Sky Pilot

John Barrett

Sky Pilot

John Barrett is a longtime pilot (certificate #1079531) and a keen supporter of the Civil Air Patrol. Recently, he has been trying to resurrect the CAP program in Harlowton. “It was one of the larger units in Montana at one time. The program began in the 40s as Coastal Patrol using civilian pilots and civilian planes. Lt. Dwight Thompson was the C.O. of the Harlowton Squadron when I moved here. Lt.‘s Thompson and Blaquiere had a great Senior/Cadet leadership group that taught the members thru hands-on participation. Beyond introducing Cadets to the thrills of aviation, the CAP develops leadership skills and offers College scholarships.

“Seventeen young people have indicated interest in joining, but we need parents and adult help to get a local program going again.” Barrett’s work with youth and interest in flying are just a small part of a busy life dedicated to God and church, family and community.

John Barrett’s life has included many years flying a variety of airplanes, stringing lots of telephone wire, and preaching and ministering at a number of Montana and Oregon churches. He started his days in central Montana and returned here 20 years ago. John is still active, helping out and making a difference in the community with his “cheery smile and encouraging words.”

When John was born in 1925, the family lived S. of Forest Grove, MT (east of Lewistown). He grew up in the country with a sister and two brothers. “At one time, I knew how to ranch.”

To have cash-flow, “Dad worked as a “roughneck” for a wildcat-oil-well-driller called the “Galloping Swede“. Dad was home for spring planting and harvest. My mother ran the place while Shorty was out working on drilling-rigs. When I was grade-school age, my father got a job as a bookkeeper in Lewistown.”

Lewistown was a pretty big town then, with a brickyard, cement plant and two railroads. John peddled newspapers and mowed lawns (with a “push”-mower) as a boy.

“I enjoyed growing up in Lewistown. I was a Cub Scout, then a Boy Scout. The Scoutmaster kept us busy. We did a lot of camping, especially in the winter.”

During his high school years, John took part in a government-sponsored program in Billings which offered flight instruction. His eight hours of training included 7 1/2 in the air. “We got to ride in airplanes and if we didn’t throw up, they figured we might have a future in aviation. It was Government money, the student had to solo in 8 hours or less.”

“We flew Porterfields and Piper J3s plus a variety of others. After one particular turn in the sky, the instructor landed and told me to take it around on my own.”


Was he scared? “No. Apprehensive, yes.”

Barrett left Lewistown High in his senior year and got a job with a civilian contractor building airbases in Montana, Idaho, and New Mexico. “I was a “Gravel-Jockey” (dump-truck driver) and shovel work. Drove a Cat/dozer pushing dirt (among other jobs) from ‘43 to ‘45.”

John admits he may have gotten his experiences a little out of chronological order as he headed to the Army in the fall of 1945. “I’m a follower, not a leader.” He left Lewistown with two friends via Butte, an Army physical exam, a troop train to the San Antonio Air Cadet Center. This was intended to demonstrate “that the cadet could exercise positive manual control over an aircraft.”

But, John was informed when he arrived at the Cadet Center, “You weren’t trained by our people. You’re not a suitable candidate to be in our aviation program.”

So, Mr. Barrett went through three months of Army Air Corps Basic Training. The most exciting part of those times seems to have been his attempts to get his Flight-Officer to allow him to go to Mexico to get a tattoo of the state of Montana on his left shoulder . “What part of NO don’t you understand Mr. Barrett?” (We were a diverse group, our Flight Marcher was an ROTC Major, but still addressed as Mr.)

John’s next station was Holabird Signal Depot located outside of Baltimore, MD, where he was assigned as Duty NCO. The highlights of his days at the Depot were opportunities to fill seats - get free rides - on planes going out of Bolling Field and Friendship Airport. “They weren’t looking for talents, just looking for heads.” John did get to sit in the front seat on occasion and act like a copilot.

When Barrett’s tour of duty was up, he returned to Lewistown, met an attractive brunette named Beth Baxter. But before any attempt at courtship could begin he had to become friends with her father. John was Catholic, Beth was Presbyterian. They settled on the Methodist Church and got married in Roundup. The two soon went off to Alaska where John worked as a gravel jockey, also pushing dirt on the Alaska Highway. “Beth worked as a kitchen helper for two months, which was long enough for her. We slept in a 9 X 9 wall-tent. We lived with the bears. Boy, I tell you. . .”

John returned to Lewistown after the 1949 season in Alaska working a short time for a family business. Then, he hired on with Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company in Great Falls. He worked as a combination man out of Great Falls, taking care of several remote exchanges.

