The Way We Were: Sissy Barker

The Way We Were: Sissy Barker
1st grade class, Southside Grammar School, 1941

It’s quite the paradox, but amid multiple moves across state lines, Sissy Barker has maintained throughout Jacksonville a consistency in friendships and family, which marks the theme of her life.

Born to Sara and Paul Hattaway on Thanksgiving Day 1936 in Augusta, Georgia, Sissy Barker’s real name was Cynthann. She was named for her father’s late sister, Cynthia Ann, and nicknamed Sissy because her only sibling, her older sister Jean, couldn’t pronounce her given name. When Barker was 2, the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia where she began school three years later, but only for a brief time. She ended up changing schools eight times in 12 years.

In October 1942, Barker’s father took a job as superintendent at Gibbs Corporation Shipyards in Jacksonville on the south bank of the river where the hotels are now. Her family rented an upstairs apartment in a house located on the southside of San Marco behind the shopping area, and Barker continued first grade at Southside Grammar School Number 7, even when the family moved to another apartment on Larue Avenue. When her family bought a house in St. Nicholas, Barker transferred to Spring Park Elementary School where, annually, students would dance around in the ribbons of the maypole.

Sissy Barker teaches herself to ride a bike
Sissy Barker teaches herself to ride a bike

She made it through the second grade at Spring Park before her father took another job in Birmingham, Alabama, but only for a brief time; George Gibbs called him back to head shipbuilding before Barker could finish the third grade. She transferred to Alfred I. duPont Elementary School and remained there to complete her elementary school education. 

Barker was in the fourth grade, living on Peachtree Circle in Miramar, when her mother told her that if she didn’t learn to ride the old bicycle that her sister had outgrown, she was going to give it away. Barker walked that bike down to Oaklawn Cemetery and stood on gravestones to mount back up after each fall as she taught herself to handle the two-wheeler. It took all day, but she rode it back home with a big smile on her face, exclaiming for all to hear, “I learned to ride the bike!”

In the two-story building, known as San Marco One today, across the street to the south of the fountain in San Marco was the Town Pump. “It was a bar. My doctor as a child, Dr. Tyler, was upstairs. He was a fine man. I have fond memories of him,” Barker said.

As a young girl, Barker went to many Georgia vs. Florida football games because Georgia’s coach, Wally Butts, was a former classmate of her mom’s, and he sent them admission tickets. Most women, including her mother, wore hats, gloves, and furs to the games if they had them. Back then, Georgia usually won. As an adult, Barker would host a party for her friends on the night before a game.

Barker’s family spent time at Jacksonville Beach, too, when she was young. She remembers two things: One, a German submarine came too close to shore as it targeted an American ship and, for a time afterwards, there were piles of tar littering the beach. And two, because several soldiers had come ashore, cars were inspected for hiding Germans. She also remembers air raids at that time. Her family had to turn off every light in the house to avoid being spotted. “My sister and I thought that was pretty neat because we would get under the bed with a flashlight and play cards,” Barker said. 

It was in school at duPont that Barker met Ivy Carey. They were classmates and friends, and as Girl Scouts, they together attended Camp Chowenwaw at the mouth of Black Creek. 

San Marco Theatre admission was nine cents when Barker and Carey would go on Saturdays. A quarter was enough for entry, Coke, popcorn, and the dime needed to call one of their moms from the pay phone at Lane’s Drugstore across the street to come pick them up. They’d let the phone ring one time only as a code message, hang up, and get the dime back. There were boys who didn’t have the nine cents so “one would pay to go in, then open the exit door inside and let his friends in,” Barker reported. The theatre showed serials, preceded by news reels about the war. Few, if any, households had television sets then.Barker would be a junior in high school before her family’s living room would see a black-and-white set.

Sissy at Camp Chowenwaw, Green Cove Springs
Sissy at Camp Chowenwaw, Green Cove Springs

There was also the Florida Theatre downtown and two drive-in-movies, one on Philips Highway and one on Beach Boulevard, that Barker’s parents would take her to sometimes. Barker remembers her mom shopping for groceries at the A&P near the bowling alley across from San Marco Theatre. She recalls, too, Haney’s Gas Station that stood at the fork of San Marco Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue across from where South Jacksonville Presbyterian church now stands.

In the sixth grade, Barker and Carey doubled for their first date—Barker with Ernest Guthrie, and her friend with Billy Turney. The four went to Howard Biser’s Restaurant on Philips Highway for seafood, the Florida Theatre for a show and popcorn afterwards, and then to Lane’s for a dessert of milkshakes and sundaes. Carey slept at the Barkers that night, and both girls were sick for the duration. All four would eventually graduate from Landon together, but the guys have since died while the girls remain close friends, though they’ve never as adults lived in the same town.

Barker began seventh grade at Landon High School, which was technically a junior and senior high for seventh through 12th graders. Tired of wearing pigtails, Barker got her first haircut at Cohen Brothers Department Store where City Hall is now. Afterwards, she had lunch in their tearoom. She made it halfway through seventh grade at Landon before her dad took a job in Columbus, Georgia where she finished seventh, eighth, and ninth grades and began her sophomore year. Her family moved back to Florida at Mr. Gibbs’s beckoning in time for Barker to finish her sophomore and junior years at Landon High School. 

At the end of Barker’s junior year, her father wanted to pursue his passion, peanut shelling, and start his own business back in Columbus, Georgia; he even had developed machinery for the separating and storing. Barker, though usually a respectful and obedient daughter, refused to relocate and change schools again. By then, despite her many moves, she had already made lifelong friendships at Landon, some having been with her since Southside Grammar and Spring Park Elementary. For her entire senior year, her father would leave Florida on Sunday afternoons and come back on Friday nights after working all week in Georgia, just so that his daughter could graduate from Landon as she had longed to do. “That was a sacrifice on my parents’ part, and until the day he died, I told him how much I appreciated it,” she said. 

Sissy in Lionette uniform, 1953
Sissy in Lionette uniform, 1953

At Landon, there was a senior English teacher, Mrs. Perkins. “She was the best! She had us memorizing poetry all the time and would give us sample SAT tests,” Barker said. And there was Miss Katheen Turner, the girls’ gym teacher who created the Lionettes, the drill team that marched at halftime during football games; Barker was a member. “Boy, was she ever strict! But we still loved her, and the Lionettes were well known all over the state,” Barker said.

Hayrides, bonfires, and roasting hotdogs were popular summer pastimes at a place on the beach called Hill 13, somewhere in the Ponte Vedra area. At least once a month on a Monday night, Barker and three of her friends—Dot Cohn, Jean Rush, and Betty Douglas—would go to Patti’s Italian Restaurant on Beach Boulevard. It’s no longer there. 

On Saturdays and on Sundays after church, a favorite activity was lying out on the beach—Atlantic Boulevard being the only road that led to the beach back then, before Beach Boulevard and then, much later, J. Turner Butler Boulevard. Barker loved lathering her skin with baby oil and iodine, but she could never tan, only burn and peel.

It was during high school that Barker learned to drive her dad’s Mercury and later acquired a used one of her own. She’d drive anywhere except over the Mathews Bridge that was constructed in 1953 because “I was always scared to drive over it. It just seemed so high,” she said. Years later, she’d be fortunate enough to get her first new car—a black and white Vauxhall with red leather interior. 

Vauxhall, Sissy Barker’s first new car
Vauxhall, Sissy Barker’s first new car

Barker was on the Landonian committee, helping to put together their annual yearbook. Many of the photos had been taken at Oriental Gardens where her mother’s best friend, Grace Leunig, worked at the gift shop. 

Barker graduated from Landon in 1954. “I graduated in the best class ever,” she said. And many of those students still live in Jacksonville.

To reunite with her father in Columbus, Barker moved back north and went to the University of Georgia, majoring in education and pledging to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.  Her college roommate, ironically, happened to be a girl she had met at camp years earlier, Millie Parks.

Barker left the university after two years, married, and had a daughter, Sally Parsons, who today is the executive director of The Women’s Board at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. They lived in Marietta, Georgia, and Barker would commute to Atlanta to teach special education classes at a private school for those with learning disabilities. 

