Larry Barnhill had an idea for a clock. He had long ago tired of the circular kind, but this one was unusual even for him – 3-foot by 4-foot shelves with the time represented by lighting up toy cars.
An electrical engineer and longtime tinkerer, Barnhill scoured junk stores for antique-style die cast cars, rigged them up with lights and set them in three rows, one for the hour, and two for the minutes.
The invention is now entertaining children as they wait to see their doctors at the WakeMed Children’s Hospital – one of a number of inventions Barnhill has developed and donated over the years.
“The kids watch it and they have something to keep their mind off their troubles for at least a few minutes,” he says. “I like building these sorts of things, and then someone gets some benefit from it.”
Barnhill, 69, grew up on a Halifax County farm and long worked as an instrumentation and controls department manager at PPS Engineers, where he still works part-time.
But lately he’s devoting more time to a variety of causes and activities he’s championed for years. In addition to his building projects, he teaches Bible classes to prison inmates and children, builds handicapped ramps, and has recently started doing stand-up comedy routines at area churches.
He’s a man of faith who undoubtedly loves people.
Josh Reid, youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Cary
It’s a nonstop mixture of hobbies and service that has made an impact on a wide variety of people. But those who know him trace it all back to a strong desire to serve his community.
“He’s remarkable because if he hears about a need and he thinks he can do it, he’s going to do it,” says Josh Reid, youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Cary, who has worked with Barnhill on church initiatives. “He’s a man of faith who undoubtedly loves people.”
Barnhill’s nonstop movement might have been born in childhood when his father, a tobacco farmer who also ran a country store, was fatally struck by lightning. Barnhill was only 3.
His mother returned to work as an English teacher to support the family. Growing up, Barnhill helped out by working odd jobs such as gathering wood to sell to barbecue restaurants. In the summers during college, he worked for the federal government doing land surveys, and he also worked on the family tobacco farm, which they rented out after his father died.
He was an avid tinkerer from a young age. One of his first projects, a car made out of junkyard scraps and wood, got him into trouble when he tested it on the highway. Seeing a police car, he started veering to the shoulder, forgetting that the wheel, which had come from a cotton picker, worked in reverse. He drove directly into the trooper.
“He frightened me pretty good,” Barnhill says.
He was also interested in clocks from early on. In high school, he built a Benjamin Franklin clock, which has only one hand but still functions by dividing the area of the clock into segments; he included a racetrack in his design along with lights that changed colors every three hours.
“It was more of a different way of displaying time,” he says. “We’re used to a round clock, but there are lots of other ways of displaying time without just a circle or dots.”
Earning his diploma in a small rural high school, Barnhill had never heard of engineering until some of his friends said they planned to study it in college. He went along, earning his associate degree from Chowan Junior College, where his mother was an English professor.
Sometimes you can’t tell whether you’re working or having fun.
From there, he went to N.C. State University, where he was naturally drawn to electrical engineering. His job in process control deals with controlling pressure and temperature in paper plants. It also allows for a lot of tinkering.
“Sometimes you can’t tell whether you’re working or having fun,” he says.
Success with hammer and wood
Barnhill never stops making things, and for decades has tried to devote the hours he spends in his workshop to worthy causes. Many of his projects stem from the needs of acquaintances.
For a World War II veteran who had been confined to bed for years, he rigged up a contraption that lets him turn the TV on by blowing through a tube, and change the station by sucking on it.
Later, he used a similar trick so that a woman with multiple sclerosis could use the telephone.
Others gadgets, like the clock he recently donated to WakeMed, come to him as ideas, and he later finds them a home.
“I just showed up and told them my idea and they were interested,” he says.
He’s now working on two clocks. One for children is made out of Legos with ping pong balls that roll around and represent the time when they land. Another is a floor-mounted set of columns that looks like a piano keyboard with mice that point out the hours and minutes. He has an assisted living facility in mind for this one.
Another time, he made a train set for the Tammy Lynn Center for Developmental Disabilities that revolved around a terrarium with live plants and a waterfall. The train was programmed to stop at the depot and wait five minutes before starting again and slow down as it went around curves.
Most of his inventions don’t use very high-tech materials – just a screwdriver, hammer and wood.
“It’s really nothing fancy,” he says.
Outside of his workshop, he has been a Sunday School teacher for decades, and for 35 years he has also taught Bible classes to prison inmates, first in Butner, and then at Central Prison.
Last year, he worked with people of several denominations on a program with death row inmates for three full days. He admits he was a little worried at first, but says the inmates participated in discussions and seemed to appreciate their lessons.
“It was really touching to hear those guys talk about what those three days meant to them,” Barnhill says.
He’s part of a group with his church that builds handicapped ramps and does repairs for people who need them. He’s been on mission trips to Honduras and other countries, and donated a Cadillac to a group that supports missionaries.
He recently started doing stand-up comedy, mainly for church groups, focusing on everyday scenarios and wholesome slapstick. In one bit, he struggles to turn off a lamp, and finally breaks it to pieces and throws it away. Later, the bag where he put the pieces lights up.
“I’m interested in a lot of things,” he says. “Trying to focus on any one thing is difficult.”
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week?
Contact us at email@example.com.
Larry J. Barnhill
Born: Halifax County
Residence: Wake County
Career: Instrumentation and controls specialist, PPS Engineers Inc.
Education: B.S. electrical and electronics engineering, N.C. State University
Family: Wife Betty Jo; one son and two grandchildren
Fun fact: Barnhill has also put his handyman skills to use for his own family. He built a playhouse shaped and painted like a soccer ball for his grandchildren.