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July 5, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Jeff Barrow, 56, the son of a career Navy officer, grew up near the Atlantic Ocean. It was his source of comfort and inspiration. When he moved to Missouri in the mid-’80s, he worried about being so far from the water.
Then he realized rivers run through the state like pumping arteries. A perfect summer day welcomed his first time on the Missouri River. He stood at the river bank as the sun, not so hot as to be unbearable, warmed the afternoon. From his entry point at Perche Creek, Jeff could see the river was flowing fast. He entered the slack water and paddled nervously toward the swift current. When he caught up to it, he relaxed to let himself drift, and his love affair with the river began.
Jeff’s connection to the river is both physical and emotional. It’s also part of the reason he served on Columbia’s Planning and Zoning Commission for 15 years and a driver of his work as director of Missouri River Relief. He says the organization is “dedicated to reconnecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on river cleanups and education events.”
“The river treats everybody the same,” he says. It serves as his moral compass. “Sometimes the river lets you float, and other times you have to paddle.”
Jeff has let the river be his guide for years, and his approach to it is like an extension of himself: friendly, goofy, dedicated and complex. He graduated from Stanford University in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. After spending several years as a part-time farmhand and athletic trainer in California, he moved to Missouri to look after his family’s farm in Callaway County. He planned to get a job, earn residency and then attend graduate school to become a high school teacher and coach.
Not surprisingly, Jeff got sidetracked. He’s the kind of guy who always shows up 15 minutes later than he says he will. River time doesn’t always correspond to Central Standard Time. “I’m always on river time,” Jeff says with a laugh. “Often, that’s late.”
In 1986, he landed a reporting job with the Fulton Sun despite having no relevant experience or education. He was a decent writer, but his real strength came from his people skills. “You know, I’m a charming guy,” Jeff says, chuckling.
Jeff’s bond with his co-workers transcended the typical newsroom friendliness, and he became especially close with Scott Swafford and Dave Marner. They learned to white-water on the St. Francis River in southeast Missouri and Cedar and Hinkson creeks in Boone County before creating the Pansy Pirates, now a group of 16 or so white-water boaters.
He suggested the pirate-themed group because as rowdy as real-life pirates might seem, Jeff admired their sense of discipline and democracy aboard their vessels. Then, one day on a drive to southern Missouri, he was inspired to pluck some blooming daffodils. And so began the Pansy Pirates: Instead of plundering boats in search of booty, they take flowers and decorate their campsite with daffodils.
Jeff has accompanied the Pansy Pirates to white-water races from Missouri to Alabama and competed in the Missouri River 340, a 340-mile race on the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Charles. In 2007, Jeff competed in the then-100-hour race, but as a co-writer for Chad Pregracke’s book From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers, Jeff had to attend a book signing in the middle of the race. He canoed the first leg of the race, exited at Jefferson City and drove back to Columbia for the four-hour book signing. After getting some rest, he drove back to Jefferson City the next morning to pickup where he’d left off. He finished the race with a few hours to spare.
This year’s Missouri 340 runs from July 31 to Aug. 3, and although Jeff won’t be racing, he’ll lead a Missouri River Relief support boat during the event. For Jeff, no river seems to be too long or too scary, and he’s always willing to take a boat ride out on the water.
Jeff drives west on Interstate 70 toward Boonville, as his beat-up station wagon swerves precariously close to, and sometimes over, the median.
“Whoa, are those cranes, man?” Jeff says, leaning over his friend Tim Nigh to look out the passenger-side window.
After about 20 minutes, Jeff arrives at a friend’s place, a hand-built home of wood and stone surrounded by several acres of prairie. Mike Crist has invited 10 or so people to help carry out a controlled burn on the land. The burn, lit carefully with a drip torch, will cover the field with a thin layer of ash and reinvigorate the plant roots underneath.
When the burn is over, the group enjoys a buffet of barbecue, chili and beer.
Tufts of gray and white hair stick out from underneath the baseball cap that often sits snug atop Jeff’s head. His day uniform, neither disheveled nor fancy, is simple: a casual plaid button-down and worn bluejeans, light around the knees. His friends describe him as a “GQ garage mechanic.”
Most of the time, Jeff is smiling and cracking jokes. The simplest stories can send him into body-shuddering fits of laughter that can quickly turn into fits of coughing, knee-slapping and head-shaking. But his life has not been without profound sadness.
Jeff was married once, but he has no children. After marrying, he stopped working at the Fulton Sun to get a job with more regular hours. A little more than a year into the marriage, his wife died of brain cancer. In a way, her death kept him from settling down. Jeff’s community involvement was part of his grieving process. He didn’t have to work a regular job anymore; he didn’t have to live in one place or be a breadwinner. The bittersweet freedom fueled his desire to take a stand for what he believed in.
“I’ve got some experience and knowledge I felt a responsibility to act on,” he says. He spent more time on the river, became more involved with the local political community and eventually landed a position on Columbia’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
Jeff also developed strong ties with his close friends. They have all known him for years. Jeff’s loyalty and friendship make him like a family member to Lesa Beamer. They met sometime in 2000 and bonded over controlled burns and river activities.
One evening last February, Jeff watched Lesa’s 7-year-old adopted daughter speak on stage at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. She was part of a second-grade class from Lee Elementary that was telling stories as part of a program. When Keya told the story of her adoption, she grinned wide enough to show a couple of missing teeth.
The process of Keya’s adoption was arduous, expensive and overwhelming — even more so because Lesa was adopting as a single mother. When she learned she would be able to adopt 11-month-old Keya from Guatemala in 2007, she felt both joy and anxiety. Jeff accompanied her to Guatemala for emotional support. “She needed help, and I was in a position to help her,” he says.
When Keya finished her story, she ran off the stage to where her friends were sitting and giggled. She turned around every few minutes to look at her mom and Jeff, who is something of a father figure to her. When Keya told him goodbye, she squeezed Jeff as hard as her arms would hug and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
He finds joy in many places, often away from home. Jeff’s front porch is missing part of the flooring, and the white paint is peeling in places. His twin bed takes up less than half his bedroom, and old, faded photographs hang on the walls as if the pictures came with the house. The house sits on maybe a quarter of the lot, the rest of which is a sprawling grass garden and a shed only large enough to fit Jeff’s previous car.
He could fix up the house if he wanted, but the repairs aren’t a high priority. Jeff has more important things to do, and he’s on river time, after all.