In 1957, Barrett and the family moved to Harlem where he was The Telephone Man. The move, if not the job, was a life-changing experience. John had spent recent years as a Methodist, but his Evangelical United Brethren pastor in Harlem had other ideas. “Time to get serious. I became a confirmed believer. Not just talk-the-talk, but walk-the-walk”

John was “shanghaied to Glasgow” in 1960 for two years. Then back to Great Falls again as a combination man. In Great Falls we had a nice home and enough food, we learned of children needing “home” for varied periods of time, called “Foster Homes“. A lady came to the house and checked us out. A new-born arrived, then a little boy, then a little girl. From then on we usually had at least three little children sharing our lives. This pattern was repeated in Multnomah County, Oregon. While in Great Falls John was able to take night classes at the College of Great Falls.

By 1964, it was time for a big move with Beth and their three children, Larry, Arlene, and Tom. They went off to Jennings Lodge, Oregon (not far from Portland) so that John could attend Western Evangelical Seminary “to increase my knowledge of the Bible. I really enjoyed it. The experience I gained there was the most valuable of my life.” Beth kept food on the table during this time working as a grocery checker.

During his first two years, John Barrett was ushered into church work as an associate pastor. By 1966, he was asked to visit the Collinsview Evangelical United Brethren Church. The soon-to-depart pastor invited him to take over his duties there. Barrett pastored there until 1970. “I loved it. I sort of fit in with them. I would never have left.”

But, he was a member of the Montana Conference of the EUB and in 1970 was called back to his home state to pastor the Evangelical church in Glendive. In 1973, the family returned to Oregon as John took a sabbatical from fulltime ministry. “They had enough of me and I had enough of them.” Barrett did help out with Sunday School, junior boys and camping sessions until 1984.

Back to phone work with West Coast Telephone, then GTE, then PNB. He last got paid by a phone company in 1984. By then, John had transferred his membership to the Oregon Conference of the Evangelical Church and took the pastorate of Palatine Hill Evangelical Church. The church had 5 members when he began, 40 when he left in 1988.

The Barretts returned to Montana in 1989, children grown-up and gone, retirement loomed on the horizon. Beth’s mother was living in Harlowton at the time. John worked for a time on missile stuff for Boeing. Not long though, retirement was boring! Beth and he got involved with the Mobile Missionary Assistance Program helping churches and Christian groups with building and repair work. They took to the road each October and came home in June until 2006. John had became a roofer and drywall man and Beth an office worker as they spent quality time at each location traveling the southern USA. The Barretts made their excursions with a Chevy truck and 5th wheel trailer.

Aviation is a definite and recurring theme in John Barrett’s life. While he never got to fly officially in the military, John had enough experience to pass Civil Aeronautics Authority exams and check rides to get his pilot’s license in 1947. He later got his Commercial ticket. “We owned airplanes over the years because we could cross the country a lot easier by air than road with the distance we had to cover from Oregon to Montana.”

John also fit Commercial aviation work into his schedule. When? “From 11:30 pm to 3:30 am.” Barrett got dispatch calls to ferry people or cargo here, there and everywhere. How was the pay? “I would have done it for ten dollars.” “Dispatch” had a list of pilots, they never left a message. If I did not answer the phone they would “excuse the call” and dial the next number. But few pilots would fly “single-engine” at night in any/all weather and I did not object. It kept me busy.”

Does he miss aviation? “I’m glad I was young when I was flying. I do miss planes when we have to travel long distances.”

The Barretts had a variety of planes over the years: Piper J3, Luscombe 8A, Consolidated Vultee (L5 Model), Cessna UC-78, and Piper Cherokee. “In those days, they were about the price of a 3/4 ton Ford pickup.”

“My wife was not a cloudbuster. But, Arlene and Joe McGaffey owned and flew their airplane to travel with their children. And Montana, Oregon or Texas was usually the destination.”

Because of vision problems, John had to give up planes and flying and missionary-maintenance work some years ago. He still keeps busy with one project or another. “Sometimes, we are just called to be encouraging. Have a sense of humor. Stay busy. Always have something to do.”

While this fellow claims, “I’m a follower, not a leader,” he will admit that he has submitted to leadership roles at times over the years. He still teaches the “Golden Oldies” Sunday School Class (age 70 or older) at the Wesleyan Church. They brings youngsters to church and are otherwise quite active in church. And, he is quite visible at the Senior Center.

“I’m evangelical and interdenominational. I’m interested in helping people make peace through Jesus Christ. We should be smiling when we get to heaven.”

“God offers us a pen which writes in gold letters. All we have to do is reach out and accept the gift which is forgiveness thru Jesus Christ”

Smiling, John Barrett remembers being called before a supervisor of one of the several telephone companies for which he worked. He suspected it was about a late night service call at an elderly bed-ridden woman’s house. He thought, “Oh, oh. What did I do?”

His boss proceeded to tell him about the compliment he had been given for being “the MOST encouraging person.” John Barrett is that and much more. A prayerful man, a giving “follower, but not a leader.” Or, so he says.

Barrett’s upbeat prayers tell a lot about this man, “Let’s be thankful for Jesus our Saviour, for the sunshine, the wind, the fresh air, blue skies, good friends, and no sales-tax. We’re in Montana. Thank you God.”