’ applications of research advances which have led to more than 1000 published papers and 75 patents.”
Barnett is proud of the Institute’s accomplishments. “We have graduates, docs and post docs in 39 countries. We do a lot of work with genomes and have uncovered some interesting bio markers that are being used all over the world in marking the defect of a gene.”
Children, Grandchildren and Great-Grandchildren
Barnett’s greatest joys are his children, Laurie and Lon Werner, Sheryl and Eliot Barnett, and Rhoda and Howard Bernstein. “It’s been a wild ride,” he says. The family has Shabbat dinner most Friday nights with his children, their spouses and niece Debby Rice. It’s dinner and “Wheel of Fortune,” followed by a cigar (preferably an Hoyo de Monterrey) for Barnett.
He has a very special relationship with his six grandchildren: Jeffrey and Jason Werner, Matthew and Emily Bernstein, and Nathan and Jessica Barnett
He loved to be silly with his grandkids, and they loved him for it. One favorite tradition was “Downtown.”
For Downtown, he would pick up the grandchildren.
“We’d play Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and go to the Fort Worth Club. We used to steal some bread from the Fort Worth Club, wrap it in a napkin and go to the part and feed the ducks. They would come, and the kids would go crazy.”
His advice to grandparents everywhere:
“You have to go to them. You have to be with them, raise them and do silly things with them.”
Today, his family has grown further and his heart has grown fuller. Grandson Matthew Bernstein married Natalie, and they have a daughter, Maddison. Grandson Jason Werner is married to Jessica, and they have two children, Mia and Blake.
Barnett’s face lights up at the mention of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “The fact that all the kids are coming in is a blessing,” he said. “They’re coming here for my birthday, so I can spoil them a little bit.”
Awards, Honors and Organizations
Barnett has been feted numerous times. With his wife, he received the Prime Minister’s Medallion for dedicated effort on Israel’s behalf, and the B’nai B’rith Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. He was named Jewish Man of the Year by the Isadore Garsek Lodge of B’nai B’rith.
Texas Christian University has awarded him an honorary doctor of science, and Northeastern awarded him an honorary doctor of engineering. He is a past president of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Congregation Ahavath Sholom, where he celebrated his second bar mitzvah at age 83.
He has served on numerous boards within the Jewish community and the community at-large on local, national and international levels.
What’s the Secret to a Great Life?
When asked what the secret is to a great life like his he replied,
“The word is LIVE a great life. Do things. Don’t sit on your butts and wait for them to come to you. Just go out there and do as best you can. No matter how much money you have or whatever, go out there and do something. We all can to the extent of our capabilities, so why not do it instead of letting someone else do it? Do it yourself.”
His thoughts about being 100? “It’s old,” attributing his milestone to “great luck, mazel and genes.”
He added, “If you’re lucky, you get there; if you’re not lucky, you don’t get there. It’s a relative term. It’s a measurement of what? Your Life? OK…Would I do it over again? You bet. Why change what ain’t broke?”