The Legend of KA Barnes (w/Preface)
Preface to “The Legend of K.A. Barnes”
The accompanying essay has now been spread so far and wide, and with so many questions about its genesis, that this preface has become necessary.
My oldest son, Thomas, graduated from college with a degree in Political Science in 2007. His next stop was the U.S Marine Corps Boot Camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. It is one of the most unwelcoming and arduous places, physically and mentally, that a young man or woman could ever experience. Many of his fellow recruits had just turned 18, and their fathers had kicked them out of the house, soon thereafter, landing with Thomas at boot camp. But his family experience was far different than theirs, plus, he was several years older than most.
Quite soon it became known that he was a smart guy, but not a smart-aleck. If someone had a question about something in a letter written home, a piece of equipment they didn’t understand, or just an argument about some fact in history which they could not resolve amicably, they would turn to Thomas, who almost always had an answer, or knew how to find one. His Command quickly realized his mental prowess and assigned him to training which resulted in his involvement in complex radios and Satellite Communications at Camp LeJeune, NC, and then with deployment to Al-Ramadi, Iraq. Still, those who had almost any question, or a pair who needed an arbitrator, would come to Thomas. Many would extoll the virtue of his intelligence, until he became tired of it. One day he told them, “If you think I’m smart, you should see the rest of my family. In my family I’m the dumb one.” So they asked him about the rest of his family.
He told them the few anecdotes he could recall about his Uncle KA, but soon they asked for more. Many Marines in Iraq spent a lot of time on patrol, but if your son mans a 1.8 meter satellite dish, he can actually call home. This he did, and told me, “I need more KA-stories!” So I began to compose an email. After just a couple of paragraphs, I realized this was more than an email—it was worth a full-blown essay.
A quick word about his name. My brother was born Kenneth Alan Barnes, and was called “Ken.” But sometime around junior high we got hold of a book of baby names and looked up our own. Beside “Kenneth” it read, “Commander or chief.” He had a quizzical expression and looked up from the book. He said, “I’m not a ‘Commander or chief!’” And that was the last time he referred to himself as “Ken.” He decided to keep his name “close to home,” and would simply use his initials, pronounced, KAY-yay. That is how everyone knew him in high school, college and afterward. I have a copy of the document from a Michigan court in 1967, where he official changed his name to “K.A. Barnes.” But after many decades, maybe to make it less confusing for others, or just so he would seem to be more “normal,” he relented and went back to using “Ken.” So whether you knew him as “KA” or “Ken,” he was still a once-in-a-generation, if not once-in-a-century, intellect.
I was smart, too, but not “KA-smart.” One anecdote my father loved retelling was when a former classmate at a high school reunion, hearing he had two children, asked, “So, John, you only have two children?” My father’s knowing retort, “Yes, but have you seen the two I have?”
Last, I wrote this essay of my own volition. It is not something KA would ever have written about himself, hence the tagline, “An Unauthorized Intelligence Biography.” Yes, he knew he was smart, but to him it was a tool to do other things, not something to brag about. He passed away on February 25, 2015, at age 69. Those who knew him best, and even those who hardly knew him, all realized we had lost someone very special.
The Legend of KA Barnes
(An Unauthorized Intelligence Biography)
The Legend of KA Barnes
(An Unauthorized Intelligence Biography)
As the younger brother of KA Barnes by two years, it was my sad fate to follow him through school with all of the same teachers at Pennypacker Elementary in Philadelphia in the 1950s. All too often I heard the comment, “Aren’t you KA’s little brother—he’s so smart. Are you that smart?” Well, he was smart, but it wasn’t until one of his teachers suggested that his eyes might need testing that things changed.
The day he came home with glasses, fairly thick ones, he stood on our doorstep and ask our father what the little white lines were across the street. Asked what he meant, he pointed them out. They were mortar courses between the red bricks he had never seen before. That was probably the demarcation when KA’s intellect, no longer strangled by poor vision, was able to grow to its full potential.
His grades were good, very good, and he went on to Central High, the citywide school for “smart boys” in Philadelphia, what might be called a magnet school today. With all the other bright boys he did well, then went to Penn State, 215 miles away for the least expensive place around to get a college education. Our father, fatherless himself as a boy, had sworn to do right by his sons and get them the education he never had. He gave us the springboard to succeed and was proud to do so.
