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Philanthropist, Publix heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett dies at 65

Barnett was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s in 2016 at age 59
This June 2009 image provided by Publix shows Carol Jenkins Barnett, the billionaire daughter of the Publix Super Markets founder. Barnett, who had early-onset Alzheimer's disease, died Tuesday night at her home in Lakeland, Publix said in a news release. She was 65.
This June 2009 image provided by Publix shows Carol Jenkins Barnett, the billionaire daughter of the Publix Super Markets founder. Barnett, who had early-onset Alzheimer's disease, died Tuesday night at her home in Lakeland, Publix said in a news release. She was 65. [ 00008322.JPG | AP ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 9, 2021

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

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

“The Publix family is deeply saddened by the loss of a great humanitarian and community advocate,” Publix CEO Todd Jones said in a news release. “In addition to her service at Publix, Carol Jenkins Barnett made significant contributions to many nonprofit organizations and for the betterment of all children with investments in early childhood education programs. She will be sorely missed by her family, our associates and the community. Carol had a generous heart and compassionate soul. Her efforts will continue to improve the lives of others for generations.”

The Publix news release said family members requested privacy as they mourned their loss. Barnett is one of seven children of the Publix founder, who died in 1996.

Alzheimer’s disease, a type of progressive dementia that affects memory and 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 the age of 65, the Mayo Clinic reports.

Barnett and her husband, Barney Barnett, have donated vast sums in recent years to Florida Southern College — Carol’s alma mater — and to Lakeland Regional Health and other local and state entities.

Lakeland Regional Health opened the Carol Jenkins Barnett Pavilion for Women and Children, an eight-floor addition, in 2019. That resulted from the largest donation ever made to the hospital, one that Barnett announced on Mother’s Day in 2016.

A Lakeland native, Barnett began working for Publix in 1972 as a cashier at a store in the Grove Park Shopping Center, the company said. After receiving a 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 she resigned in 2016 after announcing her diagnosis. She also served on the board of Publix Super Markets Charities.

The nonprofit has long supported the United Way of Central Florida, and Barnett helped establish such programs as the Family Fundamentals parent resource facility in Lakeland.

She also founded the Community Foundation of Greater Lakeland (now known as the GiveWell Community Foundation) and has been active in promoting early education and other causes.

The Barnetts’ two grown 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 Zoey.

Florida Southern College bestowed Barnett with an honorary doctorate degree in 1998.

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

The couple also founded Barnett Family Park near Lake Mirror.

Publix issued a list Wednesday of Barnett’s community service and awards that took up two pages. Among the groups she served: the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, United Way of Central Florida, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine and the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.

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

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 toward the creation of Bonnet Springs Park, a 168-acre attraction now under construction along George Jenkins Boulevard.

Alice O’Reilly, the retired executive director of Volunteers in Service to the Elderly, recalled that Barnett made a point of shopping at a locally owned business when O’Reilly worked as a manager there.

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

The pair grew closer through their involvement with the Junior League.

“When I went to work for VISTE, the family had always been supportive but then we developed a stronger relationship,” O’Reilly said. “She had a real kindred heart for the elderly, as does her sister, Julie (Jenkins Fancelli). … Her love and strength of Lakeland really reflects in so many ways all of the progress that we’ve made in our city over the years. What a strong influence that she had on so many. And I know everybody’s going to say this, but she learned from the best. She learned from her dad.”

Carol Barnett was considered Polk County’s wealthiest resident and ranked on Forbes magazine’s list of World Billionaires annually since 2008. The Jenkins family ranks as among the 40 richest in the country, according to Forbes, 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, now 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 medical use of marijuana in Florida. The measure narrowly failed that year, but a similar initiative passed two years later.

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

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Bonnet Springs Park at bonnetspringspark.com.

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

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