Longtime Hampden resident Jack Barr, a colorful "town crier" who trolled The Avenue for business news, often wearing caps or crowns with an assortment of handcrafted noses on them, died of heart disease and a colon infection on Sunday, Sept. 29 at the Manor Care nursing home in Towson. He was 79.
"He cared about everybody and he looked out for everybody," said Leslie Stevenson, owner of the store, In Watermelon Sugar, who was Mr. Barr's friend and caretaker and had power of attorney for his legal affairs because he had no known family.
"Jack Barr was Hampden's original Facebook page," said Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon and founder of HonFest.
"Before the Internet, he was how information got around," said Jacq Jones, owner of Sugar the Shop, a sex toy shop on The Avenue, who serenaded him at a party for Barr at Cafe Hon on his 74th birthday in 2008.
Even in in the digital age, Mr. Barr, who referred to himself proudly as "the nosiest man in Hampden" and was known as Nosy Jack or Jack the Nose, made himself useful handing out brochures for the Hampden Village Merchants Association and getting the scoop on new businesses. He often jotted down information in a spiral notebook that he carried.
"It's a heartbreaking loss for the neighborhood," said Benn Ray, president of the association. "He was everybody's grandfather — well, maybe not everybody had a grandfather like that. He was a fantastic spokesperson and messenger for the neighborhood."
Mr. Barr also came to symbolize Hampden, a neighborhood cherished for its eccentricites, pride and sense of possibilities at a time when it was gentrifying.
"He was part of that magic that brought change and renewed vibrance to the neighborhood," emailed Jay Caragay, owner of the coffee cafe Spro, where Mr. Barr often stopped in to drink iced tea with lots of sugar. "When people talk about how charming or how cool or hip that Hampden is today, I always think of Jack the Nose because he was one of those people that truly made Hampden into the neighborhood that people admire today."
"You couldn't have a place on The Avenue without knowing Jack," said Alta Reynolds, former co-owner of the old Honey Bea Haven store, where Mr. Barr worked part-time.
"He made it his business to meet and greet everyone," she said. "He would scope you out and do his rounds and everybody would have a heads up on what was going on."
"We were on his rounds," said Lisa Ghinger, executive director of the Hampden Family Center, who remembers Mr. Barr as "a staple in the community."
Mr. Barr often came in to chat with Pam Viel, the family center's administrative and financial development assistant.
"He would always come in and find out if there was any news. He loved passing on the news," she said. "He would get me business cards."
"Even before (Sugar the Shop) opened, he came by and asked what the store was," said Ms. Jones. "That's what he was, a modern-day town crier. But he wasn't a gossiper."
When she explained to him that Sugar was a sex toy shop with an educational focus, "he was totally fine. He said, 'OK, great.'"
Mrs. Stevenson said that Mr. Barr, a Korean War veteran originally from Lancaster, Pa., lived on Social Security and a small pension from his years working for a tablecloth factory in Hampden and resided in the area for some 40 years and liked to frequent its bars. As he grew older, he gave up the nightlife but missed the camaraderie. With no family of his own, he befriended merchants, who became like a family to him, she said.
She first met him when he came in to the old S'getti Gourmet, the predecessor of In Watermelon Sugar, to buy Italian cold cuts.
"He was curious," Mrs. Stevenson said. "It was his neighborhood and he wanted to engage."
As age slowed him down, Mr. Barr walked The Avenue with a cane, often stopping into Cafe Hon or Spro.
"While we were building Spro in the summer of 2009, Jack would be lurking about, trying to glean information on the new coffee shop being built on his watch," Mr. Caragay said in his email. "When the doors finally opened in March 2010, Jack was there poking around suspiciously, trying to figure out if we were charlatans or people truly interested in being a part of the neighborhood that he loved so much. Over time, Jack went from being someone suspicious of our intentions to one of our beloved regulars."
"I personally treasured his visits and always tried to discover a tidbit of news to share — although there wasn't much to which he wasn't privy first," Elissa Strati, owner of Avenue Antiques, said in an email.
In recent years, Mr. Barr moved from a bad living arrangement in an apartment on The Avenue to a senior citizen high-rise on Roland Avenue. He soon collected the addresses and birthdays of all the residents and began sending them cards on their birthdays, Mrs. Stevenson said.
Mr. Barr also managed to ride a shuttle bus to the Avenue twice a week. When the Red Men's Hall in Hampden was being sold earlier this year, Mr. Barr, a former member of the fraternal organization, was not surprised, but wanted to know what the plans for the building were.
"I'll find out," he told a reporter.
He broke his hip earlier this year and Mrs. Stevenson moved him to Manor Care, where he could be with a longtime friend, whom he had visited often over the years. By the time he came to live, everyone already knew him, Mrs. Stevenson said.
A few weeks ago, he suffered a mild heart attack, compounded by an infection, Mrs. Stevenson said.
She said a memorial event will be held at Cafe Hon, 1002 W. 36th St. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 5:30-7:30 p.m. with Mr. Barr's favorite foods served. There will be no funeral services, because Mr. Barr expressed a desire to be cremated. Initially, he suggested his ashes sit in a prominent spot at Cafe Hon, so that he could watch the comings and goings, Mrs. Stevenson said. But he decided more realistically to have his ashes released in Hampden and Wyman Park.
"He said, 'Spread me around the neighborhood that I love."
Mr. Barr was notable in his absence this past year.
"He will be missed," said Mrs. Ghinger. "He has been missed."