At Penn State, KA took Industrial Engineering, one of the most difficult majors. Because I was in a Liberal Arts, Pre-Law, curriculum, it was unlikely we would have any of the same courses. He did, however, tell me that if I ever took a class I really enjoyed, and thought he might, to tell him. That happened when I took Philosophy I, which at Penn State was “Logic.” The professor, John Moran, wrote the textbook and was an extraordinary man. In the monstrous classroom, actually a Greek-theater setting, he professed to several hundred and I drank it in. After each test he would announce the highest grades and my name was always among them, meaning, happily, that I would Ace his course.
On the afternoon after the final exam, I saw KA and told him about the great course I had just finished which fit his earlier requirements. I thought he might take it later, but, unbeknownst to me, KA called Professor Moran that day. He referred to his “little brother,” who had just taken his course and had extolled its virtues. He asked if he could take it “by examination.” He told the professor he had borrowed my textbook and would read it over the weekend. For some unearthly reason, perhaps partly because he had incorporated my name into his request, the professor agreed. On that Monday, KA took the final exam, having read only the textbook and, never having attended a single classroom session, earned the second highest grade in the class. Mine was the highest—but I had attended ten weeks of lectures to learn what took KA less than 48 hours.
Earning mostly As, KA once had a course where there had been so many tests and quizzes he found it was almost mathematically impossible for him to earn a grade above or below a B. (Note: this is before there were plusses and minuses to letter grades and all were either C=2, B=3 and A=4.) He calculated that he needed no more than about 27 points out of 100 to keep his B. So KA attended the final with all the other students for the two-hour test. After answering enough questions, easily to score what he needed for his B, about 20 minutes, he stood up, walked to the front of the room and tossed his exam on the proctor’s desk. His classmates observed him, astonished, as this was a 400 level course. Seeing their amazement, KA said aloud, “Piece of cake!” and walked out. He would get his B, but his classmates were devastated as they returned to their bluebooks to finish the test.
Most college students need about 124 credits to graduate. Because of Penn State’s term system—three per year—I was able to take extra credits and graduate by going the final summer, so I could start law school in the fall after just over three years of college. KA, on the other hand, stayed the full four years and took not only all of the IE courses, but every graduate course in anatomy and computer science. This was 1967 and computers mostly involved 3 x 8 data cards with tiny holes punched in them, which passed rapidly from feeders into the machines. Still, it was advanced stuff back then. When KA finally graduated he had accumulated an astonishing 167 credits in four years with a 3.9 in his Industrial Engineering courses.
He wanted to attend graduate school for a Master’s in Biological Engineering, which he described as “the construction of false, moveable body parts.” While at Penn State he had worked on heart and brain-link tests on “donor dogs.” These were forerunners to the work that culminated in the invention of the Jarvik-8 heart.
Because of his grades, KA was accepted at the University of Michigan for the Master’s degree. However, shortly after being accepted, Michigan told him he needed to take the GREs (Graduate Record Exam), not for admission, but because they needed to insert a number in the block. So, he signed up for the GREs with the least pressure on him that any human could possibly have, of anyone who had ever taken the test.
Afterwards, while some test takers seemed to be stroking out, KA told me he thought it was pretty easy. About two weeks later he received a letter from the company in Princeton that administers the GREs. It read that he had done something no one had before. He had answered all of the questions and gotten them all correct. (It is recalled that all SAT-type tests were graded on a bell curve with a top score of 800.) They awarded him an unprecedented 810 because on this national test—he had “broken the curve.” He was also awarded a scholarship for his Master’s program at Michigan.
Before there was an “online” for signing up for courses, you entered a cavernous convention center where scores of tables, manned by hundreds of people, dealt with thousands of students who went from table to table signing up for their courses. At each table KA displayed the Princeton letter (indicating the finances for the course were paid for), and signed up for the Master’s in Bioengineering. At the last one he asked the man if he needed the letter for their records. “No,” the man said, “take it home and frame it!” So, KA stood back and pondered. What else could he do with this letter? In a few minutes, he signed up for the full set of courses for a Master’s in Business Administration, using the same letter. In less than two years, concurrently, KA earned a Master’s in Bioengineering and an MBA, Acing every course for both degrees.
About this time he also got involved with Mensa, well-known as an organization for “intelligent people.” Back in the late 1960s the procedure was to self-administer a test Mensa sent you, and they relied on your integrity. If you achieved a certain high-level percentage in that score you qualified to be further tested under controlled conditions. Note, there is a wide variety of intelligence tests and much disagreement on how, exactly, to gauge one’s IQ (Intelligence Quotient). However, to gain admission into Mensa you had to be above 98% of the population, intelligence-wise—that is, in the top two percent.
