For years, countless people have started their day with a smile from B.H. Barnett.
Working at the Starbucks inside a Ralphs supermarket in Eastside Costa Mesa, the 76-year-old Newport Beach resident is a caffeine conveyor of choice for shoppers and commuters alike.
But there’s a lot even Barnett’s most loyal customers might not know about him. For starters, he’s a veteran of the Navy and has a proud military lineage that stretches back generations.
This year, he was one of 19 employees of Kroger Co. — parent of Ralphs, Smith’s, Food 4 Less and others — recognized as part of the grocer’s nationwide Honoring Our Heroes campaign.
“When it rains, B.H. will stand by the store doors with an umbrella to escort female shoppers to their car to ensure they are safe and dry,” John Votava, a Ralphs corporate affairs representative, said in an email. “Nobody asked him to do this — he just does it out of an obligation to serve others.”
Though Barnett is undoubtedly flattered, and proud to call himself a patriot, he said this week that he felt someone else should have received the distinction.
“The way I look at it, I just did my job,” he said.
Like many children in military families, Barnett’s early years were marked by travel. He was born in Bellingham, Wash., in 1942 but spent time growing up in places such as San Francisco and Oklahoma.
His father, Damon James Barnett, also was a Navy man. He served in World War II and survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Eventually, the family settled in Seattle, where the younger Barnett enrolled at the University of Washington.
While there, he saw many of his friends and classmates leave school to serve in the escalating Vietnam War. In 1964, Barnett decided to do likewise.
He enlisted that March and went on to complete basic training at Naval Training Center San Diego. While there, he relied on one major piece of advice his father had given him: “Qualify for as many training schools as you can and study hard.”
Barnett later qualified to go to military dental school, which he completed with flying colors. He was then assigned to the USS America, which was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea.
Barnett worked in the ship’s dental clinic, though he assisted in other medical areas as well.
That experience proved vital in June 1967, when he was assigned to treat wounded service members after another ship, the USS Liberty, was attacked by the Israeli military during the Six-Day War.
“These are guys my age and they’re grabbing me, ‘Doc, doc, don’t let me die,’ ” he said. “That’s a freaky thing to hear when you’re doing everything you can to keep a guy alive.”
That experience has stayed with him.
“I was just doing my job, and I was fortunate enough that some of the stuff that I was trained in came back and I was able to help some of these guys,” he said. “But it imprints on you … no military man wants to go to war, and it’s a horrible thing.”
The Liberty incident remains clouded in controversy. Though Israel has maintained the attack was an error caused by mistaken identity and has apologized and paid restitution, some believe the American ship was targeted intentionally.
Coming to California
Barnett left the Navy in 1968 and returned home to Washington.
There he met his wife, Clory. The couple later had two daughters, Amber and Bevin.
He worked for several years in the private dental field but left to open an active-wear store in 1976.
The money was good for a time, Barnett said, but he fell victim to a con man and his finances were devastated.
Seeking a fresh start, Barnett’s family moved to Newport Beach in 1987.
Barnett said the experience was humbling.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s been healthy because I’d never been poor,” he said. “It’s given me a lot of different perspectives on a lot of different things.”
After trying his hand at a few jobs, he was hired at Ralphs in 2008. Since then, he’s worked as a store greeter, a safety coach, a floor host and a clerk in the produce department.
In 2013, he received a new assignment: working in the store’s Starbucks.
At first, Barnett admits, he was skeptical. But as a product of parents who were part of the “Greatest Generation,” he learned at a young age that work is work and it’s always worth doing well.
“Everybody in that great generation drilled into their kids’ heads, ‘If you’re going to do a job, do it good or don’t do it at all,’ ” Barnett said. “I’ve literally worked since I was 10 years old.”
In his time at the Starbucks, he’s been named a barista champion several times.
“What drives me inside is probably that I tend to be a perfectionist,” he said. “I feel like you can go to any Starbucks and they’ll just throw out a drink, but I figure if a person is paying this kind of money, it better be good.”
That dedication has earned him some loyal fans. Standing just outside the Starbucks on Thursday, Barnett noticed a familiar face and raised his hand in greeting.
“This is my guy!” the customer exclaimed. “If he retires, I have to go live with him!”
Indeed, Barnett is intending to retire — probably in June — and said he would like to move back to Washington.
It’s not that he can’t do his job anymore, he said. It’s just time to move on to the next chapter of his life.
“I don’t know how many years are left — most of them are in the rear-view mirror,” he said. “I have a big bucket list. There’s lots of things I want to do.”