When her 24-year-old husband died of a blood clot, Barker moved back to Jacksonville with her daughter and married Bill Richardson, a graduate of The Bolles School, whom she had dated in high school. They had three sons together—Bill, Charles, and John—before divorcing.

Barker raised her four children on Mapleton Road in the Colonial Manor subdivision of Miramar. Eventually, her eldest son Bill bought that house from her. “I’m so happy that it’s still in the family because we have so many memories there,” Barker said. She is proud that all four of her children attended Hendricks, Pine Forest, Landon, and Wolfson. 

She remembers the five of them often stopping for takeout at Beach Road Fish House & Chicken Dinners on their way home from the beach on weekends. After church on Sundays, they would stop in the Old South Restaurant on Atlantic Boulevard in St. Nicholas. 

When her boys became active in the youth group at All Saints Episcopal Church where another high school friend, Jack Banks, was a priest, Barker decided to join as a member. She and Eleanor Coalson took charge of fundraising for the youth group. They arranged a seafood dinner and auction, which today, more than four decades later, is still an annual event bigger than ever. Barker attends every year to show support, though she is no longer a church member.

After graduating from the University of North Florida in 1975 with a degree in education, Barker began teaching at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School in San Marco in 1976 and earned her master’s degree in 1994 in the midst of her 24-year teaching stint. She taught third, fourth, and fifth grades. Fourth was her favorite grade to teach because, at that age, “They still love the teacher,” Sissy said. “In fifth grade, they start growing up, and the girls start noticing the boys.” To this day, Sissy occasionally meets with former students for lunch.

Sissy carrying Olympic torch with escort Scott Blinkhorn
Sissy carrying Olympic torch with escort Scott Blinkhorn

In 1996, Barker carried the Olympic torch. “I will forever be grateful to Matt Carlucci for suggesting to the Olympic committee that I run it in front of Hendricks Avenue Elementary where I was teaching.” All of the summer school students sat along the road holding signs and torches made of construction paper, cheering her on. The school’s marquee read, “Run, Mrs. Barker, Run.” In her relay running group were Alex Trebek (of Jeopardy), Bob Hayes (the Olympic sprinter), Tim Deegan (the local news meteorologist), and Jay Stein (president of Stein Mart, Inc.). Her side-by-side running escort was Scott Blinkhorn, the son of a fellow teacher. Afterwards, Barker and her sister were fortunate to have tickets to the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. 

For the past 38 years, Barker has been married to Jim Barker of the former James M. Barker Construction Company, whom she refers to as “the love of my life.” They have traveled the world together. They have lived on the same block in the same small house on a gorgeous piece of property on the river throughout their entire marriage. At first, their neighborhood was called Green Cove Springs, then Jacksonville. For a time, it was called Fruit Cove or Switzerland. Now, the area is known as Saint Johns. But the zip code never changed. “It’s crazy!” Barker said. 

Jim and Sissy Barker
Jim and Sissy Barker

She considers it a blessing that all four of her children and most of her eight grandchildren live close by. She also has five great-grandchildren whom she enjoys playing with. There’s Jim’s two children and three grandchildren, too. “We call all of them ‘ours’,” Barker said. She keeps close contact with her 90-year-old sister who lives half the year in Miami when she’s not in the North Carolina mountains. When Barker’s not occupied with family, she reads avidly. 

Barker remains active in the Landon Alumni Association on the Reunions Committee and helps plan formal gatherings every five years. Last spring marked their 65th reunion. People come from all over to attend. She credits Bill Burton, Reed Tillis, and Carolyn Graham for holding them together and keeping them informed via a monthly newsletter. In addition, twice per year, seven couples—10 of whom were former classmates and have remained close since Landon and earlier—get together for house parties. They also had a Medicare party when they turned 65 and another party when they turned 80. “I’ve been blessed with many, many friends,” Barker said. 

Although she is 83 years old now, that did not stop Barker from ziplining during a recent trip to Montana. “She’s one amazing lady that I am proud to call my mom!” said her daughter, Sally Parsons.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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