If journalism were an endurance sport, newspaper columnist Barney Brantingham would hold all the records. For 60 years, Brantingham—known simply and universally as “Barney”—has counted himself among Santa Barbara’s legion of ink-stained wretches, amassing a couple of airplane hangars’ worth of bylines to prove it. For the past 11 years, the Santa Barbara Independent has considered itself lucky to have Barney’s work grace our pages and his easygoing presence grace our meetings. All good things must pass, and this week, we’re sad to announce that Barney has decided to retire. To find out why, we had to track him down all over town. First, he was busy checking out the Goat Tree restaurant at the new Hotel Californian. After that, he was otherwise occupied at The Biltmore, hanging out in what he likes to call “The Rococo Room.” He managed to squeeze a few moments into his otherwise cramped man-about-town schedule to answer our plaintive: Why? “It just sort of came to me,” he said. “I felt the call.”
Barney started out in journalism in 1957, just after getting out of the military, where he was stationed in Panama. His first job was with the Chicago Heights Star, covering the corruption beat in that very crooked city. With relatives in California, the lure of Chicago’s bitterly cold winters and even harsher summers proved all too resistible. Like millions of Americans at the time, Barney got in his used car—accompanied by his then-wife and their first-born child—and drove west. He landed in San Clemente, snagging a gig with a weekly suburban paper. True love, he said, interfered: the City of Santa Barbara. “You know it when you see it,” he recalled. “I drove up State Street and fell in love.” Brantingham—he hadn’t morphed into Barney yet—went back to San Clemente but submitted an application with Santa Barbara News-Press editor Paul Veblen. In 1960, he was hired. “That was the era of T.M. Storke,” said Brantingham of the paper’s legendary founder, publisher, owner, and political godfather of the whole South Coast. “I never heard from him,” Brantingham said. “But a couple of times I wrote about his friends, and I heard about that,” Barney noted. “I stepped on some toes.”
His first 17 years, Brantingham worked as a reporter, covering the courts. But in 1977, Tom Kleveland, then the paper’s star columnist, retired. “Everyone in the newsroom applied except me,” Barney remembered, but he eventually changed his mind and got the job.
Barney’s job was merely to be everywhere all the time. It turned out he had a knack for it. For years, he cranked out his Off the Beat column four times a week. Turns out he had a knack for that, too. The grind was coming up with good ideas. “Some days they pound on your door and say, ‘Write me.’ Sometimes they’re hiding, and you have to hunt for them.” Writing in a deceptively unassuming everyman voice, Barney quickly established himself as the face of the News-Press. During his tenure there, he first survived Storke; and then the Philadelphia Inquirer, to which Storke sold the paper; and then the New York Times, which subsequently bought it. When Wendy P. McCaw bought the News-Press from the New York Times, she took pains to make her star columnist comfortable. But when the News-Press imploded in 2006 under McCaw’s infamously dysfunctional direction, many reporters and editors quit. It was Barney’s decision to walk, however, that signified to the whole community that the town’s only daily paper was indeed in deep trouble. Barney’s decision was courageous and emotionally fraught. The Santa Barbara Independent wasted no time offering Barney a perch of his own, and he wasted no time getting back to work with his new column, On the Beat.
Which one of the 10,000 columns that Barney has written over the years stands out? We asked. It was about the death of Fred, the cat of his wife, Sue De Lapa. She also worked at the News-Press as librarian and archivist. Strangely enough, he told us, “it was the most popular column I ever wrote. I got letters, calls, comments from all over. It tells you something,” he said, “but I’m not sure what.”