By Amy Wenk
Sitting in her Buckhead condominium among family photos and intricate rugs she created, Susan Kessler Barnard shared her credo: “Life is like a ladder.”
The 71-year-old Atlanta native explained: “You never know where it is going to lead you. Each rung is a new opportunity that you can’t be afraid to reach for.”
For her, the climb has led unexpected experiences.
After some struggles in grade school and 25 years as a surgical assistant, she never guessed she would write three history books.
“I didn’t like history,” said Barnard, who lived on Habersham Road as a child. “When I was coming up, they taught it by dates and places. But history is people and events that take place during a particular period. They are teaching it backwards. They are not teaching it to be alive for the student. I thought it was terrible.”
When she began traveling in the 1970s, research suddenly came to life for her.
“In order to get anything out of (the trip), I decided that I would start reading about the places that I was going to,” Barnard said. “Every trip I went on, I had pages of notes. It made me understand what was significant about the city or a temple or an artifact in a museum. I wanted to know more about it. I wanted to read more about it.
“So that’s what sparked my interest, the traveling. That’s when my education started. My education stopped in school and started as an adult when I started traveling, reading and studying.”
That newfound appreciation, combined with a commitment to the community, led to her writing success.
In 1993, she published her first book, “This Is the Church Being the Church,” a history of Atlanta’s First Presbyterian Church that she co-authored with minister Harry Fifield.
Then came “Buckhead: A Place for All Time,” published in 1996 and recently reprinted through the Worldwide Alliance of Writers (www.wwaow.com).
“It’s a story of how a community really develops,” said the grandmother of four. “It’s also a genealogy of sorts.”
And this spring Barnard will unveil her third book, “Images of America: Buckhead,” a pictorial history of the community from the early 1800s to the building of Lenox Square.
Much like her medical career, Barnard’s journey to author began with volunteer work and sheer determination.
“I’ve always been active in the community,” said Barnard, who started volunteering at Grady Memorial Hospital at age 14, persuading doctors to train her in operating procedures. She ultimately became a certified surgical technician for Grady and Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs.
When she left the surgical field, she starting volunteering for the Tullie Smith House at the Atlanta History Center. Soon after, she landed a full-time job as a librarian at the Kenan Research Center. There she got her idea for “Buckhead: A Place for All Time.”
“I got to know, through doing research for other people, a little bit more about my community,” Barnard said. “People would come in from all over and even overseas, and they would say, ‘What is Buckhead?’ I thought, ‘You know, therein lies a story.’ So when I left the history center, I decided I would write this book.”
For two years Barnard researched the history of Buckhead, beginning with the Creek Indians, who first traversed Peach Tree Trail, now known as Peachtree Road. She conducted 125 interviews with descendants of early settlers.
“I didn’t know that I would come up with that many people,” she said. “I knew I wanted to reach a family member for all of the street names” in Buckhead, such as Howell, Moore, Pace, Ivey and Collier.
She was fascinated with the Irby/Hicks and Silas Donaldson families, who were some of the first settlers in the area. The name Buckhead was coined from Henry Irby’s tavern, a popular meeting spot where “somebody shot a buck and posted it on the door.”
The Donaldsons were prominent landowners along Powers Ferry and Roswell roads.
“They were crucial in writing this book,” Barnard said. “And they were crucial in my putting together the pictorial, because they are the ones that had so many of the early pictures.”
She also was excited to be the first to document the African-American communities that sprang up around Buckhead after the Civil War. Those areas included the New Hope village on Arden Road, where New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church remains; Bagley Park near Pharr Road; and Johnson Town across from Lenox Mall.
“This is the only book out that has done this,” she said.
Barnard’s new pictorial book is a compliment to “Buckhead: A Place for All Time” and will feature the same timeline, as well as many images of prominent early settlers.
“The changes in this community have fascinated me,” she said.
The book is being printed by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, which specializes in historical publications.