Family Matriarch Celebrates 98th Birthday

by Bob Sparrow

Phyllis with kids Dale, Linda, Starlet

Phyllis (McMillan) Barnes was born on June 11, 1926.  She celebrated her 98th birthday in Rochester, Minnesota with her three children and their extended families.  The event took place at daughter and son-in-law Starlet and Donnie Brummer’s home.  A quick review of Phyllis’ achievement-driven progeny is always interesting.  The party included two of Starlet’s daughters, Denise, who is an Advance Placement Calculus and Trigonometry teacher, and Debbie, who is a Doctor of Pharmacy in Minneapolis, her other daughter, not in attendance, Melissa, is an architect in Houston.  Denise & Gene (who works in computer information systems) Cobb’s kids are Garrett, who is in a doctorate program in Huntsville, AL for aeronautical engineering; his girlfriend, Sydney, has a degree in Industrial Engineering.  Daughter, Lindsay works in Washington DC for the United Nations Foundation, and son, Will, is at the University of Wisconsin in Electrical Engineering.  Debbie and Paul (who has a degree in Architecture and Environmental Design) Klein’s kids are Anna, who graduated from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut with a Biology and Chemistry degree and was captain of the ice hockey team, and Ella, who is completing her degree in Biology and Chemistry at St. Benedict.  Son, Matt, who was not in attendance works in finance for Edward Jones in Denver.  Donnie’s son, Dan Brummer’s family was also in attendance, Dan also works in finance.  How did I respond to all these ‘brainiacs’ around me when asked about my education?  I whipped on my glasses (they make me look smarter), looked them straight in the eye, and said, “I am a college grad-u-ate – I have a degree in P.E.”, hoping that they would think those were initials for Physics & Engineering.  Then I remembered how smart they were and also remembered an old Abe Lincoln quote,  “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt”.

OK, let’s get back to Phyllis, who started all this!  Before I tell you about my ‘interview’ with her, you need to know this about her: Most people who spend any time with her say, “I hope I’m that sharp when I’m her age”.  I’m going to amend that by saying “I wish I was that sharp NOW!”

I sat down with my delightful mother-in-law, who is surely one of the sweetest people you would ever meet, while in Rochester to have her talk about her long life:

Sydney, The Cobbs: Gene, Will, Garrett, Denise

The Brummers: Andrew, Jacob, Dan, Nicole, Lauren and Donnie

She was born in a farmhouse, not a hospital, in Lanora, MN, weighing 12 pounds – quite large for someone who now weighs less than 100 pounds!  Her mom and dad owned a farm that had pigs, chickens and cattle.  Their house had no electricity, as light was provided by kerosene lamps. They also had no refrigerator and not even an ice box, they cooled their food by putting it in a jar and putting the jar in cool water.

She started school at four years old; the school was called the ‘Cigar Box’ and had 12 seats, although there were only five students.  She graduated from nearby Canton High School and after graduation went to ‘Teacher Training School’ and became a teacher after one year.  She met and married Warren Barnes in 1945 when she was 19.  Their house had no inside toilets, that wouldn’t come until 1954.

After Warren filled his military obligation and got out of the service in 1946, they moved from northern California, where he was stationed, to Minnesota and bought her parents’ dairy farm which they worked for the next 25 years, milking 20 jersey cows twice every day, 6:00 in the morning and 6:00 in the evening – weekend, holiday . . . everyday!  They were involved in the church and many local community activities with their three kids, Starlet, Dale and Linda.

At five years old, Linda, sang at the county fair and a few years later, was asked to be a square dance caller at the Texas National Square Dance Convention.  Ultimately, her older siblings joined her to form the Barnes Trio, who sang all over Minnesota and won many singing contests.

After selling the farm Warren & Phyllis moved to Minneapolis and Phyllis worked 16 years for Controlled Data putting circuit boards together and Warren worked 20 years for International Paper.  They then retired and spent winters in Arizona for the next 24 years.

The Kleins: Anna, Paul, Debbie

Phyllis now resides in Homestead ‘Assisted Living’ Facility in Rochester, where she plays cards (500 and cribbage) every day, she also goes to exercise class, sometimes leads it!  Additionally, she goes to ‘coffee & chat’ and plays bingo twice a week, and enjoys the outside entertainment that comes in twice a month.

