Kathy Barberich, 1948-2015: Former Bee columnist known for her devotion to family

The Fresno Bee features staff gathers to celebrate a birthday in the 1970s: left to right, Diane Webster Armstrong, Gail Marshall, Desa Belyea, Bette Tambling, Linda Koch and Kathy Barberich.
The Fresno Bee features staff gathers to celebrate a birthday in the 1970s: left to right, Diane Webster Armstrong, Gail Marshall, Desa Belyea, Bette Tambling, Linda Koch and Kathy Barberich.

Longtime Fresno Bee reporter and columnist Kathy Barberich, whose gift of writing about life and ordinary people was poignant, funny and insightful, and whose commitment to the Mormon church and community service benefited battered women and fallen soldiers, died Sunday. She was 67.

In a career that spanned nearly four decades, Mrs. Barberich wrote about celebrities, including Princess Diana and Michael Jordan, but her best work was her column, “The Family Tree,” which featured the trials and joys of raising a family in the Valley.

Female readers in particular identified with her reflections about raising three sons, the challenges of being married to a man in law enforcement, and to her own battle with a potentially fatal illness.

In 1995, she won first place in the general interest category from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

After suffering a series of strokes, Mrs. Barberich died at a Fresno hospice of gallbladder cancer. Her husband, Jerry, and son, Jason were at her side.

“She was upbeat and very positive” after suffering her first stroke in late July, said Jerry Barberich, a retired Fresno County sheriff’s deputy. “But after she suffered a third stoke on Oct. 7, she started to doubt her ability to beat it.”

By her fourth stoke on Oct. 23, she was unable to communicate.

“We had a good life together,” said Jerry Barberich, choking back tears.

“Writing about her family is what she lived for,” he said.

Mrs. Barberich said as much in a July 2003 article about her retirement.

“I’ve had a wonderful life, “ she said of the career she began at The Bee in 1967 as a high school correspondent.

In retirement, Mrs. Barberich said, “I know I’ll miss the readers, knowing there are people out there reading what you write and the phone calls from readers telling you ‘thanks for making my day.’ But it’s time to move on.”

One of those readers is Deborah Allen, 62, of Fresno.

Allen’s favorite column was penned in December 1983 called “The Joy of Jimmy” in which Mrs. Barberich wrote about a brother who was mentally disabled and suffered seizures. In the column, Mrs. Barberich said her brother couldn’t read a calendar or count past 10, but he knew when Christmas was near.

“When the fog arrived, Jimmy knew Christmas was imminent,” Mrs. Barberich wrote.

In the column, Mrs. Barberich spoke of the frustration of living with a brother who couldn’t get help because programs for the mentally disabled had been cut due to lack of funds.

After his death, Mrs. Barberich said she realized her brother was one of her inspirations. “I think of him when I render volunteer service and make charitable contributions. I think of him when I look upon my strong healthy children and see all that they have and all they are able to do.”

Allen has a mentally disabled son who also went by Jimmy as a child, but as an adult goes by James. The column was so moving, Allen said Monday, that she wrote a letter to Mrs. Barberich in December 1983 to thank her. But she never mailed it.

“I still can’t stop crying because your description of your brother, Jimmy, is so very, very much like my Jimmy,” Allen’s letter says. “I thank you over and over again for showing me that I’m not the only one who gets upset when programs are cut.”

In September this year, Allen came across her letter and contacted The Bee, which got in touch with Mrs. Barberich so she could receive Allen’s letter. “It was uplifting and made me smile,” Mrs. Barberich said then.

“I wanted her to know how much it really meant to me,” Allen said Monday. “I was hoping that maybe it wasn’t too late to tell her how she made that Christmas in 1983 special for me. It gave me hope for my son’s future.”

Told of Mrs. Barberich’s death, Allen said, “Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even know her, but through her stories she really touched my life. I am sure she touched many lives because she was a great storyteller.”

Born July 30, 1948, Kathleen Ellen Pearce called herself “a third-generation Valley kid.”

“I was born in Fresno. I graduated from Washington Union High School; my parents graduated from Washington Union High School, and my kids went there. My son (Jason) teaches there. I live in the house I grew up in in Easton.”

Her father, Clyde Pearce Sr., died in an automobile accident four months before she was born, leaving her mother to raise her and four siblings. Her mother, Theda, drove a school bus for West Park Elementary School and did janitorial work.

After 20 years of being a widow, her mother married Stan Churchwell, owner of Valley Stone Co. He died in 1974.

In her columns, Mrs. Barberich, the youngest of five children, wrote about growing up fatherless. She said she only celebrated five Father’s Days with her stepfather; none with her father.

“I was secretly grateful that the third Sunday in June always came after school was out, thus, saving me the embarrassment and pain of having to make a Father’s Day gift at school and then not having anyone to give it to.”

By watching Jerry Barberich become a father to their sons, she said learned to love Father’s Day.

“Like a flower, he seemed to blossom overnight,” she wrote in a June 1982 column. “Yet, unlike a flower, he has continued to bloom through many seasons.”

“My heart no longer aches on Father’s Day; it rejoices,” she wrote.

Mrs. Barberich, who retired from The Bee on her 55th birthday, said she never intended a journalism career. Initially, she was a nursing student at Fresno City College and Fresno State.

