New Town’s Buffalo Wild Wings looked no different than it would any other night at 6 p.m. on Friday.
The mounted televisions lining the dining area aired tennis, golf, and drag racing before the evening’s lineup of college football games kicked off. Arcade games rang and beeped as a wave of dinner guests began to fill the restaurant.
One change that night would only have been noticeable to the bar’s regulars and staff. A white-haired woman named Mari Barb was seated at a table instead of her regular seat at the center of the bar. The chocolate birthday cake a friend and neighbor had ordered sat in front of her. As she awaited the arrival of guests, she shrugged off prompts to reflect on her age.
“Ninety-seven is a long time,” said Barb. At her age, she says, “you live one day at a time.”
Barb was born in France in 1919, the same year the First World War ended. Barb explained she fought against the Nazis during the Second World War. Serving in the French Resistance, Barb says she helped Jewish families and Allied pilots evade the Nazis in conquered French territory. Her life is so storied, a journalist from New York once set out to write a book about her, she said.
When meeting someone new, Barb proudly displays her business card, which is red, white and blue and lists her occupation as a “Veteran of Foreign Wars.”
While her friends are familiar with her past, the Mari Barb they know today is the most loyal customer at New Town’s Buffalo Wild Wings. On any given night she can be found sitting at the bar playing trivia, making new friends and greeting old ones.
“I come here to pick up food to-go sometimes, and I see her and I end up staying three hours,” said Dave Detert. He said he met Barb at the restaurant and comes back once or twice a week to check in on her.
Her patronage has earned her unlimited glasses of free iced tea from the restaurant. Buffalo Wild Wings also gave her a birthday present in the form of a gift card for $98- one dollar for every year of her life, and one for good measure.
“I come here because it is not too far from my house,” said Barb. “I don’t cook anymore, because if I do, I forget to turn the oven off.”
Her memory may not be as strong as it was while she was younger, but her eyes still light up whenever she sees a familiar face, and there were many of those at Buffalo Wild Wings Friday night.
As old friends arrived to wish Barb well, the 97-year-old walked around the restaurant giving away slices of birthday cake to patrons she had never seen before.
“She’s never met a stranger,” was the refrain from her friends, including Jan Mitchell, who has known Barb since she was a toddler.
“I would go to her house and visit,” said Mitchell. “There were no other kids there. She just had a spirit about her and a pull among the kids. She was our pied piper, in a good way. We’d fight to see who could hold her hand.”
Whether she is known to them as the Pied Piper, Trivia Champ, Mother Hen, Third Grandma, Miss Mari, or Miss Williamsburg, those who know Barb say she is among the most popular and beloved people they’ve met.
“She’s loved everywhere she goes,” said Tommy Turner of Williamsburg.
Turner has compiled a short history of Barb’s long life, which included working in Saipan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and stops in India and Cuba, before settling in Williamsburg at Camp Peary.
Barb married her husband, Jim Barb, in 1945, and the two worked for the CIA after the war, Turner said. Jim Barb died in 1988 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone lists him as a Major in the U.S. Army, serving in WWII through the Vietnam War.
The couple’s line of work took them around the world, Barb said. She claims to be fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Mandarin.
Barb still has friends outside of Virginia, as evidenced by the phone calls she received Friday night from friends as far as Australia. Others sent birthday wishes through Facebook, which were shared by nearby friends with smartphones.
“Lots of people came, and from everywhere,” said Barb. “Lots of people called from all over.”
“I saw all my buddies.”