Business

Philanthropist, Publix heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett dies at 65

Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of Publix Super Markets founder George W. Jenkins and perhaps the most influential philanthropist in Polk County, died Tuesday night at 65 from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Barnett was diagnosed with younger Alzheimer’s disease in 2016 at the age of 59. She died at home in the presence of family members, Publicis said in a statement released Wednesday morning.

“The Publix family is deeply saddened by the loss of a humanitarian and community advocate,” Publix CEO Todd Jones said in a press release. In addition to her service at Publix, Carol Jenkins Barnett has made significant contributions to numerous nonprofit organizations and to the improvement of all children who have investments in early childhood education programs. She will be missed by her family, our partners and the community. Carol had a generous heart and a kind soul. She will continue her efforts to improve the lives of others for generations.”

The Publix news release stated that family members have requested privacy and are grieving their loss. Barnett is one of seven children of the founder of Publix, who died in 1996.

Alzheimer’s disease, a type of progressive dementia that affects memory, thinking and eventually interferes with daily functions, affects more than 6 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Aging. Only about 5 percent of patients develop symptoms before age 65, according to a Mayo Clinic report.

Barnett and her husband, Barney Barnett, have donated huge sums in recent years to Florida Southern College – Alma Carroll University – the Lakeland Regional Health Commission and other local and state entities.

Lakeland Regional Health opened the eight-story Carol Jenkins Barnett Women and Children’s Wing in 2019. This resulted from the largest donation ever made to the hospital, a donation Barnett announced on Mother’s Day in 2016.

The company said Barnett, a native of Lakeland, began working at Publix in 1972 as a store cashier at Grove Park Shopping Center. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Business and Marketing from Florida Southern College in 1979, she worked in Publix’s Corporate Marketing Research and Development department.

Barnett was elected to the Publix board of directors in 1983 and served until her resignation in 2016 after her diagnosis was announced. She has also served on the board of directors for Publix Super Markets charities.

The longtime nonprofit has supported the United Way of Central Florida, and Barnett helped set up programs like Family Fundamentals’ parent resource facility in Lakeland.

She also founded the Greater Lakeland Community Foundation (now the Jeff Will Community Foundation) and has been active in promoting early education and other causes.

Barnett’s two sons, Wesley Barnett and Nicholas Barnett, both live in Polk County and have become prominent philanthropists as well, along with their wives, Ashley Bell Barnett and Ashley Gibson Barnett. Carol Barnett is also survived by three grandchildren, Raleigh, Birdie, and Zoe.

Florida Southern College awarded Barnett an honorary doctorate in 1998.

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Southern Florida opened the Carol Jenkins Barnett Center for Early Childhood Education and Health in 2020. In one of her last public appearances, Barnett attended a dedication party for the building in 2018 but did not speak.

The couple also founded Barnett Family Park near Lake Mirror.

Publix released the two-page list on Wednesday from Barnett’s Community Service and Awards. Among the groups I’ve worked for are: The Junior League of the Greater Lakeland, United Way of Central Florida, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, and the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.

Barnett has received awards from organizations such as the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, the Barbara Bush Foundation, the Children’s Home Association, and the Florida Council of the Arts.

She was inducted into the Polk County Schools Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

In recent years, the Barnett family has contributed to the creation of Bonnet Springs Park, a 168-acre attraction now under construction along George Jenkins Street.

Alice O’Reilly, a retired CEO of Volunteers Service Seniors, noted that Barnett made the point of shopping at a locally owned business when O’Reilly worked as a manager there.

“She was shopping local, and she loved Lakeland as much as I did, and so we had a kinship that way,” O’Reilly said.

The duo became even closer with their participation in the Junior League.

“When I went to work at VISTE, the family was always supportive but we developed a stronger relationship after that,” O’Reilly said. “She had a true intimate heart for the elderly, just like her sister Julie (Jenkins Vancelli). … Her love and strength in Lakeland reflects in many ways all the progress we have made in our city over the years. What a powerful influence she has had on so many. I know that everyone They will say this, but she learned from the best. She learned from her father.”

Carol Barnett has been considered the wealthiest resident of Polk County and has been ranked in Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest annually since 2008. The Jenkins family ranks among the 40 richest families in the country, according to Forbes magazine, with an estimated net worth of $8.8 billion in 2020.

George W. Jenkins started Publix with a store in Winter Haven in 1930. Publix Super Markets, the largest employee-owned company in the country, operates nearly 1,300 stores in Florida and seven other states.

Barney and Carol Barnett have been active donors to the Republican Party and conservative politicians for decades. In 2016, Carol Barnett’s trust contributed $800,000 to an effort to defeat a constitutional amendment that would legalize the medical use of marijuana in Florida. The procedure narrowly failed that year, but a similar initiative passed two years later.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday at 11 a.m. at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland. The service will be broadcast live at https://livestream.com/fumclakeland.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to be made to Bonnet Springs Park at bonnetspringspark.com.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow us on Twitter @garywhite13.

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