What could only be imagined as the rough task of memorializing a lost classmate turns out to be an unlikely, if unwished for, privilege. Barnes (Barney) Tilney died in February 2006, after beating back leukemia twice, once in 2003 and again in 2005. My own acquaintance with him at school was slight, but from conversations with his mother Barbara, his partner, Mike Kelly, and his longtime friend, Susan (Irvin) Choquette, it is obvious that Barnes lifted up the lives of everyone around him with a gift for art that extended beyond painting and drawing to music, technology, self-expression, his approach to his own illness and death, and, ultimately, to living.
Barney’s mother said art was a steady part of his life: “Even though he and his brothers were given tennis rackets and tennis lessons, my hopes for a Wimbledon star never materialized. Of all my five children, he never asked for money, and he was the only artist!” He was a fine arts major and graduated from Amherst with the Hasse Prize for the best work of art using the human figure. He also performed in the Madrigals group and in Rhythm & Shoes, among other activities.
He spent spring of junior year in Florence. Susan said, “Florence had a liberating effect on him, and when we returned to Amherst senior year, Barnes ‘came out.’ I had the honor of being one of the first people he told. . . . I still have a painting he did while in Florence. It reminds me of the importance of being open and honest with ourselves and with our loved ones.”
Barney worked as a graphics artist, builder, and a designer at several New York firms during the 1990s. He seems to have thrived in an amazing number of tech projects, combining artistry, tech skills, and basic communication in a way few tech people do.
With his partner, Mike, Barney started his own company, Silvertung, in Dublin in 2001. The two met in New York and had had a transatlantic relationship for eleven months, but Barney moved to Ireland in 2000. They were planning a move to London during 2006 because the new Civil Partnership law would have granted them the same rights as a married couple.
Barney was first diagnosed with a form of leukemia called “hairy cell” in 2003. The e-mails he sent friends, which Susan shared with me, are a testament to his ability to see past personal struggles and set others at ease. “Thankfully, if you’re going to get a leukemia,” he wrote, “Hairy Cell is the one to get. Not only does it have a cartoon name, but it’s extremely treatable.”
After months of treatment, he was pronounced fully recovered. Susan described a day trip in the Irish countryside where Barney was “thin, but energetic,” and showing the same readiness for adventure she remembered. In impromptu posts on a UK tech site, his colleagues from that time praised him for the same skill and clarity of mind that typify all accounts of Barney.
Sadly, he was struck with a second type of leukemia in 2005, apparently caused by the chemotherapy used during his first bout. A successful bone marrow transplant was performed. But the condition returned in early 2006, and the prognosis was not good. Mike spent Barney’s final days close to him in the hospital. “He had no regrets about his life or decisions he had made. I was humbled to be with him at that time. I don’t think I could have been that strong and accepting.”
Following Barney’s death was “what you might call a good old Irish wake, without most of the drinking,” said Mike, with Barney’s iPod shuffling all his favorite music. Before a funeral at one of Dublin’s few Episcopal churches, more than fifty friends gathered and held a commitment ceremony Mike and Barnes had already been planning. “It would never have been recognized legally in Ireland,” Mike said, “but we’d purchased the rings.”
Along with Mike Kelly, Barnes is survived by two sisters, a twin brother, a younger brother, and two nieces, as well as his mother Barbara and his father, Farrar (Bud) Tilney ’50.
The day Barney died, Mike opened Barney’s bag and found the journal and sketchbook that he had always kept. Mike was also stunned to find a new set of pages and drawings “written for me to read after his death. . . . He speaks of the wonderful six years we shared by each others’ side. . . . He also ends with an incredibly insightful few words: ‘I know it seems impossible now, but try to remember, Life is both beautiful and terrible, but mostly it’s beautiful.’ This has been my mantra for the past eight months,” Mike told me, “and in times of stress and sadness, I try to hold onto that thought.”
—Jed Miller ’88
—Susan (Irvin) Choquette ’88