Jay Barker entered this world on October 13, 1955, the son of Jack Harville and Peggy Jean Phillips Barker. The place was Savannah, Tennessee. The actual day was Thursday, and it was a day that would basically change the world forever.
Although Jay was born in Savannah, he always called Milan his hometown, since most of his school years were spent in that city. His father being a minister meant a childhood of traveling from church to church, beginning with Hightstown, New Jersey while his father was finishing his education. From there they returned to Tennessee, first landing in Hohenwald, then Clarksville, followed by Milan and Jackson. ‘Midst all of his travels, he met the love of his life, Diana Abrams, marrying her on December 18, 1981. They tackled life together; any adventure Jay embarked upon, Diana was right there by his side . . . whether she agreed with the plan or not.
In 1973, Jay spent the summer working with the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) at Fall Creek Falls State Park. His job that summer involved laying stone walkways that led to the Visitor’s Center. Never one to be satisfied with average, Jay took several of the rocks and carved them into shapes . . . the state of Tennessee . . . a heart . . . the letters YCC and the numbers '73. Then he laid them in the pathways, ‘mongst all the other stones. Several years later he learned the walkways were to be removed and replaced and, try as he and Diana did, they could never get anyone to agree to give them his hand-carved rocks. Years later, his daughter Christen was at the park, having her picture made in front of the park sign. She sent it to her parents, without knowing its significance, and there, embedded in the rock walls of the sign, were Jay’s hand-carved stones. He was so excited that they hadn’t been discarded because it was one of his most treasured creations. He often said throughout his life that the only thing we leave behind when we are gone are the things that we create. He was extremely proud of the YCC creations.
Jay’s college days began at the University of Tennessee at Martin and ended with a degree in Recreation and Park Development from Texas A & M in College Station, Texas. He returned to Hardin County, Tennessee, settling into his role as a park ranger with Pickwick Landing State Park before accepting a position with Henco Fundraising Company. But after that? After that, Jay found one of his passions in the world of food service with the opening of the Rocking Chair Restaurant at Pickwick which was followed by Granny’s Country Kitchen and Jay’s Pizza and Bar-B-Que, both of which were in Adamsville. He eventually moved from the lake to Savannah where he started Barker Landscaping, a business he operated for 30 years, landscaping half of Hardin County in the process. Being one of the first in the area to enter that kind of business afforded him many opportunities to work with both commercial and residential lawns, beautifying the world as he went.
The end of his landscaping career found him moving to Chicago where he held the NFL Super Bowl Poster franchise for several years, a position that also gave him the opportunity to live in Wrigley Mansion, owned by none other than Aaron Wrigley, owner of Wrigley gum and the sponsor of Wrigley Field. One of the posters he designed was even included in a half time ad during the Super Bowl. His time in Chicago allowed him to meet a lot of really cool people, including the guy responsible for drawing Chester Cheetah for Cheetos. Eventually, Jay moved to Tampa, Florida where he worked with REW Landscaping, serving as a project manager for their work with apartment complexes.
His final move came when he returned to Pickwick and opened the Broken Spoke Restaurant, a true destination spot to which people would drive from hours away, just to indulge in the restaurant’s offerings. Jay believed in delivering quality and service and focused on the presentation of his food, all of which showed in the meals he served and in the customers the restaurant drew. It also allowed him to claim the Spoke had “the best food in three states . . . and you can pick the states”. A few years after opening the Spoke, Jay expanded into the adjoining space and presented Mombie’s, a name chosen in honor of his mother Peggy since that was the name by which her grandchildren knew her. Pizza, wings, and cold beer were the order of the day at Mombie’s, and it only added to the Spoke’s already stellar reputation in the area.
