Dr. Bob Barnett talks keyboards, Van Morrison and how a chance meeting at IHOP changed his life
Lee University history professor Dr. Robert Barnett is no exception to the adage “Never judge a book by its cover.”
Many of his students have heard his famously intricate stories about various historical events, and last month, Barnett opened up to Lee Clarion about his own story. When asked if he'd always planned on being a history professor, Barnett laughed.
“No, I never intended to be a history professor,” Barnett said. “There was a point where I was pretty successful in the record store business, and this guy was talking to me in IHOP. He convinced me to sign up for the GRE. It just kind of turned out that I got into graduate school, and I couldn’t even tell you what I was going to do.”
Barnett didn't start out from his hometown of Boulder, Co., with a plan to end up in the classroom. On the contrary, he made a detour through the music scene as a keyboardist in a rock band.
“Well, my primary instrument was keyboard, and I started playing keyboard because, in fact, I had these friends. They were named Robin and Kevin, and we were in the seventh grade together,” Barnett said. “I found out that they had a band. Though I had been an athlete, I was really wanting to do other stuff, so I started getting into music. I thought it would be so cool to be in a band.”
Barnett wanted in—even if the quality of their music early on, according to Barnett, was not exactly Grammy-worthy.
“While we were running, they were telling me about their band. I said, ‘Well, you know, I play an instrument.’ When they asked me what it was, I started thinking about what instruments we might have at my house, and it turns out all I could think of was that we had a piano and an organ. So that’s what I told them I played,” Barnett said. “We practiced constantly, and actually we ended up getting—I don’t think good is what I would call it—not terrible.”
Regardless of how well they played, the first few years of his music career turned out to be days that Barnett would never forget. The group practiced first in Barnett’s basement, which he decked out with a strobe light, black lights and black light posters.
“I went down and practiced the three chords that I knew fairly well for hours. I almost couldn’t sleep. I could hardly wait for 10 o’clock in the morning when they were going to show up,” Barnett said. “Almost exactly at 10 o’clock, there was a knock on the door, and I remember nearly falling down the stairs. I really do! I was just so excited.”
As his band grew older and kept improving musically, they ended up rubbing shoulders with famous rockers, such as Van Morrison.
“I remember my father in Tulagi’s [a Boulder, Co., concert venue] talking to Van Morrison, who you couldn’t understand at all because this guy had such an incredibly thick accent, but he was also higher than a kite,” Barnett said. “I met a lot of people. I mean, I don’t get Christmas cards from them, but you know.”
Barnett also had the opportunities to travel to the home of the psychedelic music movement, San Francisco, Calif., with famous 60s rockers Jefferson Airplane and tour with The Astronauts—Colorado’s version of the Beach Boys.
While Barnett refused to provide the name of his band, it seems easy to infer that they had quite a colorful career. In light of his fantastical music career, the idea that Barnett would have landed in the world of academics seems left-field, but music was not the end.
Applicants to any doctoral program must first go through a preliminary interview to determine how many hours they need before beginning their dissertation, and Barnett was convinced that he was going to be in school for the next century.
“I honestly can’t remember answering a single question. I do remember, vividly, saying things like, ‘I have no idea,’” Barnett said. “After I was done and was waiting, I started asking other people how many hours they were given, and I think the least I heard was 90 hours. I thought, ‘They’re going to give me, like, a billion hours.’”
Barnett said waiting for the committee to decide his fate was both nerve-wracking and intense.
“I thought I knew exactly what they were saying about me,” Barnett said. “Things like, ‘I mean, forget the doctorate stuff, who in the heck thought it was a good idea to let this guy into graduate school?’ After half an hour or so, they come walking down this long hallway. It was almost like a Western movie. They are shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s like a shootout at high noon. They put a piece of paper down with my hours on the coffee table. I look down, and I see they'd circled 18.”
After that day, Barnett put his nose to the grindstone, earning his doctoral degree and eventually landing in Lee's History department as one of the school's most talked-about and well-liked professors.
But Barnett said, most of all, he hopes that students see the many straight paths to travel in life but occasionally choose the detour—because it's on those detours that some of the most amazing stories are born.