by Marty Ryan
Dennis Barnum: Dennis, as in “Dennis the Menace”, and Barnum, as in “Barnum and Bailey Circus” (he purposefully left off the Ringling Brothers association); that’s how he introduced himself to me, and how I have heard him introduce himself to others. It worked. I can often miss someone’s name in an introduction. But I didn’t miss his.
I remember well the first and last time I spoke with Dennis.
Last June, he came to our home to take us out to lunch. Stephanie and I were just heading out the door to speak at an organization that is one of our clients. Had we known it was the last time we would see Dennis, we would have canceled the speaking engagement. Yes, he meant that much to us.
We live a mere two to three blocks from the Central Iowa Health Care System, known to most people as the Veterans Hospital in Des Moines. He was at the Hospital to have some treatment and decided to drop by and take us out to lunch – his treat. He looked pretty good. We were sure we would see him again. However, hindsight tells us that he was there to say goodbye. We didn’t get the hint, even though he told us what was wrong with him – Stage 4 cancer. Stephanie and I learned an extremely valuable lesson from this: friends are more important than events. Besides, one of us could have handled the speaking engagement while the other went to lunch with Dennis. But he understood. He was a proud man; but was humble in an altruistic way. He hugged each of us in our front yard as we parted. Stephanie got three hugs.
I originally met Dennis over the phone. I was working for the Iowa Civil Liberties Union in the mid-1990s when the executive director came up with a plan to find a new breed of directors for the board. We would advertise in the newsletter to see if any ACLU members in Iowa would like to come forward and be considered for nomination to the state affiliate’s board of directors. We received a few inquiries, but only one followed through – Dennis. I called to find his level of interest. Interesting, indeed.
We became good friends the minute he showed up for his first board meeting. He told me that he wanted to be the President of the ICLU someday; that he wanted to be the state affiliate’s representative on the ACLU National Board; and that he wanted to be appointed to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Dennis was a man who got things done. He accomplished all but the latter. And he wasn’t finished. After a few years, he wanted to be the President of Iowans Against the Death Penalty. He did that and recruited most of the board members.
But Dennis was more than an overachiever. He was a prolific fundraiser. Unlike most people, he enjoyed it. He traveled the state raising funds for the operation of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. And put an emphasis on raise. He could take a $500-a-year donor and make them a $1500-a-year donor in a matter of minutes. I witnessed him raising a yearly contribution of $500 to a whopping $10,000 two-year commitment. He didn’t ask for money and head out the door. No, he visited, and he talked about civil liberties, the board, the staff, and a touch of politics. He was interested in the donor’s family. He provided feedback to the organization, which was always significant to establishing a close relationship between benefactor and recipient.
He held a session in which he taught the rest of the board members how to compete with him, and he began with Maslow’s triangle of hierarchy. It was weird, but effective. Under his leadership, goals were set thousands of dollars above what anyone thought was realistic. Yet, he managed to achieve each and every goal that was set while he was in a position of leadership. He just couldn’t get appointed to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
He gave me a letter to edit once. It took two days, a thesaurus and dictionary to get the job done. I sent him a letter once, not to edit, but to read. He returned it with editorial remarks. One thing that solidified our friendship was the fact that neither of us left a dangling participle or ended a sentence with a preposition.
I will miss him.
Dennis Barnum died on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at Trinity Regional Medical Center in Fort Dodge, IA. He was 80 years-old. He got things done!