In her 2003 column about her retirement, she credited her introduction to newspaper writing to the late Ivan Olson, English teacher at Washington Union High. “Writing was just something I did for fun,’ she said. “I’d never considered the possibility that you could make a living at it.”

Once she became a correspondent for The Bee, she never looked back. When a job opened at The Bee in what was then called “the women’s department” for a student writer, she jumped at it. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Fresno State.

She said she spent the early days of her career writing engagement and wedding stories, “and learned to spell peau de soie, a silk fabric every bride seemed to choose for her dress; stephanotis, a flower that appeared in all bridal bouquets; and hors d’oeuvres, which were served at most engagement parties.”

Once she married Jerry Barberich – her high school sweetheart – on July 4, 1969, she started a family. “For a time, I looked around waiting for the real mother to show up. One day, I realized it was me,” she said.

Encouraged by then-managing editor George Gruner, Mrs. Barberich started her column, “The Family Tree.” She said Gruner, who retired as The Bee’s editor in chief in 1988, suggested the name. It was a reference to a mulberry tree, more than a century old, that grew on her family’s property south of Fresno.

The mulberry tree also is gone.

Mrs. Barberich said for years, a cartoon clipped from a magazine was taped to her refrigerator door. In it, two children were playing, and one child said to the other, “I have to go home now and say something funny so my mom can write it in her syndicated column.”

“My family relates,” she said in recalling the cartoon.

News of her death brought accolades from former colleagues.

“Kathy Barberich had a great impact on many lives, both personally and professionally,” said Diane Webster Armstrong. In a friendship that lasted more than four decades, Webster Armstrong said Mrs. Barberich’s qualities included “her sparkling personality, her spirituality, her warmth and loving spirit, and her whimsical sense of humor.”

Desa Belyea, the editor who first hired Mrs. Barberich at The Bee, said: “She was the kindest, gentlest person I know, never a mean thing to say about anyone.”

In a newsroom filled with personalities, Mrs. Barberich stood out, Belyea said. “She never considered herself one of the stars, although she was in her quiet, unassuming way, a star, someone to treasure because she was always just Kathy, no airs. No ego.”

“She was the one I turned to when I wanted an honest answer or evaluation of something I was doing,” Belyea said.

At The Bee, Mrs. Barberich also was founding editor of a weekly page called BackTalk (which no longer appears) aimed at teens, and wrote for the Home and Garden section.

Outside work, she volunteered at her church, the Kerman Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She was baptized in the church at the age of 13. Jerry Barberich joined the church in 1968, while in the Navy as a submarine sailor on the USS Razorback.

Bishop Nathan Fox said Mrs. Barberich was president of the church’s Relief Society. “Kathy’s first desire was to train the next generation of women to expand their capabilities as leaders,” Fox said. “Every interview we had together was focused on the great impact for good these young mothers would have on their families and community.”

With her death, Fox said Mrs. Barberich’s legacy “is the Christ-like love and kindness and wisdom she shared with all of us, especially the ladies she served with.”

Jerry Barberich said his wife also organized fundraisers for the Marjaree Mason Center, a shelter for battered women in Fresno. “She had a great concern for the women who were being battered,” he said. “She wanted to do whatever she could to help them.”

Mrs. Barberich also was instrumental in organizing Memorial Day events at Washington Colony Cemetery in Easton. The cemetery is the resting place for soldiers who fought in conflicts as old as the Civil War and in places as far away as Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

After members of Easton’s American Legion post weren’t able to continue the tradition, Mrs. Barberich enlisted church members, Boy Scouts, Future Farmers of America and other groups to make sure the Memorial Day event happened every year, placing flags, crosses, ribbons and flowers at the graves.

“I think everyone has a personal connection to veterans,” Mrs. Barberich said in a May 2010 article in The Bee.

“We all owe them,” she said.

Jerry Barberich said his wife helped at the Washington Colony Cemetery event this year.

Her husband said family and church meant everything to her.

They are proud of their sons: Jason is a teacher at their alma mater, Washington Union High; Brent is a police officer in Walla Walla, Wash.; and Blake is a train conductor with Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad in Winslow, Ariz. All three sons did Mormon missions.

After The Bee, Mrs. Barberich helped write a book called “HGTV Landscape Makeover,” which featured 50 projects for a picture-perfect yard. It was her only book, her husband said.

Most of her time was spent caring for her family, which includes 15 grandchildren, reading, gardening, and decorating her home with figurines of animals.

“She was busy,” Jerry Barberich said. “She never missed a baptism. She never missed a birthday.”

Associate Editor Gail Marshall contributed to this story. Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

Kathy Barberich

Birth: July 30, 1948

Death: Nov. 1, 2015

Occupation: Retired Bee reporter/columnist

Survivors: husband Jerry Barberich; sons Jason, Brent and Blake Barberich; sisters Judy Garvis and Pat Allred; 15 grandchildren. Predeceased include her mother, who died in 2010, and her two brothers, Clyde Pearce Jr. and James Pearce.

Memorial service: 10 a.m. Nov. 14 at the Sierra Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near Sierra and Valentine avenues in northwest Fresno

Remembrances: Donations can be made to Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno in her honor