Written by Jerry McDowell
Wednesday, 21 August 2013 00:00
Above, Mark Barra, general manager of the Woodford County Journal, poses in front of his Field of Dreams poster and lava lamps in his office. Photo by Jerry McDowell.
EUREKA – Employees of the Woodford County Journal once took a weekend newspaper trip to Chicago, but they got stuck in a crowded train in Union Station because the engine lost power. The train was not moving and had no lights.
Not a huge deal for Mark Barra, Roanoke native and invisible leading force behind the 146-year-old weekly newspaper the past 30-plus years. He responded by convincing most of the crowded, frustrated strangers in the car to start singing Kumbaya.
That was one of many funny stories about Barra recalled by Jason Shults, editor of the paper from 1998 to 2007.
“Mark has an ability to be both a boss (he was not afraid of scolding me when he thought it was necessary) and also a good friend (he was a groomsman at my wedding),” Shults remembered. “Mark manages to keep the staff on focus by encouraging just the right amount of silliness in an otherwise nerve-wracking industry.”
While profitable, the WCJ hasn’t avoided the budget stress of larger area dailies like the Pantagraph, which also is owned by Lee Enterprises, or the Journal Star, owned by Gatehouse, both large newspaper chains.
Barra recalls several years ago when the WCJ had 15 full- and part-time employees in Eureka, Roanoke and Minonk. It now has five full time. Many of the early cuts were due to technology.
“With photography, we had to have someone who came in and developed the film, shoot the half tones, everything was so time consuming,” Barra said. “We did all the stuff ourselves. We did all the classifieds. We did all the billing. We did all the tear sheets. We basically did everything.
“Where now we don’t do any of that. We inserted the paper – we labeled the paper. Obviously with technology that cut everything down. Just like now, with submitted news, hardly anything is turned and handed to you. Almost everything is emailed. At one time we had a typesetter that typeset full time. That’s all they did.”
The typist worked in the back conference room of the office at 1926 S. Main St. because it was quieter in the back room. Now that room is used for occasional meetings and lunches and houses the collection of hundreds of hot sauces gathered from the internet and vacations taken by Barra and Shults.
“I started it about 12 years ago as we both loved hot sauce,” Barra said.
Shults left the paper to go into the ministry and is now Dean at Illinois Baptist College in Washington and Associate Pastor at Beverly Manor Baptist Church.
When he was editor, Shults said he once got a death threat by phone. “Mark’s response was to post a sign on the front door that said, ‘If you’re here to kill Jason, please use the rear delivery entrance’,” he recalled.
He said that Barra also launched an Everest-like expedition to climb Mount Jumbo in his hometown of Roanoke.
Barra said his sense of humor comes from being the youngest of five children.
“We all have senses of humor but not like mine,” he said. “I was the one always pulling pranks when I was young. I was always doing crazy stuff.”
He has a neighbor in Washington who is originally from Eureka who pulled a prank on him when the Barra’s were on vacation. The neighbor put a sign in his yard that his house was for sale at a ridiculously low price. His phone had lots of messages when he returned home.
Barra said he has been paying that neighbor back with pranks since then.
Cheryl Wolfe has worked with Barra for more than 30 years. She has been witness to and recipient of pranks, but sees Barra as a co-worker and a boss.
“Mark is so creative and is always willing to jump right in with ideas and assistance whenever needed,” Wolfe said.
She added, “Mark is the manager, but he is also a co-worker who works really hard. He does everything from administrative duties, to dealing with subscriptions, to cleaning the carpets. If there’s a problem, he figures out how to resolve it, usually taking on any extra work himself.”
Barra was born in 1962, the youngest of three boys and two girls to Louis and Myrtle Barra of Roanoke. His father died about five years ago and his mother resides at Maple Lawn in Eureka.
He graduated from Roanoke-Benson High School in 1980, where he was active in baseball and track.
His dad coached him in baseball through Little League, Pony League and the Eureka Legion Team. He was a standout in track, where he ran the 100 and 200 yards and long jump. He finished seventh in state in the 200 yards and won the Cogeal Relays in the 55-meter his senior year, tying the record.
Keri Singer moved about five blocks away from him in the summer of 1975 and he eventually married his high school sweet heart in 1984.
After high school he attended ICC two years studying the graphic arts printing process, which a counselor recommended.
“I always thought I’d work at Caterpillar but at that time Caterpillar was doing horrible,” Barra said. “My brother got laid off at Caterpillar. There was nothing going on there so that wasn’t an option.”
He “kind of liked” printing and took a part-time job at the Woodford County Journal when its office was downtown, just south of Rt. 24, while still in school. He was filling in for a person who had died doing miscellaneous work laying out ads, finish work on printing, labeling, bagging and inserting. After he graduated in 1982, that job became full time. The paper then was owned by Burris Dickinson, who sold it to Mark Lantz. Lantz ran it for about two years before selling it to the Pantagraph in the mid ‘80s, Barra said.
His wife Keri now owns Michael’s Hair Design, 4111 N Prospect Rd. Peoria Heights. They have had three children, a son Blaide, born in 1988, who died of S.I.D.S. at age 3 months, Tessa, 23, recently graduated from St. Louis University and got a job at interior design firm in Downtown St. Louis, and Lexi, 20, who will attend St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing in January.
Both Tessa and Lexi were star volleyball players at Washington Community High school and ICC.
Barra became production manager at the Woodford County Journal in 1986 and also managed the Community News in Bloomington, also a weekly. In the mid 90’s, he was named director of the Pantagraph’s weekly newspapers in LeRoy, Farmer City, Mahomet, Heyworth and Eureka.
In 2007, the Pantagaph swapped the Mahomet paper for the Gibson City paper with the Champaign News Gazette. In 2010, the Pantagraph closed its papers in Farmer City, LeRoy and Heyworth.
“They just weren’t profitable,” Barra said. “They had never been profitable that much.” The weeklies in Eureka and Gibson City remain.
The Woodford County Journal was printed at the Pantagraph until 2012, but the Pantagraph shut off its press and both are now printed at the Journal Star. Many more color photos are now seen in the Woodford County Journal because of the switch.
It should be noted for the sake of transparency that this reporter worked for Barra for five years before being laid off to save money March 1. The directive apparently came from the Pantagraph.
At the beginning of the interview there was this tongue in cheek exchange:
“Can I see the story after it’s written?” Barra asked.
“This is all off the record.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 20 August 2013 14:27