Jan. 23—Tom Barrett figures he was in eighth grade when one of his teachers, Miss Bell, approached him on the playground in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood and suggested he try out for a spot on the Winter Carnival Junior Royalty.
"Do you have a suitcoat?" Yup.
Of course this St. Paul kid had attended his share of parades and events at the St. Paul Winter Carnival. He grabbed his suitcoat and off he went to the competition — without telling his parents. He walked to the contest at a nearby rec center.
And walked home disappointed.
You'd think a thing like that would put a guy off participating in "The Coolest Celebration on Earth." Especially since his neighbor across the street, who did win the junior royalty competition, would regale young Tom with tales of parades and royal festivities.
But since the 1990s, Barrett has been one of the key players who make the St. Paul Winter Carnival happen.
A member of the Vulcan Krewe, Count Embrious, in 1993; Vulcanus Rex, head of the Vulcan Krewe, in 2004; in charge of both Winter Carnival parades for 2022; emcee of the recent Klondike Kate contest; bus tour guide for the Carnival princess candidates for the past 15-16 years; in charge of the hot air balloons used in parades for many years. And those are only the major roles and responsibilities.
"Tommy has a huge heart for Carnival," says former board chair and past festival chair Jen Tamburo. "He's always there to stand up, raise his hand and say, 'I'll do it.' "
Longtime Carnival leader Tamburo says she's known Barrett for more than 20 years. Though she's a 2005 East Wind Carnival princess, she laughs that she and Barrett share a royal failure. She, too, lost out on a bid to join the junior royalty many years ago.
Barrett says that as a kid he would sneak out to try to find the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt medallion and attend Winter Carnival parades. But an incident in 1992 was the spark for joining the Vulcan Krewe. He had a seizure "out of the blue." He couldn't drive.
"I started making a bucket list before bucket lists were fashionable."
He never went back to the Royal Family side of the Winter Carnival. He donned the red jumpsuit, helmet, cape and goggles in 1993 and was named "Count Embrious" (the Fire King's Chancellor of the Exchequer, "the Young and Romantic One" — usually the youngest member of the Vulcan Krewe that year).
His wife, Wanda, was OK with that. Though Barrett, 64, is no longer young, "I'd like to think I'm still romantic." He calls his wife of more than 40 years "Wonderful Wanda."
The Barretts met when both were working for the state of Minnesota. He says he didn't get a paycheck after his first week and went to human resources to check on it. Wanda was working there and Tom claims that when she saw he was single, she asked him out. They have one son and over the years, the Barretts hosted nine foreign exchange students.
Barrett was director of the Minnesota Gambling Control Board from 1990 through his retirement two years ago. Appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, Barrett says he worked for one independent, one Republican and a couple of Democratic governors. Before that, he worked for the Minnesota Lottery.
About the Vulcans
Barrett provides a bit of history: The Vulcans have been part of the 135-year-old Winter Carnival since 1886, when the Fire King was known as Fire King Coal, then Ignius Rex, Fire King Rex and, since 1916, Vulcan Rex or Vulcanus Rex. Vulcan Rex VI was the first Fire King to have a Krewe run with him — the first Krewe to ride a firetruck officially, the first Krewe to bestow the "mark" and the first Krewe to wear a running suit, cape, helmet and goggles. According to Carnival legend, each year the Vulcans do battle with King Boreas and his winter royal family at the close of the festivities, and each year they win, ensuring that heat and warmth will again return to St. Paul.
In fact, when you meet Barrett, he's likely to ask whether you like hot or cold, summer or winter, winning or losing. Choose warmth and winners, and you're on the Vulcan side.
In 2004, Barrett led his own seven-member Krewe as the Fire King, Vulcanus Rex LXVII. That was the year there was an Ice Palace constructed in the open lot across from the Xcel Energy Center.
Barrett knows talk about the Vulcans is bound to bring up stories about inappropriate behavior years ago. He says he's always encouraged his Krewes to "do the right thing."
"Let's bring it to the people," Barrett says.
And that's what the Vulcans do, he adds. The Krewe visits hospitals and nursing homes, usually traveling on the Vulcan firetruck named Luverne, a 1932 firetruck built in Luverne, Minn., and believed to be the only one of its type left. Barrett remembers a frigid day in 2004 when he and the Krewe were headed to visit a young cancer patient in Woodbury. They took the interstate and three of the Vulcans riding on the back of the truck got frostbite, but the child's reaction was worth it, Barrett says.
"I'll never forget it," he adds. "It doesn't matter how cold it is, just get out there and do it."
"But we took a slower route home."
