Publix heiress and children’s advocate Carol Jenkins Barnett dies at 65 of Alzheimer’s

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  • Carol Jenkins Barnett
    American philanthropist and businesswoman

Carol Jenkins Barnett, former chair and president of Publix Super Markets Charities, and daughter of the company’s founder, George Jenkins, died Tuesday night at her home in Lakeland.

Jenkins Barnett was 65. In 2016, she was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Publix announced.

“The Publix family is deeply saddened by the loss of a great humanitarian and community advocate,” said Publix Chief Executive Officer Todd Jones in a statement. “In addition to her service at Publix, Carol Jenkins Barnett made significant contributions to many nonprofit organizations and for the betterment of all children with investments in early childhood education programs. She will be sorely missed by her family, our associates and the community. Carol had a generous heart and compassionate soul. Her efforts will continue to improve the lives of others for generations.”

The Publix brand recognition in Florida and her status as an heiress gave Barnett a public profile. But it’s what she did with her gifts that endeared her to many in the community.

‘A blessing to Florida’

In 2017, for instance, Jenkins Barnett earned the Chiles Advocacy Award, Florida’s highest honor for serving its children.

At the event, held at Florida State University in Tallahassee, David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, paid tribute to his friend and colleague from the stage.

On Wednesday, Lawrence, who called her “a blessing to Florida,” shared his remarks from the event with the Miami Herald.

“If it weren’t for Lawton Chiles and, later, Rhea, I wouldn’t be here this evening. If it weren’t for Carol Jenkins Barnett, I wouldn’t be here either. It was the governor, back in 1996, who hornswoggled me into chairing the ‘school readiness’ task force that led to my so-called ‘retirement’ three years later — and to the work that led to the present 30 Early Learning Coalitions throughout Florida, to the passage of the constitutional amendment for free pre-K, to The Children’s Trust in my own community and, now, The Children’s Movement of Florida. It was Carol Barnett who encouraged me from the beginning,” Lawrence said.

“A passion for doing right by children runs through Carol’s family — and, also, all through the Publix family,” Lawrence, a former publisher of the Miami Herald, said. “Like me, she can remember learning to read via the ‘Dick and Jane’ books. Her first and best teachers were her parents. Her second best teacher, she would tell you, was ‘Miss Charles’ in second grade. Like my Mom, she adds, ‘she made education fun.’

“Carol, the mother of Nicholas and Wesley, understands that nothing is more important to a child’s future success than a caring, knowledgeable, loving and nurturing parent. She exemplifies the best: Caring, good, committed to making a difference. Wants for every child the same high-quality child care that her own children received. Wants every child with special needs to have a real chance to fulfill his or her potential,” Lawrence said in his remarks.

Philanthropy

Barnett, who was on the board of The Children’s Movement of Florida, also steered millions of dollars toward children’s programs as the head of Publix’s charitable arm, a position she held on to after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2016 at age 59, The Ledger reported.

She, alongside her husband, Barney Barnett, also helped fund United Way’s ReadingPals program to boost children’s reading skills in lower economic neighborhoods.

Her private donations also supported the Florida Partnership for School Readiness and Family Fundamentals, as well as community projects including Barnett Park, the Carol Jenkins Barnett Pavilion for Women and Children at Lakeland Regional Health, and the founding of Bonnet Springs Park in Lakeland, according to Publix.

“Carol’s commitment to improving the quality of life for Florida’s children and their families embodies the spirit of all that Children’s Week stands for,” United Way of Florida President and Children’s Week Chair Ted Granger said in a statement when she was honored in Tallahassee in 2017. “Her work has provided an untold number of children the opportunity to reach their full potential in life. She has set the standard to which all children’s advocates aspire.”

Her father started the Publix grocery chain with a store in Winter Haven in 1930. Publix Super Markets now has nearly 1,300 stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.

Jenkins Barnett credited her parents’ example for her own charitable interests.

“I love United Way — and have for decades now. No other charitable cause means more to me than United Way,” Jenkins Barnett said at a United Way Women’s Leadership Council event in Dallas in February 2015.

Another passion was early childhood development, “the years when most brain growth occurs. The years if done right and lived right will lead to a child having momentum not only in school, but throughout life,” Jenkins Barnett said at the 2015 Dallas event.

“I would love every child to have the chance to grow up as I did — with a jovial father who took the time to sing the six of us to sleep, with my mother, a neonatal nurse who read constantly to us,” she had said. “My best teachers were my parents. Loving. Caring. Teaching — even when I didn’t know they were ‘teaching.’

Jenkins Barnett was born one of seven children to George Jenkins and Anne MacGregor Jenkins in Lakeland. She also cited her grandmother as one of her great influences. She was “called ‘Gaga’ — but not to be confused with the present-day Lady Gaga,” Jenkins Barnett said at a National Business Leader Summit event in Atlanta in September 2013.

“My Grandmother MacGregor simply insisted on language being used correctly. Woe unto any of us who used ‘ain’t’ in a sentence!,” she joked.

Jenkins Barnett worked for the grocery chain in 1972 as a cashier at Grove Park Shopping Center in Lakeland and later worked in Publix’s corporate marketing research and development department.

Education and board memberships

Jenkins Barnett earned her bachelor’s in business and marketing from Florida Southern College in 1979 and received a doctorate in public service in 1998.

In 1983, she was elected to the Publix board of directors and served for 33 years until her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

That year, she also joined the foundation’s board of directors — which would later become Publix Super Markets Charities.

Following her father’s stroke in 1989, she was appointed chair. Two years later, she was also named president.

Survivors, services

Jenkins Barnett’s survivors include her husband, Barney Barnett; sons Wesley and Nicholas Barnett; grandchildren Raleigh, Birdie and Zoey; and many other family members. She was predeceased by her parents, George and Anne.

“My mother had a passion for helping others, especially children,” Wesley Barnett said in a text message to The Ledger. “She felt privileged to be able to support many causes locally and beyond. Her father and mother instilled in her a sense of responsibility to her community and she has in turn taught that to my brother and me and our families by her shining example.”

A memorial service will be held at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 11. The service will be livestreamed at https://livestream.com/fumclakeland.

The family asks that donations in her memory be made to Bonnet Springs Park.

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