LAKELAND, Fla. — Carol Jenkins Barnett, the daughter of George W. Jenkins, the founder of grocery chain Publix Super Markets, died Tuesday night at age 65 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Barnett was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s in 2016 at age 59. She died at home in the presence of family members, Publix said in a statement released Wednesday morning.
“The Publix family is deeply saddened by the loss of a great humanitarian and community advocate,” Publix CEO Todd Jones said in a news release. “In addition to her service at Publix, Carol Jenkins Barnett made significant contributions to many nonprofit organizations and for the betterment of all children with investments in early childhood education programs. She will be sorely missed by her family, our associates and the community. Carol had a generous heart and compassionate soul. Her efforts will continue to improve the lives of others for generations.”
Barnett was one of seven children of the Publix founder, who died in 1996.
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The Barnetts’ two grown sons, Wesley Barnett and Nicholas Barnett, both live in Polk County and have become prominent philanthropists as well, along with their wives, Ashley Bell Barnett and Ashley Gibson Barnett. Carol Barnett is also survived by three grandchildren, Raleigh, Birdie and Zoey.
“My mother had a passion for helping others, especially children,” Wesley Barnett said in a text message to The Ledger. “She felt privileged to be able to support many causes locally and beyond. Her father and mother instilled in her a sense of responsibility to her community and she has in turn taught that to my brother and me and our families by her shining example.
“But most importantly, she was the anchor of our family. A mother, a grandmother. Her infectious smile, inimitable personality, and abounding love will never be forgotten.”
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Alzheimer’s disease, a type of progressive dementia that affects memory and thinking and eventually interferes with daily functions, affects more than six million Americans, according to the National Institute on Aging. Only about 5% of patients develop symptoms before the age of 65, the Mayo Clinic reports.
Barnett and her husband, Barney Barnett, have donated many millions of dollars for decades to Florida Southern College — their shared alma mater — and to Lakeland Regional Health and other local and state entities.
Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center opened the Carol Jenkins Barnett Pavilion for Women and Children, an eight-floor addition, in 2019. That resulted from the largest donation ever made to the hospital, one that Barnett announced on Mother’s Day in 2016.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Carol Jenkins Barnett,” Danielle Drummond, President and CEO of Lakeland Regional Health, said in an emailed statement. “Her compassionate heart and generous spirit helped thousands in our area over the years and her devotion to community service inspired even more people to become involved in helping others.”
Drummond added: “Carol was a remarkable woman who cared deeply and gave generously to leave the world a better place. She will be greatly missed by those who knew her best and by those who have been touched by her vibrant and considerate ways. We wish the family peace, comfort and healing as they mourn her loss, yet we know that her kindhearted spirit will live on in her legacy of caring.”
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A Lakeland native, Barnett began working for Publix in 1972 as a cashier at a store in the Grove Park Shopping Center, the company said. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from Florida Southern College in 1979, she worked in Publix’s corporate marketing research and development department.
Barnett was elected to the Publix board of directors in 1983 and served until she resigned in 2016 after announcing her diagnosis. She also served on the board of Publix Super Markets Charities.
The nonprofit has long supported the United Way of Central Florida, and Barnett helped establish such programs as the Family Fundamentals parent resource facility in Lakeland.
She also founded the Community Foundation of Greater Lakeland (now known as the GiveWell Community Foundation) and has been active in promoting early education and other causes.
Florida Southern College bestowed an honorary doctorate degree upon Barnett in 1998.
The college opened the Carol Jenkins Barnett Center for Early Childhood Learning and Health in 2020. In one of her final public appearances, Barnett attended a dedication ceremony for the building in 2018 but did not speak.
The couple also founded the creation of Barnett Family Park near Lake Mirror.
Florida Southern President Anne Kerr sent a statement to the college community Wednesday.
“Carol left an indelible impact upon Florida Southern College,” the statement said in part. “Her leadership and vision for education fostered a drive for learning and social betterment that has compelled countless FSC students and alumni to shape a better world for us all. Carol led the way as an exemplar of positive and transformative communal leadership.
“Carol’s legacy of intellectual understanding of the importance of education throughout life, advocacy for learning, helping others, and philanthropy lives on in the Florida Southern community and in each of us whom she touched. Carol manifested goodness and love throughout her life, transforming lives and organizations.”
Publix issued a list Wednesday of Carol Barnett’s community service and awards that covered two pages. Among the groups she served: the Junior League of Greater Lakeland, United Way of Central Florida, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine and the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.
Barnett received awards from such organizations as the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, the Barbara Bush Foundation, the Children’s Home Society and the Florida Arts Council.
She was inducted into the Polk County Schools Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016.
In recent years, the Barnett family has contributed toward the creation of Bonnet Springs Park, a 168-acre attraction now under construction along George Jenkins Boulevard.
Alice O’Reilly, the retired executive director of Volunteers in Service to the Elderly, recalled that Barnett made a point of shopping at a locally owned business when O’Reilly worked as a manager there.
“She shopped local, and she loved Lakeland as much as I did and so we had a kinship that way,” O’Reilly said.
The pair grew closer through their involvement with the Junior League of Greater Lakeland.
“When I went to work for VISTE, the family had always been supportive but then we developed a stronger relationship,” O’Reilly said. “She had a real kindred heart for the elderly, as does her sister, Julie (Jenkins Fancelli). … Her love and strength of Lakeland really reflects in so many ways all of the progress that we’ve made in our city over the years. What a strong influence that she had on so many. And I know everybody’s going to say this, but she learned from the best. She learned from her dad.”
Retired Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado shared his reaction in a comment on The Ledger’s Facebook post.
“Absolutely heartbreaking news,” Delgado wrote. “Carol was so instrumental in moving Lakeland, community education and philanthropy efforts forward. She will be greatly missed and all our hearts go out to the family.”
George W. Jenkins started Publix with a store in Winter Haven in 1930. Publix Super Markets, the largest employee-owned company in the country, now operates nearly 1,300 stores in Florida and seven other states.
Carol Barnett is considered Polk County’s wealthiest resident and has ranked on Forbes magazine’s list of World Billionaires annually since 2008. The Jenkins family ranks among the 40 richest in the country, according to Forbes, with an estimated net worth of $8.8 billion in 2020.
Barney and Carol Barnett have been active donors to the Republican Party and conservative politicians for decades. In 2016, Carol Barnett’s trust contributed $800,000 to an effort to defeat a constitutional amendment that would legalize medical use of marijuana in Florida. The measure narrowly failed that year, but a similar initiative passed two years later.
Steve Scruggs, President of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, recalled an anecdote in which George Jenkins was asked how much he would have been worth if he hadn’t given so much money away and he replied without hesitation, “Probably nothing.”
“If you asked me today what Lakeland would look like if Mr. Jenkins’ daughter, Carol, and her family hadn’t given away so much, without hesitation I would say, ‘A community that missed the opportunity to learn and benefit from one of the most generous human beings of our time,’ ” Scruggs said by email.
Gary White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.