He says the Krewe becomes family during the run of Carnival. And even though they battle Boreas and the royal family for control of the weather, the whole group forms a bond.
They pay their own expenses during their year with Winter Carnival (the parades and appearances go way beyond 10 days in late January and early February). Vulcanus Rex spends about $30,000 out of his own pocket to be Fire King, Barrett says. After their Carnival year, Vulcans can join Fire and Brimstone, the fraternal organization of past Vulcans.
Beyond the Carnival royals and Vulcans, Barrett's known by most everyone who's been involved in the annual event for many years.
Molly Steinke, who has been doing media and public relations for Winter Carnival for almost 15 years through the Nemer Fieger PR agency, is effusive: "Tommy Barrett was one of the first people we met when Nemer Fieger began working with the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 2008," she says. "Ever since, he's been my go-to guy for any advice or questions about Carnival history and contacts. His enthusiasm for the Winter Carnival along with that big welcoming smile of his makes him so endearing. Everybody loves Tommy B! He's truly one of the coolest people involved in the 'Coolest Celebrations on Earth.' "
And then there's the collection ...
Barrett has binders filled with pins and programs, piles of photos and clippings. Framed paintings and proclamations, posters and pictures line the walls of the stairwell to the basement of his house. There are the buttons his son, Nick, designed for the 2009 Winter Carnival. At the foot of the stairs is a mannequin wearing the full Vulcan garb Barrett wore as Count Embrious with the 1993 Krewe.
In his bounty of buttons is a metal disk about the size of a dime from the 1887 Winter Carnival. He has special Carnival pins given to veterans to wear after World War II.
Framed on the wall near his Vulcan mannequin is a print of one of the first ice palaces. It was found in the wall of a house after a tornado ripped through St. Peter in 1998.
But Barrett's basement treasures go far beyond Winter Carnival. He's been collecting autographs and memorabilia for years — sports heroes, celebrities, newsmakers. The autographs are displayed with helmets, album covers, newspaper pages. There are baseball bats, seats from the Metrodome, boxing gloves. Glass cases line the walls, and there's the outfit Barrett wore when he was named "Mr. Pat" during St. Patrick's Day festivities in St. Paul in 2008.
The Beatles, Babe Ruth, a 1939 Donald Duck signed by Walt Disney, JFK. The front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press from July 20, 1969, is autographed by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Barrett sent the newspaper to the astronauts, who signed it and sent it back.
Not all of the autographs were collected in person by Barrett, but they've all been authenticated. His first autograph, he says, is the signature of the Minnesota Vikings first head coach, Norm Van Brocklin. Barrett's dad was part of a group of businessmen who helped get Met Stadium built and brought professional football to Minnesota.
He takes pieces from the collection and works them into framed wall displays that he's entered into the Minnesota State Fair, often bringing home the top ribbon.
What's most special to him in the collection? Barrett doesn't hesitate and walks to a photo display near the stairway. "Minnesotan Charles Lindberg," he says. "But not the famous aviator."
Lindberg, from Richfield, was one of the soldiers who helped capture Mount Suribachi and raised the American flag in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, Barrett explains. Lindberg was in the bloody battle, but he's not in the famous photo of the flag-raising. That photo was shot hours later when the first flag was replaced.
A photo of the first (and only) female Vulcan in 1952, Kitty Ryan, comes with a classic Barrett Carnival tale. Kitty Ryan was 14 at the time and chosen as a Vulcan that year because of her ability to twirl flaming batons, Barrett says. He'd long been intrigued by the story, but had never been able to track her down. In 2004, when Barrett was Vulcanus Rex, he got a call requesting the Vulcan Krewe at a cancer benefit in Stillwater. The group was already booked and he was about to turn the caller down, when she said her name was Kitty Ryan Johnson. "I have a photo of you on my wall at home," he told her.
The Vulcans went to the benefit and Barrett has another photo of Kitty Ryan from that day, now hanging just below the black-and-white image of the young baton-twirler.
During the 2022 Winter Carnival, which starts Jan. 28, Barrett says he'll probably be out at the Vulcan Snow Park at the Fairgrounds every day. And he'll be wrangling the Grande Day Parade on Jan. 29 and the Torchlight Parade on Feb. 5. (He hasn't missed a Winter Carnival parade since 1993, he says.)
Wonderful Wanda doesn't plan to be out as much as other years. She wants to avoid COVID-19 contact so she can spend time with their granddaughters, Olivia and Mara, son, Nick, and daughter-in-law, Heather.
But former Vulcanus Rex Tommy Barrett will be there. He'll be pretty much everywhere.
"I do what I can."