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A large crowd packed the DeVol Funeral Home last Wednesday, when friends and family gathered for a memorial service for Joe Barber, the arts critic and broadcast personality who died last month at 53. Local radio and TV personalities, like Arch Campbell, David Burd, Tim Gordon, and Victoria Jones, attended. The room was standing room only. But you could tell from the beginning—-when WETA’s Around Town host Robert Aubrey Davis offered some opening remarks—-that Barber wasn’t going to get anything like a typical send-off. “You could always tell what he had for dinner the night before because he only had two sweaters,” Davis joked, before praising his departed friend. He invoked Barber’s love of poetry, and then quoted an unusual poet: Tupac Shakur. “I had loved you forever for who you are,” said Davis, “and now I mourn our fallen star.”
A native Washingtonian, Barber was for many years a regular presence in the local entertainment world—-chiefly as a guest critic on Around Town and the entertainment editor at WTOP, where his regular “Barber’s Best Bets” segments offered recommendations for local film-, theater-, and concert-goers. He started a website, dcmovieguys, with fellow critic Bill Henry, and the two hosted monthly talks at Borders Books locations. He appeared on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU as recently as the Thursday before he died, and had appeared on The Tony Kornheiser show, NBC’s Today, and elsewhere. A full-time freelancer, he scraped together as many broadcast and writing gigs as he could, including regular columns The Current chain, Reel Images magazine, and other publications.
What many people only learned after Barber’s death was that the jocular host led a much gloomier personal life. Joe walked with a limp—-a relic of a car accident in the 1990s. And he was going blind, a side-effect of diabetes. He’d get rides from co-workers to the hospital, but few people asked questions. “I was as close to Joe as one could have been,” said film critic Tim Gordon. “His private life was his own. I don’t think his privacy was an accident.” WTOP’s Jim Farley described Barber as “intensely private.” Mark Segraves from WTOP said, “I knew the guy well, and I hardly knew him.” Sherwood reiterated, “We weren’t close, personal friends, but I don’t know many people that were.”
Many of his friends recalled that Joe would call at least once or twice a week to hear what was going on in their lives, but never mentioned his health problems. “His family was the theater and that was his stimulus for life,” said Annie Williams, a longtime friend.
Barber, who lived in a house on Georgia Ave. NW near Walter Reed, never married or had children. Four of his ex-girlfriends planned and paid the costs of Barber’s funeral and memorial service. One of them, Ellen McDaniel-Wiessler, said she was planning to donate a kidney to Barber. According to Henry, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists was paying for some of Barber’s medical expenses.
Barber knew his family had a history of diabetes, but he chose to fight the disease privately. “I don’t think he ever expressed being lonely or alone,” said Williams. “He could have been a recluse and taken social services, but what he chose to do was challenge his disease.” Because of Joe’s reluctance to put his problems on others, Davis said in his remarks, “he earned our admiration.”
At Wednesday’s service, Barber’s only known blood relation, his nephew Dante Barber, struggled to read a poem he had written. Dante’s father and Joe’s brother, Bruce, died a year earlier, also on Sept. 19. Mostly, Barber was remembered the way he probably had hoped: as an enthusiastic and positive critic. “He would probably love all this attention,” joked Gordon as he addressed the room, “because it’s secretly what he always wanted.”
Barber’s final appearance on WETA’s Around Town, from Sept. 19: