The Wilson-Barton Partnership Honors Robert E. Kirkland, Jr.

Bobby Kirkland at WBP Award BanquetWILSON, NC — Honoring a local business leader and patriot, the Wilson-Barton Partnership awarded the 2008 Business Leadership Award to Robert E. Kirkland, Jr., at a reception held September 18 on the campus of Barton College.

Leadership, commitment, and service all started at home for Robert E. Kirkland, Jr., known as Bobby by most.  Robert E. Kirkland, Jr., was primed for success by parents who taught him to be honest with himself and to work hard.

A Wilson native, Bobby was born in 1925 to Mr. and Mrs. Robert E. Kirkland.  He is the middle sibling of Martha Kirkland Walston and the late Dr. John Alvin Kirkland.  Bobby attended Charles L. Coon High School and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1946.  In 1950, he married Jane Gardner and the couple later had four children: Robert E. Kirkland III, Janet Kirkland Hesmer, Elizabeth Kirkland Peters, and Lela Lee Kirkland King.  As a lifelong member of First United Methodist Church, Bobby has served as chair of the Finance Committee and Administrative Board, taught Sunday School, and served as a Lay Leader.

While at UNC-Chapel Hill, Bobby played on the baseball team and joined the Zeta Psi Fraternity.  Before graduating with a degree in Business, he was inducted into the Golden Fleece, Order of the Grail, and Phi Beta Kappa.  In July of 1943, Bobby’s education at UNC-Chapel Hill was interrupted by the call to serve the United States Military.

After attending basic training in Alabama, Bobby served in World War II from May 1944 until August 1945.  He fought in the South Pacific and was part of the Guam Invasion.  At the age of 19, he was promoted from Squad Sergeant to First Lieutenant and later was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism in ground combat.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1946, Bobby returned to Wilson to work with his father in the family business, Barnes Motor & Parts Company.  For many years, Bobby served as president of the company and, as a result, he was active in many state and national automotive associations.

Locally, Bobby has exemplified his commitment to this community by his service on numerous boards:

  • Member of the Wilson County School Board for 14 years
  • Chairman of the Wilson County Morehead Foundation for 20 years
  • Member and Chairman of the Wilson Hospital Board
  • Member of the Chamber of Commerce
  • Member and Chairman of the First Union Bank Board
  • Member of the Board of Trustees at Atlantic Christian College

Today, Robert E. Kirkland, Jr., continues to demonstrate what his mother and father instilled in him so many years ago.  There is a lot to honor, remember, and no doubt, learn from this father, brother, business leader, and countryman.  In March, Kirkland said, “Don’t worry about something you can’t do anything about, but enjoy life, enjoy — enjoy growing up.”

Many thanks to Beth Peters, and to an Oral History Project by Perry Morrison III, for information used in this biography.


Questions? Please contact Ken Dozier, web services manager at Barton College, at 252.399.6596 or email