Henrietta Barnhart watches as sunshine seeps through a window and sparkles off her beloved amber glass collection. She moves to give a loving touch to one of the many African knickknacks that adorn her small Charles County home, adjusting the volume as she passes the radio to better hear a news program. Books sit in piles around the house, waiting for Barnhart's eager hands to turn their pages once her eyes improve.
After nine decades crammed with intercontinental adventures, a loving family, brilliant friends and an unwavering sense of civic duty, Barnhart lives for these little joys. She strays from "deep thoughts" on the millennium, and refuses to plan a big night for Dec. 31.
"I have no great plans for anything anymore," Barnhart said, sitting by a heater in her La Plata home on a chilly November morning. "Just for today."
Underneath her calm, favorite-teacher demeanor, she sounds unconvincing. This is, after all, a woman who joined the Peace Corps and went off to Morocco at 59, founded the Charles County adult literacy program, started the county's Meals on Wheels service, married the lab assistant who helped her pass chemistry in college, opened a school in Nigeria, and recently returned from an Eastern European vacation during which she insists she didn't lag one bit. The stereotype of the elderly person grown "feisty" with advancing years doesn't apply--Barnhart does just what she always has.
"It's almost my own millennium," the 90-year-old joked. "There have been hard years, but it's been wonderful."
Barnhart's journey began in the late 1920s, when she realized she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as a clerk on Wall Street, earning $13.50 a week like scores of other daughters of recent German immigrants who lived in the Bronx. A high school math teacher urged her to go to college, and her father agreed to think about it. A few months later, the family loaded up a little green car to take her to Lebanon Valley College, camping on the roadside on the way to Anville, Pa., because motels cost too much. For Barnhart, the long trip was worth it. She became the first in her family to attend college.
"It was like a miracle that I was there," she said. "Every day I was there, the whole thing was unreal and wonderful. It seemed as if the whole world had opened up and was accessible to everyone--even to me."
She graduated--class of '32--and married C. Paul Barnhart, the handsome lab assistant who helped her through chemistry, the only subject she disliked. After teaching jobs in Maryland's Washington County, Barnhart's husband became the first principal of Greenbelt High School, a new school in the early planned community that took shape in Prince George's County under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.
"Eleanor Roosevelt came to our PTA meetings sometimes," Barnhart recalled. "She sat up there so proud-like. She took a real interest in us. People came from all over the world to see the school."
During the 1930s and early '40s, Barnhart taught English as a substitute teacher. She passed many an hour reading to her two young daughters, Barbara and Deborah, and in later years watching the family's seven-inch television set. Her eyes close at recollections of chilly nights in the '30s spent huddled around a radio listening to Roosevelt's famous Fireside Chats. Like millions of others, she put all her hopes into presidential promises of a brighter future through a New Deal.
"That marvelous, cultured voice," Barnhart said, remembering Roosevelt. "He was so elegant, such an inspiration to this country."
As the country struggled to recover from the Great Depression, the Barnharts moved to Bladensburg, then Hagerstown and then, nearly 40 years ago, to Charles County, where Paul became superintendent of schools. John F. Kennedy was in the White House by this time, and Barnhart was smitten with the president and his pretty wife.
"He was so young and handsome," she said. "And she was so wonderful. Everyone knew John Kennedy and all his ideas. Everywhere you went, it was Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy."
In 1963--the year that young president was assassinated--a letter arrived, offering Paul Barnhart a two-year job in Nigeria establishing an educational television program. The couple moved to Africa, and the two-year job stretched to six years. When they returned to Hagerstown in 1969, they brought along enough masks, art and handcrafted furniture to fill a small museum.
One rainy night that November, the couple drove home from a Thanksgiving party and went to sleep. Paul, then 59, never woke up. He suffered a fatal stroke in his sleep, and Henrietta has never remarried, protesting that everyone else seemed "too dumb" by comparison.
"He really was quite wonderful, you know," she said warmly, in her house that sits 15 minutes away from the Charles County elementary school named for her husband. Her daughter Barbara urged her to date, but Barnhart had a better plan to channel her energy away from grief.
"We got a letter that said, 'I've joined the Peace Corps,' " Barbara said. "There was no consulting. Off she went."
So Henrietta Barnhart, by that time 59, taught English in Morocco for two years before returning to La Plata to be near her daughters. Deborah, 56, is a nurse who works for Prince George's County schools and Barbara, 60, is now principal of Christ Church Day School in La Plata. Barnhart taught for years at Charlotte Hall, and has since become involved with the Charles County Garden Club, Woman's Club and many other organizations that have awarded her enough certificates and plaques to fill a wall.
Her life is simple now, but full. She said she feels better than ever--she doesn't smoke or drink and doesn't diet. Barnhart bounced back from two strokes and recently underwent surgery to improve blood circulation in her right leg.
"Look at it! Look at it!" she said excitedly, lifting her good leg up and down, up and down. "My doctor tells me it's beautiful."
Barnhart hopes an appointment with an eye doctor scheduled for next month will improve her vision, as she still conducts reading lessons around her big kitchen table to help adults learn how to read. She keeps abreast of current affairs and wants a computer so she can surf the Internet.
The '90s have been a bit of a snooze for this survivor of several wars, the civil rights and women's liberation movements, colorful politics and legendary leaders.
Still, she said, her nine decades have been anything but boring.
"Life has just sort of carried me along," she explained. "I've only been the passenger, not the driver or guide. I've had a rich life and a busy one."
CAPTION: Henrietta Barnhart gets a hug from Adrianne Turner, 3, as Nicholas Thompson, 3, looks on. Barnhart went to college at the urging of a high school math teacher. She graduated in 1932 and went on to become a lifelong teacher, working everywhere from Nigeria to Greenbelt.