Besides a variety of occupations, Bob Barns, or Bodacious Bob as many came to know and love him, was a father, an activist, a teacher, a writer, and an inspiration. He was a social activist especially for issues regarding violence, peace, and environmental concerns. He was a man who tried hard to live his ideals. Many within the Alternatives to Violence Project circles praise his effervescence, his clarity, and his loving, joyful spirit.
Robert Edward Barns was born in New York, New York, on May 21, 1926 to parents, Frederick Balston Barns and Virginia Elizabeth Kift Barns. Bob moved with the family to Philadelphia where his mother worked for the Ladies Home Journal. His next move was to California with his father. He lived in Morgan Hill with his grandparents who operated a prune orchard. Later he moved to the Burlingame area to live with his father and his second wife.
Finishing high school at 17 he joined the Army and was in Germany when the atomic bomb fell and the war soon ended. The military attempt to teach him how to use a bayonet led him to decide war was futile and to become a lifelong pacifist. Bob studied at University of California at Berkeley, where he also came into contact with Quakers. He spent wonderful summers hiking and camping with a friend. They hiked from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite—taking on a section each year for three years. After completing his studies he taught in Davis, California and continued in his relationship with Friends in the Davis Friends Meeting.
Bob married Dorene Mercer in 1953. In 1954, Bob and Dorene, before they had children, participated in an AFSC work project. The project was to build a school in the Seri Indian fishing village of Desemboque, Mexico. During his career, his various jobs included being a draftsman at a pump manufacturing company, running his own company, and working with volunteer organizations. During the Korean War he saw that his employer was doing more work on war equipment then he could deal with, so he quit and went back to Mexico to work with Quakers on the water supply for a small village. Later he worked with them ??? on similar projects in northern Mexico. The work was very hard—laying pipes and blasting rocks. There was no electricity in the area and water had to be carried about two miles, but Bob loved the people and several called him God with a beard. Bob and Dorene separated in 1979.
One of Bob’s publications was Nica Notes: A Collection of Newsletters from a Peace Activist’s Stay in Nicaragua. It documented many of his experiences while living in war-torn Nicaragua in 1986. He used his life to accompany those who were in danger of being killed, as the presence of a foreigner abated some risk. In later years, during Meeting for Worship in Grass Valley Friends Meeting, Bob’s Australian girlfriend, Giri, detailed an experience he had in an AVP workshop in Folsom Prison. Bob was confronted by a wretched, tearful, and mournful man who had been assigned the task of killing Bob when he was in Nicaragua. He even had Bob’s face in his rifle’s scope, but could not bring himself to do it. He said there was something in Bob’s face that would not allow him to carry out the assassination.
Perhaps Bob’s two most impactful ministries were his dedication to the good within all people and his concern for the environment. Bob was a disciple of the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP). Bob led AVP workshops in prisons and out of prisons around the world, possibly on 6 continents. Bodacious Bob, as he was better known approached all people he met with civility, love, respect, and good humor. This same caring for all people led to the advice he gave Amanda and Nick Wilcox. Amanda said,
My personal memory is that Bob was a steadfast supporter of our efforts to prevent gun violence and our most loyal Brady Chapter member. Our first early action was to stop gun shows in Nevada County. Bob was worried about the strong feelings and possible acrimony that the issue could cause and early on, advised Nick and me to always seek to understand the needs of those who disagreed with us. It was the best advice we ever received. In the years since, we have had strong policy disagreements but have never had a negative or disrespectful interaction with our opponents. I attribute this to Bob’s advice.
Bob’s sense of right use of the world’s resources led to a lifelong involvement, including spending time on the national board of Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR). When Bob moved to Nevada City, he built his own home largely from recycled materials and lived for many years as a neighbor of the John Woolman School without a personal vehicle.
As an attender and then a member of Grass Valley Friends Meeting, Bob served in a number of capacities and continuously championed many important causes. He volunteered with organizations including Witness for Peace, Alternatives to Violence, and Right Sharing of World Resources. At one point he served as Treasurer of the Meeting, but stepped down because of all the travel he engaged in, mostly due to his work for AVP and Right Sharing of World Resources. He also was instrumental in the success of the Stamp Project, collecting used and new stamps from around the world to raise money for RSWR. Many times our Business Meeting heard Bob ask, "Is this (spending) the best way for us to use the world's resources?"
Bob lived the last few years of his life in Beaverton, Oregon, near his son Chris and his wife Caroline. During that time he was able to visit with most of his family. Bob passed away peacefully at home on July 16, 2019