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Columbia Missourian

Longest-living quadriplegic dies one month before 85th birthday

By Lindsey Davison
September 11, 2013 | 7:40 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Janet Barnes, a longtime Columbia resident who held the Guinness Book of World Records's title for "longest-living quadriplegic (incomplete)", died Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Festus exactly one month before her 85th birthday.

She was born in Mount Vernon, Ill., on Oct. 9, 1928. The doctor broke her neck during delivery, which resulted in her quadriplegic condition, her daughter Angela Barnes said. She added that the doctor gave her grandmother $5 to make up for it.


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"She always said if she hadn't been born with a broken neck, she would have been a race car driver," Angela Barnes said about her mother.

When Mrs. Janet Barnes was 11, her family moved to St. Louis, where she would meet her husband, Harold Eugene Barnes. They married on Jan. 1, 1949.

"Mother and Daddy were a hard act to follow," Angela Barnes said. "My mother was the most creative person I knew. She taught me how to do everything. I had the arms and legs to do it, but it was her mind that was the power behind it."

The couple raised four children and enjoyed serving their community, bowling and raising puppies, Angela Barnes said.

After her husband died in 1979, Mrs. Janet Barnes moved to Columbia because it looked wheelchair friendly. She was one of the first residents of Freedom House, an apartment complex for  people with disabilities, though she didn't consider herself disabled, Angela Barnes said.

"She always said, 'I have not been handicapped by my condition. I'm physically challenged and differently-abled,'" her daughter said.

Mrs. Janet Barnes volunteered with the Community Garden Coalition, where she supplied seeds and plants to her neighbors at Freedom House. She also served as a foster grandparent and tutor at Shepard Boulevard Elementary School and a volunteer at University Hospital.

"From the minute she got up to the minute she went to bed, she was busy doing something," said Janeen Erixson, who helped take care of Mrs. Janet Barnes when Erixson was in MU's nursing program in the early 1990s. "She was either at the school teaching kids to read or at the hospital helping people. She was just so grateful to be here, to be alive and to make a difference."

Life in Columbia came with challenges, too, Angela Barnes said.

In early 2000, Mrs. Janet Barnes was using her motorized wheelchair at Shepard Boulevard Elementary when a panel truck got caught on her wheelchair in the school driveway, dragging her down the driveway along with it, her daughter said. Her mother had to free herself from the truck, which resulted in the chair falling on top of her. The chair was totaled, but Mrs. Janet Barnes didn't have a single broken bone.

A second accident involving Mrs. Janet Barnes occurred on April 23, 2012, when she was using her motorized wheelchair to cross College Avenue near Windsor Street when a car struck her. She was ejected from her wheelchair and flew 30 feet before landing on the side of her face on the pavement. Doctors told Angela Barnes that her mother broke almost every bone in her body.

"When she woke up, I told her she received last rites three times," her daughter said. "She just laughed and said, 'Oh my goodness, I want a hot dog and a cup of coffee.'"

Friends and family remember Mrs. Janet Barnes for her joy, willpower, strength and candid sense of humor.

"I thought she was really fun," said Celia Montes, the rehabilitation manager at Select Specialty Hospital in St. Charles. "She could express herself a lot without saying much. She would roll her eyes at me when she didn't want to do something, and we would read our horoscopes together. She didn't have to say a lot to make her presence known."

Angela Barnes recalls when her mother bought a pair of hot pink and aqua blue snakeskin shoes from a catalog for $21.

"She threw the catalog away, so no one else knew where she got them," she said. "It's what she called her only selfish act."

On the morning she died, Mrs. Janet Barnes spent time with Angela Barnes at Fountainbleau Nursing Center in Festus, where she was moved on Friday. The two browsed through magazines, looked up pumpkin soup recipes, discussed gasoline prices and decorated Mrs. Janet Barnes' new room.

It was also the day a new wheelchair was supposed to arrive, one that would serve as a symbol of her independence since the wreck in 2012, her daughter said.

Mrs. Janet Barnes is survived by two daughters, Angela Barnes of Fairview Heights, Ill., and Robyn Barnes of the Sacramento, Calif., area; a son, Brian Barnes of Jefferson City; an uncle, Paul Collins of Perryville; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Angela Barnes said her mother is also survived by "the hearts of the children she helped in Columbia. I don't think you can skip them. They're just as much family as blood relatives."

She is preceded in death by her husband and son Gene Barnes.

A celebration of Mrs. Janet Barnes' life, called "Celebrate the Life and Legacy of Janet Barnes and her Unsinkable, Unstoppable, Fighting Spirit," will be held 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17  at the Riechmann Pavilion at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia. Plans are to serve cake and punch to guests in honor of Mrs. Janet Barnes' 85th birthday.

Memorial funds can be contributed to the 90-Pound Heavyweight Janet Barnes Legacy Foundation. Angela Barnes will release details regarding the foundation on her Facebook page and website soon.

The Missourian is accepting memories of or tributes to Mrs. Janet Barnes. Readers who would like to contribute can send them to

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.