John Barrett

Judge John W. Barrett was a member of the greatest generation. Born in 1917, he lost his mother at the age of seven, grew to manhood during the Depression, and served in the U.S. Army Infantry from 1939 to 1945. Formed in the crucible, Judge Barrett’s bedrock values were duty, determination, and respect for authority, all evident in his approach to offenders and in his determination to participate in this oral history project in spite of rapidly declining health. Judge Barrett and his wife, Mary Margaret, sat for interviews in their home in southwest Reno during April and May of 2004. Hospitalized for the last time shortly before his death in June 2004, he asked Mrs. Barrett to read the rough transcripts to him, hoping to complete the chronicler review process to assure accuracy.

Tall and still imposing, Judge Barrett loved to tell a story and had vivid memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing four years of war which took him to various posts in the United States and Europe. He earned the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals while simply doing, from his standpoint, what needed to be done. This philosophy of doing what needs to be done was an underlying theme in the conversations as he described his work with Judge Thomas Craven to bring the National Judicial College to Reno, his pioneering decision to allow television cameras in the courtroom, threats to his life, and his insights into the character of one of the most infamous defendants in his courtroom, Priscilla Ford. At the same time, he spoke with humor of the tribulations the daughters of a district court judge faced when dating, and he lovingly described a smaller, more personal Reno easily recognized by long-time Nevadans. In addition to many years on the bench, John Barrett’s other contributions to his home state ranged from serving as deputy attorney general to participating in the Reno Little League program as a coach and commissioner.

Each interview session with Judge Barrett had to be fairly brief, so there are points of review as well as gaps in the narrative as neither chronicler nor interviewer remembered precisely what had been said in previous sessions. Editing was done with an eye to improving clarity and narrative.

The oral history interviews with Judge Barrett were part of the Nevada Legal Oral History Project, a joint effort of the Nevada Judicial Historical Society, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society (NJCHS), and the University of Nevada Oral History Program (UNOHP). The UNOHP donated equipment and transcription and editing services, and Bradley Williams of the NJCHS coordinated the project. Work was funded by grants from the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, the Washoe County Courthouse Historical and Preservation Society, the U.S. District Court for Nevada, and the Nevada State Bar Association.

My thanks go especially to Mrs. Mary Margaret McGill Barrett, who graciously opened her home and patiently sat through the interviews as a reference for dates and names for her husband. She also took the time to gather photos and identify members of the Reno legal community and willingly picked up the task of reviewing the rough transcripts after her husband’s death. She, too, is a member of the greatest generation.

Interviewee: John Barrett
Interviewed: 2004
Published: 2005
Interviewer: Susan Imswiler
UNOHP Catalog #201

This introduction is reprinted with permission from the University of Nevada Oral History Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno. The full oral history transcript was created for the Nevada Legal Oral History Project. Click here for the full oral history transcript.

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