We both passed the preliminary test with high enough scores to be given the one that really counted. My results were that I achieved 97%—and was out—but KA made it in. In fact, his score was 99.6%, meaning he was a “Double-M,” in the top two percent of the top two percent—a score that was really in the stratosphere. The number assigned to his IQ was 165.
His first job after Michigan was with G.D. Searle in Chicago, among the first birth-control pill companies. After a while, there was something in their activities he did not like and wanted to leave. He looked for a job where he would be laid off so he go on welfare while he looked for something else to do. In the fall he left Searle and took the H&R Block tax preparation course. He would do the basic accounting work for taxpayers, then be laid off after April 15th. Perfect!
He worked at H&R Block in earnest, hardly an effort for him, but found it interesting. One client observed KA’s accounting skills and offered him a job as the accountant for his firm. Surely, he thought, KA was a CPA, but all he knew was what H&R Block had taught him for minimal tax preparation skills. However, the idea piqued KA’s interest.
I had just graduated from law school and he called to ask if I knew whether one actually had to have an accounting degree to take the CPA exam, much like the necessity of having a law degree to take the bar. It turned out that all you needed was to take the CPA review course—plus have enough knowledge—and you could take the test. So, KA signed up for the CPA review course and then took the national CPA exam.
A few weeks later the results were out. Without having taken one college accounting course in his entire life, KA received the second highest grade in the country in the CPA exam. He was invited with the other top finishers to a banquet in New York City. He attended because he wanted to meet the person who had come in first. When he did, it was a letdown. As he later described her, all she ever did in her life was accounting and she was a boring person.
KA was offered a position with one of the “Big Five” accounting firms and took it in Philadelphia. One example of what he did there involved a major client with an office in London that had some enormous accounting problem they needed worked out fast. When KA arrived they had a large space set aside for the “team of accounts” from Philadelphia. They looked behind KA for “the rest” of the CPAs, but he was alone. He solved their problem, quickly and efficiently, and returned to Philadelphia.
KA stopped attending Mensa meetings because he said they were “just a bunch of smart people standing around talking about how smart they are.” The problem, he said, was they didn’t seem to do anything with their intelligence, not anything productive, anyway.
I think back of the quotes from Thomas Edison that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would, literally, astound ourselves.” That is, you have to work at it, all the time, no matter how smart you are, to be successful.
Wayne A. Barnes
January 29, 2009
Post Script to “The Legend of KA Barnes”
I sent this essay to my five children so they would know this part of their past, and then, a bit later, to KA. To make a certain point, below is his response, pure “KA,” self-effacing and direct, analytical and instructive, and clarifying of only one aspect of the essay with information of which I had not been aware, which only tends to make my point more emphatically….
I read your piece through. I'm wondering why you wrote it. To me Intelligence is a natural gift. I can't play an instrument the way concert musicians can or paint a picture or write a poem or learn languages as you have or design clothes as Ariel can .... But I guess if I had been a concert musician you may have written about that.
One thing I need to clarify is the CPA Exam. When I decided to take it I learned that to take it one had to have 24 credits in Accounting. My MBA required about one and a half Accounting courses. (MBAs have to know some accounting but not much.) I decided to make up the difference with correspondence courses. Accounting courses, unlike most disciples, do not much build on each other. That is, one can take Tax Accounting without taking Basic Accounting. I was in a hurry to get enough credits. Each correspondence school would only allow you to take two courses at a time. This was not enough for me so I signed up at several schools and took (I believe it was) 45 credits in Accounting at once. Then when I took the CPA Exam I did it based on correspondence courses. Fifty thousand people took the exam. My grade was in the top .002%, the second highest in Pennsylvania not the US. I averaged over 90 in all four parts. People who pass usually do so with 75s. All this without ever doing any accounting, not having seen a Corporate Tax return ..., I won an Elijah Watt Sells Award. A note on correspondence courses - there is a lot of down time as one sends in a lesson then waits for it to be graded and returned. Taking lots of correspondence courses at once was not a big deal. With the on-line schools of today there probably aren't any correspondence courses anymore.
BTW - I am sure my son, Wyatt, is smarter than I am. (He taught himself to be a Very Good farmer without having much help from other farmers or books. He is Very observant.) And I believe from what I am told that my Grandson, Brandon, is even smarter.
BTW - I never studied for grades (except once). I just learned what interested me.
Does Thomas plan on having a career in the Military?
KA Barnes's official GRE score of 810