Best of Phoenix

Sunnyside Up

Barney Mullen is a man of few words, but many kind gestures. For almost three decades, Mullen has been going about his business at the Denny's restaurant at Seventh Street and Camelback Road. His job isn't fancy: Day in and day out since 1978 (that's 28 years and counting), Barney buses tables, mops floors and washes dishes. It's the grace with which this gentleman tackles his tasks during his daily shift (and, for that matter, tackles life in general) that has captured the hearts of almost everyone around him. For the record, Barney is developmentally disabled, and has been since his birth more than 60 years ago in the state of Vermont. He lives with another gentleman in a comfortable, if cluttered, Phoenix apartment that is run by the nonprofit Lura Turner Homes Inc. Named after the homes' late founder (a beloved woman who started her first home in downtown Phoenix in 1965), the organization emphasizes a family-style, active environment for its residents. Though the folks who live at the homes are treated equally, no one is more beloved to staffers than Barney Mullen.

A Grand Slam of Good Grace
Ralphe Carter, who's been eating breakfast at Denny's since 1985: "He always has a smile and a hello for everyone, and he gets his job done. The guy just buzzes around the place like he owns it."

And He's Opened the Door for Others
Max McQueen, executive director, Lura Turner Homes: "I know that his long success at his job truly opened the doors for other developmentally disabled folks like him. These days, business people are far more willing to chance on our population."

Pencil Us In
McQueen: "Barney has a bank account where his paycheck goes, but he can spend his tip money however he wants. He just tends to buy pencils. And then more pencils. I'm talking about maybe 20 or 30,000 since I've known him." Pencils? Barney says he loves to go to a nearby dollar store to purchase the pencils of varying colors and sizes. He then gives them away as gifts to friends, which is almost everyone he meets during his busy day.

The Daily Show
Up at 6 a.m., city bus to work, eight hours of hard work — "It goes fast," Barney says — and then back home. On Sundays, he dons a bola tie and attends services at the Central Methodist Church in downtown Phoenix.

What the World Needs Now . . .
Don Campbell, Barney's longtime Sunday-school teacher: "He's likable, open and generous. He comes to church and hands out his little gifts, and basically thinks about others all the time. That's part of who he is. He wants people to be happy."

And What Does Barney Want to Do Next?
"Keep working at Denny's!"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin