Pioneers to the Promised Land

Legacy Society Profile: Judy and Jim Barrett


Judy and Jim Barrett have always looked ahead to the future.

They were looking ahead when, in 1972, Mr. Barrett left his successful law practice and purchased an abandoned vineyard in Napa, launching a new career as a vintner. Only four years later one of his Chateau Montelena chardonnays stunned the wine-drinking world by besting nine prestigious French counterparts at a Paris blind testing. That event is still widely regarded as the defining moment in the history of American wine, and Chateau Montelena Winery is still acclaimed as one of the world’s best.

The Barretts were also looking ahead 25 years ago when they first became friends and benefactors of Thomas Aquinas College, which was then young, tiny, and teetering on the verge of insolvency. Today — in no small part because of the Barretts’ support — the College enjoys a beautiful campus and an international reputation for excellence, while boasting an esteemed pool of alumni who strive to faithfully serve the Church and society.

“To have been a little part of the College’s development has been so gratifying for us,” says Mrs. Barrett. Her husband likens the couple’s early involvement with the College to the pioneer life. “We got into a sacred Conestoga wagon and set across the plains for the promised land,” he laughs.

While much of the campus has been built out and maximum enrollment has been achieved, the College has not reached the promised land just yet. Three more buildings remain on its master plan, and meeting the needs of the 70 percent of students who require financial aid is a perennial challenge. Then there are unanticipated difficulties, such as the HHS Mandate — a timely reminder that, in this life, any institution that strives for fidelity to Christ and His church will never be entirely secure.

So the Barretts continue to look forward, attentive to the future needs of the College, the Church, and the nation. As members of the Legacy Society, they have included a substantial bequest to Thomas Aquinas College in their estate planning.

Investing in the Future

As is the case with many benefactors, the Barretts’ interest in the College began upon their realization that something had gone awry in much of Catholic education. “We are both graduates of a Catholic law school, and we got very upset one year when it was giving awards and having commencement speakers who were definitely not reflecting the Catholic point of view,” recalls Mrs. Barrett. “From that point we started taking a look at Catholic higher education. We saw a tiny little ad for Thomas Aquinas College in National Review, and we pursued it a little bit. The rest is history.”

That history includes decades of relentless hard work, prayer, enthusiasm — and deep friendship. Soon after becoming the College’s second president, the late Dr. Thomas E. Dillon and his wife, Terri, visited the Barretts, and a close bond was instantly formed. “We became blood brothers,” says Mr. Barrett, noting that he and Dr. Dillon collaborated in many ways to help firmly establish the College.

Since 1987 the Barretts have been faithful members of the President’s Council, the benefactors who contribute at least $1,000 to the annual fund and underwrite the bulk of the College’s financial aid expenses. Mr. Barrett joined the Board of Governors in 1992 — serving as vice chairman from 2004 to 2008 — and retired in 2010, at which time he was named an Emeritus member. The couple were also generous patrons of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. In gratitude for their decades of extraordinary generosity, in 1998 the College honored Mr. and Mrs. Barrett by inducting them into the Order of St. Albert the Great.

For the Barretts, supporting the College is a form of investing in the future of the Church in the world. “It’s very heartening to see the numbers of young people coming out of the College and becoming involved in politics, in law, in medicine, and so on,” says Mrs. Barrett. For 20 years she served as Respect Life Coordinator for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, and she currently writes about life issues and religious freedom for the California Catholic Conference website blog. That experience, she says, makes her all the more appreciative of young people who can defend the Church’s teachings. “The College’s graduates have a deep understanding of these issues, backed up with a strong philosophical and theological point of view,” she notes. “That makes them a great leaven.”

As the brother of a late diocesan priest, Mr. Barrett stresses that he and his wife are particularly mindful of the need to foster the vocations that will ensure the Church’s sacramental future. For that reason the couple seeks out organizations, such as the College, that have a strong track record of fostering vocations to the priesthood. “Thomas Aquinas produces more priests than the five largest, oldest Catholic colleges in the U.S. combined,” he observes. Adds Mrs. Barrett, “The number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life is especially remarkable. That’s something that we are extremely happy to be associated with, in every aspect.”

The Legacy Society

Joining the Legacy Society, the Barretts note, is simply another part of their desire to plan ahead. Indeed, when he was still an active member of the Board of Governors, Mr. Barrett helped to establish the Legacy Society precisely so that benefactors could maintain their support of the College, even in the event of an unexpected tragedy. “People who want to give to the College on a regular basis have to anticipate all the possibilities,” he says. “You might be in an automobile accident — all kinds of things happen to people. Each of us thinks we’re going to live forever, but that’s not true. We have an appointed span of years.”

Of course, having helped form the Legacy Society, it was only natural that he and his wife would be among its first members. “We couldn’t ask others to do it if we didn’t do it ourselves,” says Mrs. Barrett. “We just thought we needed to step up to the plate, and this is a way for us to keep giving to the College and ensure our commitment.” Or, as Mr. Barrett puts it in his whimsical way, “Do you love the College enough that, even when you’re in Heaven, you will keep on giving?”

“The very purpose of estate planning is to take care of those you love,” explains Tom Susanka, the College’s director of gift planning. “The Barretts have a deep, abiding love for Thomas Aquinas College. They have helped to take care of it since its early years, and they plan to continue doing so for many, many more to come. Who could ask for more faithful friends?”

For more information about the Legacy Society, please e-mail Tom Susanka, Director of Gift Planning, or call 805-421-5928.

Posted: August 1, 2012

Barretts with SF BOR

Thomas Aquinas College President Michael F. McLean presents Judy and Jim Barrett with an icon of St. Thomas at the inaugural meeting of the Northern California Board of Regents, which the couple graciously hosted at their Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga, Calif.

Caleb Skvaril (’19)

“Learning from the great books, you can see the questions that history’s greatest thinkers have asked and all the ways that they have tried to answer them. You’re able to see what’s right about what they’re saying, but also what’s wrong. The more your opinion is challenged, the more you have to refine it in order to get closer to the truth.”

– Caleb Skvaril (’19)

Asan, Guam

“I am most grateful for Thomas Aquinas College’s resolute fidelity to the Church and her teachings. The young people whom you serve certainly are being formed to think with the Church and to defend the Faith with courage and charity.”

– The Most Rev. William E. Lori

Archbishop of Baltimore

Chair of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty