There was a twinkle in his eyes


What do you write when you feel like you have something you want to say, something you feel needs to be said, but the appropriate words seem elusive? Or maybe if you don’t feel like you’re the person the words should come from?

I struggled with those thoughts for a couple days, thinking maybe I should pick up a different topic, and even did a little research on one. But something kept eating at me, telling me I needed to find a way to say what I thought should be said, so here goes.

Longtime Hillsboro educator Sam Barnhouse died this week. It made me sad. He was just 66.

I had known Sam for a long time, but by no stretch of the imagination did I ever know him well. So why did it make me feel like there was something I needed to say when I learned that he passed away?

It’s because he was a good man. It’s because he had a positive influence on so many, including myself, and will be genuinely missed. It’s because he had a pair of eyes with a twinkling light behind them that we will never see again. Maybe, too, it was because I never got to know the reasons behind that twinkle a little better.

It was a twinkle that always seemed alive with happiness, that made you feel welcome and at ease, and betrayed a bit of gentle orneriness.

Sam Barnhouse came into my life when I entered junior high school and he was a teacher. I do not remember ever being one of his students, but he was one of my junior high football coaches. I do not have vivid memories of him from those days. But I do know that he was a coach more given to lending a word of encouragement to kids rather than berating them.

As the years passed I knew Sam in other capacities. He was a faculty member as I finished high school, a school administrator as I broke into the newspaper business, a football official when I was reporting on local high school sports, and most recently a Hillsboro Board of Education member while I was reporting on school board meetings. I never really interacted with him socially, but I heard lots of funny stories and it always seemed that if you wanted to have some fun, Sam was a man to be around.

He never changed. That twinkle in his eyes and an infectious grin were always there.

It seemed like Sam and I had a lot in common. He was an Ohio State football fanatic, even though he never went to school there. Same goes for me. He was a high school sports official. So was I. He liked to have a good time with buddies. I do, too. He loved his family. I hope my family knows I do, too.

I always thought that sooner or later we’d cross paths somewhere and have a little chat, maybe talk about those things we had in common, maybe joke about those junior high football days. But we never did. Now, the chance has passed.

This week I talked to some of the people who knew Sam the best. They described him much as I have, but also talked of his loyalty to friends and family, of his commitment to his profession, and of the many things he did behind the scenes for kids in this community.

I cannot speak to those things, but I watched his easy demeanor when dealing with kids and others more times than I can remember. And I know that over the last few years he made several more than generous donations to help make the new track/soccer complex at Hillsboro High School a reality.

The last time I made eye contact with Sam was at a school board meeting in the late spring or early summer. We made eye contact at lots of those meetings, and for some reason – and I could be completely off track, but I don’t think I am – it always seemed like those eyes were telling me there was something he wanted to say. Maybe it was a word of encouragement, maybe it was how he had watched me evolve as a human being, maybe it was something completely different.

But the time never seemed quite appropriate, and the words were left unspoken.

I will always wonder if what I thought I saw in Sam’s eyes in those fleeting moments was really there. I will always wonder what it was he wanted to say, or if it was just genuine kindness shining through those twinkling eyes.

That’s not what I will remember most, though. I will remember a man who was not originally from this area, but must have seen enough good in it to make it his home. I will remember a man who made our community better, who did more good for more people than most of us will ever know, and who seemed as humble as anyone can be. But mostly I will remember that infectious smile and those twinkling eyes.

Thanks Sam. Each time I ran into you, that twinkle made me feel a little better.

Mine is one small voice, but I know I speak for many.

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist Gilliland Staff columnist

By Jeff Gilliland

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