Three in one: Family to step into spotlight at special tribute on Oct. 4

prev
next

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

The Oct. 4 event, on behalf of the Genesee County Bar Foundation, is billed as a tribute for the Barkey family, honoring the late Walter J. Barkey, the family patriarch, and two of his children, Brian M. Barkey, a well-know area attorney, and Chief Probate Judge Jennie E. Barkey.

But it likely will evolve into a mixed bag, including equal parts of a celebration of the family’s accomplishments, many humorous stories about each, some not suitable for a family newspaper, and enough irreverent material to nearly qualify as a comedic roast.

“First of all, it gives me an opportunity to underscore for people how wonderful our dad was, in a unique way,” said Judge Jennie Barkey, 60. “My brother Brian will talk about the good things about our dad.

“On the other hand, our father was a real rascal,” she continued. “I’m going to talk about the rascal stuff. The man did die in the arms of his fifth wife, OK. He was just a neat guy. But not only was he a wonderful lawyer, he was an absolutely wonderful father.”

Barkey graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1948 and practiced law in Genesee County for more than 50 years. He was known for his honesty, civility and brevity, and passed those traits off to each of his seven children.

Brian, 67, said lawyers in Flint learn from each other, and are willing to help other attorneys along the way, and his father taught him that kind of assistance not only helps other lawyers, but clients as well.

“That underscores the kind of camaraderie the lawyers have in a very competitive business,” he said.

They said their father had seven children — “Thank God, all with the same woman, so we didn’t have to keep track,” Jennie said — and financially helped all get undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Other children are also in professional fields, and one, Dr. Walter F. Barkey, is a noted dermatologist in Genesee County.

Brian Barkey graduated from Wayne State with a law degree in 1970 and after a few twists and turns ended up at his father’s law firm, and now specializes in Social Security claims. He has been involved in the Genesee County Bar Association’s annual holiday dinner for years, which provides hot meals to families and gifts for poor children, and is also a long-time runner and heavily involved with the Crim Road Race.

Jennie, on the other hand, was a family wild child. After bouncing around a bit after getting her undergraduate degree, she told her father she wanted to get into social work.

“He had a heart attack when I said I wanted to be a social worker,” Jennie said. “Oh, God, his eyebrows went up way over his head.”

So he made her spend a day with a social worker to get a feel for the job, which soured her on pursuing that goal.

“Next thing you know, I’m going to law school,” she said.

She worked for her father, and credits Brian for teaching her the ropes on court procedures.

During the interview, Jennie and Brian share stories and imitate their dad’s voice, but they are constantly laughing about those wonderful stories. After working in law for a while, Jennie was appointed director of the county’s Friend of the Court in 1989. While there, she initiated many programs and collected more than $3.5 million in child support from non-paying parents.

In 2006, she was appointed probate judge, and has continued to add innovative programs aimed at children, mental health courts for juveniles and adults, and coming soon, a special Veterans Court.

Jennie is also a breast cancer survivor, and helps that cause through various efforts.

Brian said although both he and Jennie have received an “embarrassing amount” of publicity for their legal and community efforts, “Dad never got a glimmer.” He said his father never sought it out, but deserved it.

That’s why both are grateful for the tribute, to be held before 300 people October 4 at the Flint Golf Club, in recognizing their dad as a pioneer of law in Genesee County, back when attorneys did a little bit of everything. They said their father was one of the first personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys in the area.

“He was one of the first to sue a doctor,” Jennie said. “And that’s so ironic, since one of us is a doctor.”

They both said their dad could be gruff, and would be “mortified” with this tribute.

Although their father would rail if he caught Brian doing something for free, or at a reduced cost, he would often be guilty of doing the same thing.

“He’d call me into his office and give me a lecture, saying, ‘You know, you’ve gotta make a living,’” Brian said.

Well, that lesson didn’t take either, because Brian received the Unsung Hero Award from the State Bar Association in 2009 and the Herbert Milliken Award a year later, both testaments to his giving and civility.

Both siblings said their father, who died in 1999, taught them to respect other attorneys and judges. And the beauty of brevity.

“You don’t get paid by the number of words you say,” Brian recalled his father saying.

He said his dad once completed a closing argument in 13 words.

“For a lawyer who made his living persuading people, he was incredible and effective,” he said.

Jennie’s breast cancer has been in remission for several years, and it’s a cause she is still involved in on a fund-raising front. Brian takes some credit for goading her into running a breast cancer marathon a few years ago, but her dermatologist brother Walter F. Barkey also was a major factor in her education and treatment of the disease.

Even though they talk more about their father than themselves, make no mistake that all the Barkeys have contributed immensely to the legal profession, and the community.

Walter P. Griffin, president of the Genesee County Bar Foundation, said the family was chosen for just those reasons.

“Their family legacy is one of commitment to the community, and the legal community, to help individuals and provide support for activities within the community, including breast cancer awareness, the Crim holiday dinner, and other noted activities,” he said.

There may be another generation of Barkeys in the legal profession, too. Walter F. Barkey’s two children are attorneys elsewhere, and a great-grandson of the family patriarch just completed his first year of law school.

Richard McNally, an area attorney, has known the family for years, and went to school with Jennie and Walter F. He recalls the “crazy days” at the Barkey house, and said “there was always a lot going on there.”

Of the father, McNally called him “quite a character,” and a “well-known legal personality.”

“His closing arguments were short and to the point,” he said. “He was always a man of very few words, but the words he had were full of meaning.”

He said Brian is called “St. Brian” for all of his good works. And Jennie is “a real kick.” They would skip classes in high school to go watch their favorite judges rule at the courthouse.
“And I’m sure Jennie picked up a few things watching those old judges,” he said.

As for her role with the Friend of the Court, McNally said that field was usually led by men, but “she was good and as tough as any man who did the job, and very innovative. She brought great ideas to the bench, too.” He said all the Barkeys have left an imprint on the legal profession.

“They’ve each made their own unique contributions, and have brought a fresh air of civility to a profession that has been losing that attribute over the last few decades.”

Pamela (Penny) Wistrand, a longtime family friend, echoed the remarks, saying Walter was a “formidable attorney, with a laid-back attitude.” She described Brian “as an absolute gem of a person and a wonderful attorney,” who works wonders for his Social Security clients. And Jennie as a great advocate while serving with the Friend of the Court and a “no-nonsense gal now on the bench.”
“All the Barkeys, including Walter F., have been really dedicated to serving the community, and they’ve all done a great job,” Wistrand said.