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Mackey Barron: A Life, Career and World War II

He's been in the business 65 years - 66, if you count his first part-time job winding film reels for $15 a week in 1937. Mackey Barron, one of the true pioneers of the Pro AV industry, has seen more than most of us could ever imagine. But sometimes strife yields the gift of a thankful and giving nature and Mackey Barron would be the first to agree.

The president and founder of Connecticut-base HB Communications is as industrious today as he was as a child growing up during the Great Depression. Born in 1920 in Boston, by the age of 12 he was fixing bikes and cars to earn spending money.

"A turning point occurred when I was 16 in the Brookline High School auditorium," remembers Barron. "A film reel rolled down the aisle past me. I neatly rolled the film back up and returned it to the projectionist, an insignificant event that changed my life."

Working with film appealed to him - he had a real knack for it -- and his talents landed him a part-time job working with Catholic Film Services while still in high school in Boston. At first, he wound film reels, spliced out damaged portions and distributed the films to schools.

"Later, I got into selling," says Barron. "I would travel with a woman named Mary Sullivan. I would do the demos and she would do the selling. I watched how she sold and learned from her. When you watch someone talented at selling, it becomes easier to do it yourself."

He also took on odd jobs, such as filling in for the Cardinal's chauffeur and running movies for the Red Sox baseball team. "I was ambitious and wanted to make money so I took on every extra job I could get," he says.

After high school, he joined Cinema Incorporated, a company formed by the merger of Cinema Incorporated and Catholic Film Services. During the slower summer months, he branched out on his own and brought entertainment to five different towns in the form of 16mm movies. He advertised the movies by putting flyers around town, at farms, in post office boxes.

"There was no television at the time, so this was a big deal," says Barron. "I showed them older movies - dramas, westerns, Hopalong Cassidy, Buster Crabbe, 'Rainbow on the River' with Bobby Breen. I rented the town hall for $3.50 and I had anywhere from 100 to 150 people come from each town. I made money from selling candy, too, and cleared $75 a week."

But his comfortable life came to a halt in the form of a declaration of war and in January 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

Barron was first sent to Esler Field in Alexandra, Louisiana where he and another enlisted man ran the base movie theater in the evenings. During the days, he drove a garbage truck for the base until later that year a space opened up at the pilot's school. Having passed the exam, off he went.

In San Antonio, Texas, he graduated with 7,000 others in the Class of 43 F. A sign of what was to come occurred soon after, when he and a fellow pilot crashed. "I came out of the windshield at 150 miles an hour," remembers Barron.

When recovered and reinstated as a pilot, he was sent overseas as a member of "Wild Bill Donovan's OSS Team," a flying team that delivered supplies, ammunition and spies into enemy territory.

"We also dropped leaflets to towns telling them to surrender before our troops arrived," he says. "And we dropped Joe's, the term for spies helping the underground."

On his 13th mission while supporting the Danish underground, Barron was shot down, wounded and captured.

"There were eight of us on the bomber, a black B-24," he says. "We all bailed out and I was the last out at 500 feet. I had to bail out of the top hatch because I was on fire. I hit the tail on the way down, ripping my arm out of socket, and crushing my leg. I was in the air five seconds before I hit the ground - I pulled the rip cord and lived to tell about it."

After being captured, Barron was sent to a hospital in Herning, Denmark where he received a visit from the pilot who actually shot him down. Although they couldn't communicate as neither one of them spoke each others' mother tongue, Barron sensed the pilot was glad to see he was alive. Barron was soon sent to a POW camp in Germany, living a horrific existence lasting "358 days 12 hours 14 minutes."

He couldn't walk because of his leg, so he exercised daily to be sure he'd be able to walk when, if, release time ever came. He and the other 10,000 POWs, whose numbers grew to 130,000 by the end of the war, were transferred from camp to camp in unthinkable conditions.

"We'd be on a boxcar, 54 of us jammed in a car for three days. No baths, no facilities," recalls Barron. "At camps, we lived 15 to a room and we starved. Meals consisted of meager amounts of food and we also sometimes received Red Cross parcels. The Germans punctured the cans to be sure we couldn't stockpile them for an escape."

They did have a theater, but only one movie to show. It was "Orchestra Wives" with George Montgomery, Ann Rutherford, Glenn Miller and Cesar Romero. Of course, Barron ran the projector.

"I ran that movie 10 times for 1,500 people each time to be sure the whole camp saw it," he remembers.

Also, Christmas of 1944 he read "Wuthering Heights," (the Red Cross sent books to the POWs) --a book he will never forget.

While their lives were spent filthy and hungry (the definition of what qualifies as food is greatly expanded during such conditions), they did find a few innovative ways to stay sane. One was a hand-built underground radio, where the POWs learned about Normandy before their German captors told them about it. Another was making ice cream by taking Klim powder, Postum and sugar cubes and mixing them with snow.