Jay’s ability to produce such great quality food in such a unique atmosphere drew notable people to his place, including Steve McNair, who became a regular, so much so that, right before McNair was traded from the Titans, he sent Jay a signed jersey. It also led to him hosting a Dress Blues Dinner for a division of the Army, an event that so impressed the 2-Star General who was speaking that evening that, two weeks later, Jay received a letter of commendation in the mail and a Commander's Award of Excellence from the 1st Battalion 17th Field Artillery "Copperheads" as a means of thanking him for the wonderful evening. Sometime later, Boeing brought in representatives of the Israeli government to discuss the purchase of Boeing’s aircraft for their military’s use. Two weeks later, Jay received another commendation by mail, this time from the Israeli Embassy, thanking him for the evening and including a Defense and Armed Forces Attaché coin. His success at the Spoke led to a spin-off catering operation, The Kings of Cooks, which also enjoyed a great deal of success, simply because Jay followed the same principles he did for the Spoke . . . good food and good service coupled with beautiful presentation. His wife Diana and his children Nick and Christen were highly involved in the endeavor, along with whatever close friends and/or family members he might need to call upon for help, depending on the type and size of the event.
Jay was a lover of music, a man who wrote songs and actually recorded three CDs during his years at the Spoke. Among his better-known efforts are “Mama’s Love” which was recorded by Mark Narmore, and “Get ‘Er Done”, the song that led him to observe, “Don’t write a song you don’t want to sing every night” because the Spoke customers would always request it. His dedication to the art led him to employee a house band, The Cliftones from Clifton, Tennessee, for most of the Spoke’s history. He also partnered with Sandy Carroll of Memphis to bring other talented people to the Spoke, including Maty Noyes who also recorded with John Legend, Kelly McGrath who has opened for the Rolling Stones and is well-known across Europe, and Ruby Wilson, the Queen of Beale Street. The Summer Concert Series he and Sandy put together would bring in groups each Wednesday night and proved to be the start of many songwriters’ careers.
The economic downturn of 2008 caused Jay to look in other directions for a supplemental income stream, and that’s when he discovered Costa Rica. He became affiliated with a gentleman there who was in resort development, which led to Jay and other members of the team actually installing a complete infrastructure that included constructing roads, bringing running water from a nearby town to the project, and having electricity installed for every home and potential home within the development. The work was adventurous but extremely treacherous, requiring them to move up and down 4,000 foot mountainsides over muddy, dangerous roads. None of these were small feats in a foreign country where everything happens "manana", especially if you are a gringo.
Jay eventually returned to being a full-time resident of Hardin County, and opened a second location, The Worley Bird Café in Savannah. Working with Darryl Worley, who loaned him the memorabilia that covered the walls of the restaurant, Jay continued to build on his business ventures. When the Spoke closed, Jay and his son Nick operated Pitmaster Bar-B-Que in Savannah, then reopened a slimmed down version of the Spoke, known as Spoke 2.0. When 2.0 eventually closed, Jay went to work as a sous chef at the Music City Center in Nashville before finally retiring at the age of 62, but not before he had cooked competitively on television, participated in Memphis in May, and almost made it to the small screen when a pilot for a show shot at the Spoke was proposed. His years in the restaurant industry had been full and blessed.
Throughout his working days, Jay was always looking for other ways to improve his community. For years he actively participated in the events of the Olivet Cumberland Presbyterian Church. And, inspired by the memorabilia displayed at the 50th wedding anniversary celebration of his wife’s grandparents, Bill and Betty Bellis, he revived The National Catfish Derby, which he and Diana operated for the next 13 years. There was a catfishing tournament that grew to well over 100 boats by the end of their tenure, as well as hushpuppy and catfish cooking, a beauty pageant, and the all-time favorite catfish skinning competition. Despite all the activity, Jay most enjoyed the kids’ fishing rodeo. He believed if someone would take their child out and teach them how to fish, then that was something important enough to be recognized. And recognize it he did, always interacting with the kids and making certain everyone had a good time and left feeling like a winner. At the time Jay and Diana resurrected the festival, there were no national tournaments for professional catfishermen, but they changed all of that, crowning Phil King the “World Championship Catfisherman”, a title he held from 1994 – 2000. It was Jay who had the signs many of us have seen proclaiming Hardin County the “Catfish Capital of the World” created and installed. New owners eventually bought the Derby franchise which, after passing through several hands, was sold to the City of Savannah, which was exactly where Jay had wanted it all along.
Jay also tackled the job of having the area around Pickwick Lake recognized by that name rather than the name of Counce. His first obstacle was getting the post office renamed, since you can’t have a community on the map if it doesn’t have a post office. With the help of governmental officials, the post office was finally named accordingly (even though the signs still say Counce), which allowed Pickwick to be officially recognized. Once that was accomplished, Jay arranged for “Welcome to Pickwick” signs to be made and installed on each of the three major highways entering the town.
One of Jay's favorite places on earth was at Low Water Bridge on Indian Creek in Olive Hill, Tennessee. At first he and his family camped out on others' property on the creek's edge until he was able to secure a lot of their own. He immediately set his sights on a rustic cabin built on eight-foot poles--and harassed the owner long enough that he finally gave in and sold it to Jay. It closed on Diana's birthday in 1995 and from then on was where you could find the Barker family every weekend for years. It is the base for many memories, life lessons, learning, and love for not only Jay's family but countless others from young to old. Jay called it his sanctuary and himself the keeper of the creek. He had a smidgen of Indian blood from his mother's side and felt connected to his Native American heritage while there. Countless kayak trips, bonfires, midnight canoe trips, camping, cooking, and more are among the memories of anyone that had the good fortune to visit "Barker Landing on Indian Creek".
Jay’s retirement saw the beginnings of him “addressing the nation” from his homestead where he gardened, raised his rabbits, and tended to Diana's chickens. Every Facebook broadcast began with “Good morning, Nation”, no matter the time of day, and if you were Jay’s Facebook friend, there would always be a congratulatory note on your page on the day of your birth, acknowledging that you’d completed one more lap around the sun. He religiously posted those birthday greetings and always fretted that he might miss someone’s very special day. His videos were a mix of life observations and words of wisdom sprinkled with a bit of humor—and an amazement that such broadcasts were even possible. As he said during his last upload, “I’m an old soul with a young mind”. He could operate in a world of technology, but he longed for a simpler life. As his wife of 41 years observed, he was the most complex simple man she’d ever known. And even though he might appear a bit gruff at times, underneath that exterior was the heart of a teddy bear and a man who loved freely and fully, with his door and his couch and his table always open to anyone. He believed in his family and loved them beyond measure, especially his wife whom he called “Lady Di” and about whom he always posted tributes. Jay Barker loved without bounds and was never afraid to show that love.
This most unique individual, who filled many roles and lived life on his own terms, left his family and friends suddenly on Thursday, April 27th at the age of 67. He leaves behind his wife, Diana “Lady Di” Abrams Barker and his four children, Jessica Leigh Barker Ody of Ohio, Christen Blair Barker and her life partner Kevin Cabler, of Adamsville, Tennessee, Ashley Brooke Barker Waltman and her husband Daniel Paul Waltman of Denver, Colorado, and Nicholas Abrams Barker of Georgetown, Georgia. He also leaves his two sisters, LuAnne Givens of Maryville, Tennessee and Judith Lea Burnham of Savannah, Tennessee, and his 10 grandchildren, Enzi Adison Stoltz, Carlee Jean Ody, Zoe Elizabeth Ody, Jackson Bryan Ody, Amaryllis Lucille Davis, Tristan Waylon Davis, Brian Silas Cabler, Isaac Barker Ody, Lawson Brilynn Cabler, and Lyric Sage Cabler. Other than his parents, Jay was preceded in death by one grandchild, Erin Cabler, who was born sleeping on July 7, 2011.
Jay’s larger-than-life personality and heart will be greatly missed. This man, who believed “Work is the most active form of relaxation”, an observation from one of the dishwashers at Granny's Country Kitchen, and that you just needed to “Do what you wanna do ‘cause that’s what I’m gonna do”, impacted a tremendous number of lives, and each one is already keenly aware of how much they’ve lost.