As a child of the Depression, Omaha politico Frank Barrett firmly believed government should be a servant of the people.
“He loved politics and was especially active in local Democratic politics,” said his eldest son, Patrick Barrett of Omaha. “He thought that government can be and should be a vehicle to help people and serve the public interest, not private interests.”
Barrett, 87, died Sunday after a fall at his home four days earlier.
A lifelong Democrat, Barrett had many friends who were staunch Republicans, said former Nebraska Gov. and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a Democrat. Barrett was able to disagree with others over policy, Nelson said, and still maintain friendly relationships because he approached issues as a centrist.
“His experience gave him a significant background in so many areas,” Nelson said Tuesday. “He could give you advice that was worthwhile. I had a continuing relationship with Frank (while) in office as a governor and senator.”
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey said seeing Barrett “was like running into your brother.” Kerrey, also a former Nebraska governor, relied on Barrett to tell him the mood back home when Kerrey was serving in Washington, D.C.
“I turned to him a lot when I was 1,500 miles away,” Kerrey said. “He was very reliable and very direct. He was respectful, but he was direct and he would tell me when I was doing something stupid. I appreciated that.”
Barrett’s Irish wit and humor shined when he was asked to emcee events, Kerrey and Nelson said. Barrett was especially adept at roasting people.
“People in the audience hoped that he would pick on them, but he also knew the boundaries on how far to go,” Nelson said.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church, 11802 Pacific St. In addition to Patrick, Barrett is survived by another son, Thomas, and three daughters, Mary, Anne and Karen.
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Barrett was born in 1932 in Greeley, Nebraska, the youngest of five children. His father was the Greeley County attorney, and his mother was the town’s postmaster.
After graduating from Sacred Heart High School, Barrett attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where he earned undergraduate and law degrees. His education was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army as a sergeant stationed in Korea from 1953 to 1955.
In 1956, Barrett married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Ann Nealon of Greeley. She died in 2010. Patrick Barrett said his father’s influence on the family’s five children cannot be overstated.
“He taught us that there is dignity in all work,” his son said. “He never judged a person by their financial success or station in life. He detested liars and bullies and those that took advantage of the weak and vulnerable.”
In 1961, at age 28, Barrett was named state insurance commissioner by Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison. Barrett was the youngest person to fill that position. He hired Nelson and named him claims supervisor.
“He was one of the finest people that I have ever known,” Nelson said. “A great friend, a great adviser and a great boss.”
Barrett later served as executive vice president and chief counsel for Mutual of Omaha and its affiliates. In 1989, he retired as president and chief executive officer of the Central National Insurance Company of Omaha.
Barrett fulfilled a dream when he opened an Irish pub, Barrett’s Barleycorn, at 4322 Leavenworth St. He had longed to have a place where all his friends could get together, his son said.
“He showed us that faith, friends, family were necessary ingredients of a successful life and are the most important parts of a life well-lived,” Patrick Barrett said. “He also had an incredible sense of humor that was infectious.”