Dr. Marion Barnes has literally and figuratively had several mountaintop experiences in his 89 years, from serving as president of Covenant College, to fighting a bear in the Smoky Mountains, to helping expand a Christian school in Kenya.
He also spent much of his life as a chemist and chemistry professor, and spent plenty of other time coming up with formulas for success in other fields. But through all the different experiences, the Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church member has kept a singular focus on doing the Lord’s work.
“I feel the Lord has taken especially good care of me,” he said modestly as he looked back on his life recently from his bluff home, three miles south of Covenant College.
Born in 1913, Dr. Barnes began his working career as a child behind a mule near El Dorado, Ark. After high school, he attended a small college in Arkansas and later the University of Arkansas. After graduation, he secured a chemistry teaching position at City College of New York while embarking on graduate school. He later accepted a professorship teaching chemistry and qualitative analysis at Columbia University to future professional school students enlisted in the Navy during World War II.
Being in New York was quite a contrast to Arkansas, he said. “I liked the education and cultural things, but the other things about New York I didn’t especially care for,” he said.
He had always wanted to work at a Christian college, so he later was hired at Wheaton College in Illinois. Right before he was to leave, he received a rare opportunity to teach at Harvard. He asked Wheaton officials if he could work briefly at Harvard before going to Wheaton to make his resume more impressive, but they said no.
After a stint at Wheaton, he entered the field of chemical research. That work ranged from making ammonium nitrate less explosive to trying to come up with more uses for sulfur.
Unbeknownst to him, he was about to come up with a use not for sulfur, but for the old Lookout Mountain Hotel. In the mid-1960s, he was working in St. Louis for the giant Monsanto Company, but he was also serving as chairman of the board of trustees for the nearby Covenant College.
The college wanted to move its undergraduate school to another campus and also needed a new president. Dr. Barnes offered to serve in the position, so the board handed the reins to this man who had once held the reins of a mule. “I liked the idea of being president of a Christian college,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been satisfied at sacrificing my salary to take a job just at any college.”
The school learned about the hotel property through Huntsville, Ala., real estate salesman Hugh Smith. The school at first did not like the idea of moving South to Lookout Mountain, but Mr. Smith was a good salesman and persisted, Dr. Barnes remembered.
Because the previous two hotel operators had failed, the owner of the property agreed to sell the structure for a use other than a hotel. When Covenant moved into the structure after miraculously raising enough funds to buy it, the building had been vacant for several years and had become dilapidated. “It was in mothballs,” Dr. Barnes said. “It had been unused for two, three or four years. The last owners had tried to get as much money out of it as possible and had sold the steam radiators.”
The school quickly went to work renovating the hotel, including removing a feature at the top of the tower at the strong recommendation of the architect. After the building was made functional for college use, Dr. Barnes helped raise funds and oversee the construction of three other buildings – a gymnasium, dormitory and library. He went on to serve as president of Covenant for 15 years before retiring.
But his life was just beginning. He and his late wife, Vera, had always wanted to be missionaries, so in 1984, with the help of a Maclellan Foundation gift, he began working with a Christian school in Nairobi, Kenya, as a consultant. Through his advice and suggestions, the school went from a small institute that trained only pastors and Christian workers into Daystar University, which now has around 2,000 students.
He said he enjoyed getting to know the Kenyan people. “They were so warm and friendly and deeply appreciative of everything I did for them,” he said. “It was a joy working with them.”
About the only Kenyan that was not so hospitable was a deadly cobra that whizzed by his head when he unknowingly picked up a pole in which the snake was resting in a wilderness area.
A few years earlier, Dr. Barnes had been with a grandson hiking the 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trial through the Smoky Mountains for his 70th birthday when he stumbled upon a bear. Thinking other people were nearby and would help him, he boldly struck the animal, and it fled. After it did, he looked around and realized no one else had been there to help him.
Word of the feat spread along the trail nearly as fast as a late summer wildfire, and people were quite surprised to learn that the Appalachian Tarzan was retired and of very medium build.
In the rest of his life, he has also been quite successful simply by following the Christian principles of helping.
“I feel the Lord has directed my life in the crucial places,” he said. “I have never felt alone in this life. I have felt that the Lord was with me in most of the difficult places I have been.”