John Henry Barrett once described it as the moment that changed his life. And the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner is now calling it the one that contributed his to recent death.
A playful fight with a friend nearly six decades ago in western Palm Beach County escalated into a more serious confrontation — and gunfire. At age 19, Barrett was left partially paralyzed for the remainder of his life when he was shot in the neck in 1958 and a bullet damaged his spinal cord.
The lifelong Pahokee resident died in May at the age of 77. He is counted as one of Palm Beach County’s 63 homicide victims for 2017 after the medical examiner determined last month that he died from an infection and complications related to the gunshot wound from all those years ago.
According to the medical examiner’s report, the person responsible for the shooting was convicted and served time in prison. The report does not identify the shooter, or say how long a sentence that person served.
Court and law enforcement officials said they were unable to find information about the suspect or the shooting in their records.
However, for those who knew him, Barrett’s life was defined not by that fateful day, but in his many accomplishments in the years that followed.
“He always told my brother and myself, no matter how dire your circumstances, your mind has the ability to overcome anything,” Robert Lee, Barrett’s great-nephew, said recently. “His life is an example.”
For more than three decades, Barrett served as pastor for the New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Pahokee. An outspoken advocate for families in the city’s public-housing communities, Barrett became the first African-American executive director of the Pahokee Housing Authority.
He did not speak often about the shooting, but used his circumstance to inspire others, family members said.
“He never wanted to be looked upon as (being disabled),” said Terrance Lee, Robert’s younger brother. “He wanted to be looked up to as a normal person in society. That’s the way he lived his life.”
Barrett discussed how the shooting affected his life in a 1974 interview with The Miami Herald. Doctors warned that he might never walk again, but Barrett learned to walk again with the help of a cane. However, the one-time farm worker could no longer work in the fields.
“I don’t believe I’ll ever completely recover,” Barrett told The Herald. “But if the accident hadn’t happened, I would have spent all of my life as a farm worker.”
Terrance Lee described Barrett as a father figure who often took care of him and his brother whenever their mother was on assignment working for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Barrett earned an associate’s degree in business administration from what was then Palm Beach Junior College and was promoted several times within the housing authority. Many of the brothers’ memories were of listening to Barrett’s sermons in church.
“His voice was very commanding,” Robert Lee said. “He was handicapped. (But) if you close your eyes and you hear him speak, you wouldn’t know that.”
Said Terrance: “His voice, it commanded attention. All of his messages it seemed like it was catered specifically for you. That’s how well he knew his audience.
In the days, prior to his death, Barrett urged parishioners to continue building on the church’s foundation and to help it grow, Lee said.
“He was a very, very positive individual,” Robert Lee said. “He never let his situation or his circumstance determine his potential in life.”
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.