Remember Carl Barron, a Central Square icon

Originally published Feb. 26, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Related: Column responds to story

Carl Barron surrounded by family, colleagues and several notable public officials, including Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley (right of Barron) and then-Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi (behind Barron), among many others. Courtesy photo.

Carl Barron surrounded by family, colleagues and several notable public officials, including Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley (right of Barron) and then-Deputy City Manager Richard Rossi (behind Barron), among many others. Courtesy photo.

Persistent, persuasive and nearly omnipresent in the Central Square business community, Carl Barron was a fixture in Cambridge. With his passing on Sunday, Feb. 16, at the age of 97, the city mourns, and celebrates, a true icon who has left the city a better place.

Inside his office at the Barron Building, just off of Carl Barron Plaza, an array of distinctions, awards and honorary degrees line the walls. His son, Kenneth Barron, says another 200 plaques that can’t fit are packed away in boxes.

Kenneth Barron is using the end of his father’s long conference table for an endless succession of meetings. He’s been working with his father since he graduated college, first at the Putnam Furniture Leasing Co., which his father founded in 1938, and later at CORT Furniture, which purchased their company in 2001.

Instead of slowing down after selling his business at the age of 85, Kenneth Barron said his father reinvented himself, starting a new business, teaching at Cambridge College, and continuing the philanthropic work that distinguished him as a business leader in Cambridge.

The businessman

Carl Barron was a pioneer, starting one of the first furniture rental businesses in the country, according to the Independent Furniture Rental Association, of which he also served as president from 1971 to 1972.

“His vision and collegiality earned him widespread respect among his colleagues,” said Bill Anaya, executive director of the association.

He was a mentor, Anaya said, always seeking to help other businesses grow by offering his own experience and insight and sharing best practices. Bill Swets, vice president of CORT Furniture, said he first met Carl Barron when he was starting his business in the 1980s.

“He was always very generous with sharing ideas and giving advice,” Swets said. “He was very analytical about who the customer was and what their needs were and the ways in which to serve them best.”

Considered one of the fathers of the industry, when Carl Barron retired, the association named its highest honor after him. The award is bestowed to an executive in the furniture rental industry who upholds exemplary ideals, Anaya said.

Kenneth Barron said it wasn’t an easy decision to sell the Putnam Furniture Company. He remembered when his father first approached him with the idea.

“He said to me, ‘Anything that goes up must come down,’” Kenneth Barron said. His father knew technology and the Internet had changed the game in the furniture business. In order to compete, companies had to be not just regional businesses, but reach national and international audiences, Kenneth Barron said.

Rather than retiring and slowing down, Carl Barron started a new business, the real estate company Caru Associates, named by combining the first two letters of Carl and Ruth, Carl Barron’s wife.

Like his leadership in the furniture rental association, Carl Barron was also a leader in the Cambridge business community, serving as a founding member of the Central Square Business Association and the Combined Business Association, famous for its quarterly luncheons that were always catered by the S&S Deli and Restaurant.

Carl Barron would regularly bring leaders from myriad fields, including public safety, city administration and social services, nonprofits and business, to hear a presentation on a topic of interest in the city and most importantly, to connect with one another.

Dr. Catalyst

Those who knew him agree that Carl Barron’s lasting legacy in the city was his ability to get people to connect with one another. Never by force, and most often with chocolate, Carl Barron had a knack for bringing people together.

City Manager Richard Rossi said he first started working with Carl Barron in 1982 on what the city and the Central Square Business Association could do to make the climate of Central Square more appealing.

“For over 30 years, we spoke weekly and achieved a great model for progress through cooperation,” Rossi said. “His criticisms were always fair and his praise very generous.”

Carl Barron had a favorite slogan, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and it was a motto his friends and colleagues said he lived by.

His tactics hailed from a different era, said Cambridge architect George Metzger, who now serves on the board of the association. Carl Barron continually emphasized the importance of having people sit down face-to-face.

Recognizing that not all philanthropy is charity, Carl Barron helped organize a meeting with members of the hotel and grocery industries to sit down with people who serve the homeless population in Cambridge. The hotel had extra pillows and linens they couldn’t use. The grocery store had extra food. The nonprofit organizations were in need of in-kind donations. It was a perfect match.

Salvation Army Cpt. Armida Harper said his real talent was connecting people and getting them to network with each other, sharing resources and ideas.

“He would invite me to events so I could get to know other social services agencies and helped us create a coalition of shelters,” Harper said. “All of the emergency shelters came together with people who were able to provide resources and we talked about what everyone’s needs were and how we could meet those needs.”

It was his persistence and persuasive nature that compelled people to support his causes, several colleagues said, and he was known for doling out chocolate to guests who sat in front of his oak desk or behind the long conference table.

“It brought a twinkle to his eye,” Harper said. “He loved being the force behind change.”

The Philanthropist and Booster

Carl Barron always put his money where his mouth was. He served on the board of no less than 17 nonprofit organizations and gave away five scholarships every year. Kenneth Barron said he supported even more organizations through charitable donations, sometimes with as little as $25 or $50 a year, and sometimes in substantial amounts.

Kenneth Barron said his father believed even the small donations made a big difference, although he was known for several of his larger contributions, including founding the Barron Center for Men’s Health at Mt. Auburn Hospital along with Dr. George Reservitz, who had initially approached him with the idea.

“(Carl Barron) was engaged to the point of wanting to meet with men from every walk of life to encourage them to get screened for prostate cancer and have screenings in their offices and have public service announcements,” said Mt. Auburn Hospital President Jeannette Clough. “In numerous ways, he tried to benefit the hospital and enrich us all, but also benefit the community.”

He was committed to recognizing work well done. Carl Barron was a booster of the Cambridge Police and Fire departments since before any current police officer could remember, said Deputy Superintendent Steve Williams. Carl Barron established a fund to support a recognition program for the members of police officers and firefighters in Cambridge and Belmont, which has been giving out the Carl and Ruth Barron Award for the last 11 years to employees who excel in their assignments.

“Carl believed that the recognition given to the recipients elevated their morale and feeling of contribution to the safety of the city,” Williams said.

Police Commissioner Robert Haas said the department has long been grateful for his support and friendship. His passing is the end of an era marked by a steadfast commitment to the community, Haas said.

“Who’s going to step up with what he’s been doing all along?” Haas said. “He spanned over 60 years in terms of being active in the city.”

Barron is survived by his four daughters and son, nine grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, several nieces and many relatives and friends. His funeral was held Thursday, Feb. 20, at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont.

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