I asked this incredible lady what the secret was to her long life.  She said, “Great family, great friends and a positive attitude!”

Favorite quote: I don’t know if this is her favorite quote, but it’s mine.  When she was jokingly asked which son-in-law she liked better, Donnie or me, she replied: “I don’t like one any better than the other!”




Phyllis Turns 95

by Bob Sparrow

Phyllis Barnes

My mother-in-law, Phyllis (McMillen) Barnes turned 95 this month.  I’ll do the math for you, she was born in 1926 when the minimum wage was 33 cents an hour, a quart of milk was nine cents and a new Chevrolet cost $525 Marilyn Monroe was born this same year (somehow, I can’t picture her at 95) and Queen Elizabeth II was also born that same year, 10 days later than Phyllis.  We all gathered in Rochester, Minnesota to celebrate this matriarch’s birthday, the group included her three children, 9 grandchildren, two great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren.

Phyllis, our own royalty, was born in Lenora, Minnesota and was a rather large baby at birth at 11 pounds, today she’s only 85 pounds – I’d venture to say that most of us have put on more than 74 pounds during our lifetime.

Phyllis’ mother, Petra, was one of three sisters in town that married three brothers!  Obviously, the dating pool was a bit limited!

For her first eight years of education, she attended a 12-seat school house, then after graduating from Canton High School, in southern Minnesota, she attended ‘Teacher’s Training’ and taught one year of ‘Normal School’ (I’m not sure how that differed from Abnormal School).  I asked her what grade she taught and she said, all of them!  All the students were in the same classroom doing different levels of activities.

Model A Ford

In 1945, at the age of 19, she married Warren Barnes and they drove a Model A Ford to Novato, CA (My hometown!) and Warren joined the Army Air Force and was stationed at Hamilton Field.  Not sure how long it took them to cross the country, or how many stops they made along the way, but they only had $75 in their pocket when they started the trip and $5 left when they got to Novato.

They returned to Minnesota and bought her parents’ farm for $20,000 – paying $1,000 a year for 20 years (No interest!).  The house had electricity, but no indoor plumbing, so they had an ‘outhouse’, which in the Minnesota winters was 25 yards too far from the house, but in the summer, it’s 25 yards too near. Phew!!  Fresh water came from a pump next to the house, which among other things was used for the weekly bath on Saturday night, to make sure the kids were ready for church on Sunday morning.  The three kids, Starlet, Dale and Linda were practicing environmentalism back then, as they all bathed separately, but in the same water.

25 yds too far or 25 yds too close

With dairy cows needing milking twice a day – every day, they didn’t have many opportunities to get too far from the farm, but they had a great life socializing with friends and family, bowling, dancing and playing cards.

Today Phyllis enjoys seeing her extended family, aside from three children, she has a total of 11 grandkids, 28 great grandkids, 5 great, great grandkids, most of them living in Minnesota.  She has two sons-in-law, Donnie Brummer and myself and when asked which one she likes best, she jokingly says, “I don’t like one any better than the other.”  So, we’ve got that going for us!

Aside from having a good sense of humor, Phyllis is truly one of the sweetest people I know; in fact at our son Jeff’s wedding in 2019 I said that Jeff reminded me of the two sweetest people I know, my dad and Phyllis.  I did mention for that while Linda and I aren’t particularly sweet, apparently we do carry that ‘sweetness’ gene. It’s one of those things that skips a generation.

One of the biggest changes that Phyllis has seen in her lifetime is in technology; they got their first TV in the mid-50s; broadcasting didn’t start until noon and went off at midnight or before.  They had only two channels and Warren had to go outside to turn the antenna to go from one channel to the other (not exactly a remote control!).  Today Phyllis is a real techie as she is very active on Facebook and reads from her iPad daily, and will often Face Time us. I hope I can be as sharp as her . . . next month!

Dale, Phyllis, Starlet, Linda

Her secret to a long life? She says, hard work, good attitude and great family.  Long live the queen!