Joe Barnhart remembers friend Linda Kraeger

Joe Barnhart remembers friend Linda Kraeger

Knoxville church-shooting victims part of a close-knit circle of family and friends.
Jane Greer


As he and his family continue to recover from injuries they received in a July 27 church shooting in Knoxville, Tenn., Joe Barnhart reflected on the death of his friend Linda Kraeger, which he described as a “sometimes unbearable” loss.

Barnhart and Kraeger were among the eight people shot when Jim David Adkisson began firing a shotgun in the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville during a children’s performance of “Annie, Jr.” Greg McKendry, an usher at TVUUC, died from his wounds at the scene. Kraeger died later that evening. Adkisson is being held by police on murder charges.

Barnhart, his wife Mary Ann, and their daughter Linda Chavez had come to TVUUC to watch their granddaughter perform in the children’s musical. Jack and Betty Barnhart, Joe’s brother and sister-in-law, and Linda and Duane Kraeger sat with them in the front of the sanctuary on the left side of the stage. Gunfire hit Joe Barnhart, Jack Barnhart, Betty Barnhart, and Linda Chavez.

Although Joe was able to leave the hospital after a few days, the other three were more severely injured but are now recovering.

A retired professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, Joe had moved to Knoxville with Mary Ann in the summer of 2007 to be closer to family as they raised their two granddaughters. Linda Kraeger, also a retired professor, and her husband Duane moved from Denton to Knoxville at the same time. Kraeger, who was Barnhart’s editor and co-author of two books as well as a close family friend, had grown attached to Barnhart’s grandchildren and wanted to participate in their upbringing, he said.

Both couples had been longtime members of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and had joined the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville.

A philosopher by vocation and avocation, Barnhart spoke with UU World about Linda Kraeger and some of the philosophical issues raised by a tragic event.

How did you happen to settle in Knoxville?

The primary reason for retiring here was to bring the grandchildren where I grew up. I have two wonderful brothers and a wonderful sister-in-law, and two nieces. They live here and I wanted them involved with our family. We’re a very close family.

Have you been to the Tennessee Valley UU Church since the shooting?

I went to church for the funeral of one of the members [Greg McKendry]. Three of the women there went with me into the sanctuary again to let me get oriented, so I could understand what happened. It wasn’t scary, because I consider this tragedy a freak event rather than a pattern. I don’t think it would happen again.

I feel more sadness than anything. The loss of Linda Kraeger to the family is sometimes unbearable. She was so good with the children. Mary Ann and she were like sisters.

Can you describe Linda Kraeger?

She was very kind. She was not gullible. Just kind and matter-of-fact in trying to solve problems. Also, she was a superb researcher. For example, if we had a problem of understanding what’s going on at our bank, she would do research to help us. Mary Ann once said to me, just a couple of months ago, “What would we do without her?”

Linda became a virtual aunt to our two granddaughters. She became very attached to them. My two brothers and sister and I had been exceedingly lucky to have wonderful aunts. When my two brothers saw her working with our grandchildren they immediately incorporated her into the family. They saw how lucky Mary Ann and I were to have her as a caring aunt to the grandchildren.

We were eager to persuade her to come and live in the same town with us. She had recently retired from teaching and so was able to do that.

Before we moved to Knoxville, I said to my brother, who’s a home builder, “See if you can find us two houses in the same neighborhood, the closer the better because we’re going to be working so closely together.” He called about a week later, and he and his real estate agent said, “We have the perfect solution, a two-in-one house. On one level is an entire house with a kitchen, and then on another level the same thing.” So my brother realized this would be even better. The children could go up and downstairs to be with her and to be with us. It was the perfect solution.

Some interviewers have asked you about the death penalty. How do you feel about it?

It’s a complicated thing. Linda made a hard argument for me to deal with, which is this: The execution of a person who is this violent and has done this horrible thing is one thing. But then you have to do it on principle, that is to say, all the time. If it’s a policy, it means you’re going to make mistakes and you will execute innocent people. She said, “That’s wrong.” It’s a hard argument to overcome.

Do you ever wonder why this happened?

A lot of people have asked why this happened. That pre-supposes that all of life is some kind of plot. But if you don’t think there’s a grand plot, the question turns from why to how. And we know how it happened. Ironically, I wrote my dissertation at Boston University on the problem of evil and suffering.

Do you think that what happened was evil?

If a tornado had come through, it would have been a natural tragedy with suffering and horror. But you wouldn’t say there was a conscious intelligence who did it or intended it, unless you hold to a certain version of Calvinism. But in this case, evil is when you have a conscious being who knowingly generates harm and suffering for no reason other than the pleasure of hurting people. Yes, that’s evil.

In some cases, people don’t know the consequences of their behavior. A child might pull a trigger not knowing the consequences. But I think the man who did this is probably a sociopath. While a sociopath knows right from wrong, it doesn’t matter to him. His job is to win, to dominate. This is a man who doesn’t operate in the world of ethics. They are different people.

Do you feel any bitterness?

I feel a loss. Linda had talked to us many times about anger. Her view was: if you have a brain, process the anger. And don’t invent it. You can always be angry because of relative deprivation. Anger up to a point isn’t going to do anything good or bad. There’s enough hurt in the world. So if anger’s going to contribute to more hurt, it’s pointless. On the other hand, you do feel it, and you know that it’s an animal reaction. But you don’t feed it. Linda Kraeger had made me think about this a lot.

Was there anything that you learned from this event that you would want people to know about?

It struck Mary Ann and me that sometimes the categories of liberal and conservative don’t mean too much. We just have neighbors who have a great deal in common—common fears, hopes, dreams, and values.

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