Karen Barr, wife of former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, dies at age 76

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Karen Barr, first lady of Fort Worth during her husband Kenneth L. Barr’s tenure as mayor from 1996 to 2003, died April 11 from pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Karen Elizabeth King was born Nov. 3, 1945, the daughter of Helen Christine Smith King and William George “Dub” King, while her father was stationed in Mineral Wells in the U.S. Army. She grew up in College Station and Waco where her father was sports information director at Texas A&M and then Baylor University and her mother taught school.

She met her husband on a blind date in 1968 and they were married July 11, 1970, in Waco. That first date was to go to a hockey game, probably the last one they ever attended.

“Kenneth and Karen are the perfect match. They complement each other’s strength,” said Mike Moncrief, who followed Barr as mayor of Fort Worth from 2003-2011.

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“The saying ‘behind every good man there is a good woman’ misses the mark. Karen was a great woman and she stood next to all of us, quietly but smartly making Fort Worth a better community,” Moncrief said. “We will miss her. We will always remember her. And we will all support Kenneth and Katherine in this time of grief and beyond.”

Mrs. Barr was preceded in death by her parents. Survivors include her husband; daughter Katherine Barr Smith and her husband, Raleigh; grandson James Edward Smith, granddaughter Ophelia Christyne Smith; and her brother, Robert Anderson “Andy” King of Raton, New Mexico.

Mrs. Barr attended Lake Waco Elementary School and Lake Air Junior High School and graduated from Richfield High School in Waco in 1964. She lettered in tennis all three high school years.

High school friend Carol Turner spoke of Mrs. Barr’s “wonderful sense of humor” and her love for and loyalty to old friends, which was definitely fully reciprocated.

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“Growing up in Waco, Karen was very involved with school and church activities. She loved being on the newspaper and annual staffs, only partially because it gave her an excuse (selling ads) to miss some PE classes. She was athletic, though, and was on the tennis team, and especially enjoyed travelling to tournaments around the state,” Turner said.

But her greatest pleasure was being with her friends, who sometimes called her “The Great Stone Face,” always smiling and laughing, displaying her truly wicked sense of humor,” Turner said.

“One group, fondly nicknamed The Mickey Mouse Club has stayed particularly close through the years, having many weekend get-togethers at lake houses, farms, the Fort Worth Stockyards, etc. until COVID and Karen’s illness intervened,” Turner said. “These times were treasured by all the group, and we were blessed to be able to take Karen to lunch a few months ago.”

Turner tells a high school tale of a Mickey Mouse Club adventure.

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Seven young women crammed into a Corvair and armed with black paint went “to a pristine spot on a brand-new, unopened stretch of highway, where a large MMC was proudly painted on the virgin pavement,” she said.

“We weren’t very big girls,” she said. “It was harder getting out than getting in. Suddenly, headlights appeared, and the girls ran screaming ‘Drive, drive, drive. It’s the cops.’ Unfortunately, every girl jumped into the back seat, so the car went nowhere. Fortunately, it was not the police, so the MMC maintained an unblemished juvenile record,” she said.

Mrs. Barr graduated from Texas Christian University in 1968 with a bachelor of arts degree in history. She was a member and president of the Alpha Delta Pi Sorority chapter and a member of Corps Detts.

She also was a member the Junior League of Fort Worth, the Lecture Foundation, and University Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She was a former member of the board of directors of the Parenting Center.

After college, she was legal secretary to Dee Kelly Sr. and later office manager for the Kelly Hart & Hallman law firm. She also was litigation supervisor for Millers Insurance Group.

“Karen Barr was my first friend when I moved to Fort Worth in November 1977,” said Dorothy Wing. “We were neighbors in Mistletoe Heights and walked together early each morning, enjoying the sounds of the lions and elephants from the zoo, talking politics, and laughing about life.”

Wing also worked for Dee Kelly alongside Mrs. Barr at the firm then known as Dee J. Kelly and Vinson & Elkins, but which would become Kelly, Hart & Hallman.

But they also shared a personal life event.

“She and Kenneth were waiting for ‘the phone call’ from the Gladney Center that would bring them Katherine in May of 1978,” she said.

“Over the next few years, Karen was with me during my own journey through infertility, even taking me to the ER late one night when my husband was working out of town,” Wing said. “Those heart-to-heart conversations and seeing her joy with Katherine brought me a sense of peace that all would be well. And it was. My husband Dick and I adopted Emily in June 1982.”

“Karen was almost as excited as we were,” Wing said. “She brought us Katherine’s crib, linens and baby clothes. I have a treasured photo of Katherine hugging Emily fiercely in their little red dresses for Emily’s first Christmas. Karen was a loving and loyal friend and confidante. I will miss her quiet strength, wry sense of humor and calm, composed demeanor. Karen rests in God’s embrace.”

Longtime friend Mary Palko said a recent trip to the Fort Worth Sister City of Reggio Emilia, Italy, reminded her of a memory:

“I remember how much fun Ken and Karen and Katherine had hosting a young girl from Reggio that then became like a second daughter. I still remember how it lit up their lives,” Palko said. “She was a fine, fine woman.”

“While her husband ran a successful business and served our city as mayor, Karen masterfully juggled being a mother, wife, community and non-profit leader, and, as Kenneth said at his mayoral retirement celebration, ‘the best advisor he had while mayor,’ ” said Rosie Moncrief, herself a former Fort Worth first lady.

“Karen was gracious, graceful, smart, witty, and could read a room better than almost anyone. I’ve been there. It isn’t easy,” Moncrief said. “But Karen always managed to make it look easy. We will miss her and think of this very special lady often. She left a mark on all of our hearts.”

Being the wife of the mayor does bring opportunities.

One notable event for Mrs. Barr was a state dinner at the White House on May 3, 1999, honoring Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Kenneth Barr was one of four mayors invited to the dinner.

“The surprise after-dinner entertainment was the late Van Cliburn. It was a well-kept secret. However, when I saw that Steinway grand, I thought it might well be Van,” Karen told Star-Telegram Columnist Mary Rogers in an email.

Cliburn was introduced to a standing ovation.

“He totally enthralled the crowd. They loved him. There was loud and long applause to each of his selections with a standing ovation at the conclusion. He played a wonderful program including Brahms, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Debussy,” Mrs. Barr said.

President Clinton hugged Cliburn and called him a national treasure.

“The Japanese Prime Minister was grinning from ear to ear about the opportunity to hear Mr. Cliburn. How very lucky we are that Van lives in Fort Worth,” she said.

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