James E. Barber could be stern on the bench when necessary, but his compassion and goodwill for defendants who stood before him was always evident.
Judge Barber passed away Monday at the age of 74 from heart-related complications. As Fulton County Common Pleas Court judge for 30 years before his 2016 retirement, he was known by colleagues as a fair and caring man who devoted his life to public service and his family.
“Jim Barber was a compassionate judge. He tried to look for the best in everyone,” said Judge Jeffrey Robinson, his successor. “It’s an outstanding example of public service and dedication to the community.”
The Wauseon native was the longest serving judge in the trial division of the Common Pleas bench in the county’s history. A graduate of Northwestern University who finished law school after serving in the military, he followed the family tradition of law careers set forth by his father, John, his grandfather, and a great-uncle. With the exception of 12 years, a Barber served on the court bench in Fulton County from 1892 until Judge Barber stepped down four years ago.
“I don’t know that it’s possible to talk about all of Judge Barber’s contributions to the court, because there were so many over the 30 years he served as Common Pleas judge,” Judge Robinson said. “He was stern and direct when he needed to be, but he was just a great judge, and did a tremendous job for the county.”
Judge Barber mentored many young attorneys along the way, including Judge Robinson.
“He talked to me frequently about demeanor and how to handle myself under certain situations as a judge when I was on Western District Court, and after he retired I called him frequently for advice on cases that I was handling,” he said. “After 30 years of experience you want to draw on that. I was always happy to have his words of wisdom.”
Jim Barber was also a good friend and confidant, “someone you could talk to, always willing to lend an ear. He was just a really good man,” Judge Robinson said.
He said Judge Barber was also an avid student of history who kept a brick and a piece of iron from the former Fulton County Jail. “Things like that were important to him. He thought preserving that kind of history was important,“ Judge Robinson said.
Shane Chamberlin, Fulton County’s chief adult probation officer, said Judge Barber took a chance on him he wouldn’t have expected. “He rolled the dice, hired a kid right out of college to run his probation department, when I think many judges would have passed and looked for somebody with maybe a little more experience,” Chamberlin said.
During his 18-year professional relationship with Judge Barber he found the judge easy to work alongside.
“Judge Barber was an extremely fair, extremely kind judge (and) man to whoever appeared in front of him in Common Pleas Court. No matter the situation, those were always pillars of his personality,” Chamberlin said. “His goal from the bench as a Common Pleas judge was always what was best for the defendant – rehabilitation, foremost, in front of everything else, and hopes of having that person lead a successful life.”
As a friend, Barber always asked about Chamberlin’s children. He also made his devotion to his wife, Sandy, obvious.
“Gentle, caring for everybody. He was always putting other people’s needs in front of his own,” Chamberlin said.
A longtime member of American Legion Post 265 in Wauseon, Judge Barber acted as the Americanism chairman. Each year he oversaw the Legion’s Americanism and Government test and essay competition among local students. He also organized Wauseon’s annual Memorial Day ceremony, attended by veterans and citizens alike.
“He basically did almost everything,” American Legion Commander Bill Pursel said. The job entailed writing the event’s program, arranging a speaker, and coordinating with the high school band director, Fulton County Honor Guard, and anyone with a speaking role.
“His devotion came from his own personal time in the service and his general dedication to the community as a whole,” Pursel said. “I have so much respect for that man.”
Even as those pursuits consumed his time, Judge Barber managed to also be involved with the Boy Scouts of America and Buckeye Boys State.
“He was always available…and if there was anything we needed, even outside of the jurisdiction of his title, he was there for us if we needed something,” Pursel said. “And he had a humorous streak to him, almost like a little devilish. If we had to get something done, and maybe we had to cut a corner to get there, he’d give me that little, sly grin and make it happen.”
Jim Barber was also became a distinguished 33rd Degree Mason over 47 years and and served as treasurer of Wauseon’s F&AM Lodge 349. Steve Miller, the lodge’s secretary, worked closely with the judge over the past five years.
“He was very devoted to the Masons, very devoted to a number of things,” Miller said. “He was a very kind person, always had a story to tell and uplifting and encouraging comments to share. He was just a joy to be around.”
Judge James E. Barber is survived by his wife, Sandy, three children, and two grandchildren.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.