Always smiling. Always friendly. And above all else, always positive.
That was my friend, Tom Barnabo.
Barney, as he was known to so many, lived life to the fullest.
A fellow 1982 Janesville Parker High graduate, Barnabo followed in his father Don’s footsteps by embarking on a career as a physical education teacher, along with coaching football and track and field.
Barnabo spent the last 24 years teaching physical education at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, and was currently an assistant boys track coach. He also was the defensive line coach for Grand View University—an NAIA school in Des Moines.
On Oct. 28, Barnabo tested positive for COVID-19. His symptoms worsened by Nov. 5, and he sought medical treatment at a local hospital. He was not admitted at the time and died from COVID-related complications Saturday at the age of 57.
Dowling Catholic principal Matt Meendering said Barnabo’s death hit the school hard.
“It’s a huge void, there’s no doubt about it,” Meendering said. “He had such a big heart and impacted so many kids in such a positive way.
“The thing we’ll miss most about Tom is his positive attitude and the lift that it gave our school. He never had a bad day and never said a bad word about anybody. I know his department (phy ed), like the rest of us, is really struggling right now to make sense out of all of this.”
Playing for his father at Parker, Barney was a standout on the football field. He earned all-state honors his senior year as a linebacker and played in the North/South High School All-Star Shrine game. He went on to play for Drake University from 1982-87.
After graduating from Drake, Barnabo taught and coached in Iowa at Simpson College and Urbandale High School. He began at Dowling Catholic in 1997 as a PE teacher and was the defensive coordinator for a football team that won back-to-back state titles in 2000 and 2001.
In 2008, Grand View added football to its existing sports programs. Mike Woodley was the very first coach for the Vikings, and the first call he made to put a coaching staff together was to Barnabo.
Mike had known Don Barnabo for a long time and knew his son was an up-and-coming star in the coaching ranks because of his positive attitude and strong football background.
Tom Barnabo took the job and had been with Grand View ever since. The Vikings won the NAIA national championship in 2013, just six seasons after the program was started.
Joe Woodley, Mike’s son, is in his second season as head coach at Grand View. He said he lost much more than just a coach on his staff.
“It has been a really rough couple of days,” Woodley said. “There have been three or four times the last couple of days where I’ve just broke down. ‘Barn’ was a great friend, my drinking buddy when we needed a beer or two after a game. I’m still in shock.
“In our sport, every team needs that calming presence, and that’s what ‘Coach Barn’ was. Everybody looked to him for that, myself included. He always so positive no matter what the situation.”
Grand View has a home game with Culver-Stockton College on Saturday. Woodley said the team and university will honor Barnabo by wearing decals on their helmets that say “Coach Barn” and will pay tribute with a video on the scoreboard and with a socially-distanced drive-by after the game to pay respects to Tom’s wife, Susan, and sons, Dalton and Cole.
Tom is further survived by father, Don and sister, Lana. Don was a longtime physical education teacher at Parker, as well as the head football coach. He retired and, along with his wife, Arloa, moved to Manitowish Waters. She died in 2018.
Tom visited as often as he could, especially in the summer months. Father and son enjoyed fishing, cookouts, and I’m sure, swapping football stories.
For me, I’ll miss our playful bantering on Facebook, the never-ending pictures of each other’s beloved dogs and having a shot or two of blackberry brandy when he was in town.
Life was always better with Barney around.