"We also had what we called Kriggy Brew," he laughs. "You take prunes, pour water on them and hide them away. Eventually, they'd ferment and we would get a real buzz from them."

Finally, and not until the war had ended, they were liberated in April 1945 by none other than General Patton himself. Barron, weighing only 50 kilos, or about 110 pounds, spent the next four weeks at Lucky Strike Camp in France, where he put on 28 pounds in 28 days. He then sailed back to Boston.

"Going home was very emotional," he recalls. "It's hard not to cry when you're sad and hard not to cry when you're happy, isn't it?"

Making his homecoming even more emotional was his son.

"My wife was expecting our first child when I was shot down and I found out about his birth through a telegram I received on August 4, 1944." I still have the original telegram."

Barron was back to his life, but it was a new life and certainly, a new way of looking at it.

"The war and POW camp was a defining part of my life," says Barron. "It makes you realize how lucky you are that you beat the odds. Since that time I approach life with humor, and I like to give something back."

In December of 1945, he went back to work at Cinema Incorporated and went on the road selling 16mm equipment in Connecticut. When he decided to relocate there permanently, he realized he wasn't making enough money to thrive in that region so he went into business for himself, partnering with friend Don Hawthorne, the "H" in HB Communications (the current company name) - the B is obvious.

"We started the company with a little over $300 and a $5,000 note from a cousin, and we worked out of my house," says Barron, "with my porch serving as our 8' x 12' storage area."

HB Motion Picture Service sold three products: 16mm Projectors, Opaque Projectors and Film Strip Projectors. Their first sale was 10 Amprosound projectors to Roy Wilcox, Executive Vice President of International Silver Company.

In 1947, they moved to their first office space, 400 sq. ft. on George Street in New Haven CT. Ten years later, they moved to a much larger space of 3,000 sq. ft. on Audio Lane, and remained there for 29 years. And, in 1962, Mackey bought out his partner and became sole proprietor of HB Communications.

It was also in 1947 that Barron became involved with the National Audio Visual Association was born (NAVA --the predecessor to ICIA) and Barron taught classes at the association's University of Indiana location. (In fact, Barron has missed only two out of 57 NAVA and InfoComm tradeshows and has served on the ICIA Board of Governors.)

Changes in the market in the early 1960's brought a name change for the company. HB Education Systems, explains Barron, was more descriptive of our business. "The salesmen said 'we aren't in the motion picture business!'"

In the late 1970s, the market changed again and the company changed to accommodate it. The focus was now on audiovisual systems integration with all the engineering, drafting and technical resources required. In 1986, along with a move to new 17,200-sq.-ft. facilities, they became HB Communications.

Currently, HB Communications occupies a 90,000-sq.-ft. facility in North Haven, Connecticut with a satellite office in Boston. They represent virtually every ProAV manufacturer.

Barron's proudest moment in the AV industry was when he received the ICIA Distinguished Achievement Award for 1998/1999.

"I'm not a shy person," he says, "but when I'm being honored, I get very shy!"

For 27 years Mackey worked 85-90 hours a week making this business a success. "I had the messiest desk in the Industry and it was great."

His proudest feeling, however, is giving back, any way he can. "Whether through service or teaching or giving money or telling a joke," he says, "being able to give back some of the pleasures I've received from being in this industry is what makes me proud."

He loves what he does, he says, which means he doesn't mind going to work or staying the extra hour (or hours).

He's seen more change in the industry than most. "At one time, the industry was about personal sales calls and individual selling," he says. "It's also evolved from a mechanical industry to analog to digital. Now, many organizations buy as a consortium so the selling process, and who makes the buying decisions, has changed.

"Another change is people buying over the Internet, but lots of these buyers get burned because they can't get service."

He worries about the current economy. "1.2 million people graduated this month," he says. "Where are these people going to get jobs? And as far as our industry goes, unless someone has a background in finance or a good financial team, they won't be around too long. The Internet buying, the low margins, lower than they can afford, are making conditions dire."

On the bright side, says Barron, the world's concern with security is making the home theater market boom.

What is remarkable and unusual about Barron (as if the above weren't enough!) is his ability and dedication to keeping up with and tackling technology and market changes - consistently - through 65 years in the business.

"You know, lots of people who helped me have passed on," says Barron, "and I think about all the people who put their time and effort into making this industry grow. I'd like to someday put together a booklet on the history of AV and make sure that the people now coming into the industry know there were a hell of a lot of us doing a hell of a lot of work to get it where it is today. The industry moves fast and it will move faster, but someone was there to build the pyramid base."

One thing that doesn't change? History, itself.

"Fifty-two years after I was shot down, I went back to Denmark where my plane crashed," says Barron. "Not only did we find parts of my plane, we met people who saw us crash, people who were 10 years old at the time and are now 62 who told us all about what they saw. I also met the Danish underground official who received the goods I dropped that night."

Although he didn't get a chance to see the pilot from that fateful night in 1944, he says it's still a trip he will never forget.

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