The three who died were part of a family of caregivers from Nigeria that made a mark in school, in the neighborhood and at church.
A woman of few words, Lawunmi Olabisi-Barbington had much to celebrate. She was pursuing a law degree. Her family was thriving. Her son was the most popular student in his class, Anoka High School’s principal said.
“Maybe this isn’t possible in our homeland of Nigeria,” her sister Tope Ifonlaja said Tuesday, on the eve of Olabisi-Barbington’s 47th birthday. “But in Minnesota, my family lives the American dream.”
In an instant, that dream was shattered when the family’s van was struck on Interstate 94 in north Minneapolis by a vehicle that had been in a collision. The van rolled several times, and three family members were killed — Olabisi-Barbington; her son, Seun Eperutolu-Barbington, 16, and the family’s matriarch, Modupe Olabisi, 80.
Now, a community that includes a high school student body, a Coon Rapids neighborhood and a south Minneapolis church must rally around a still-proud and deeply religious family.
At Anoka High School, where Seun Eperutolu-Barbington participated in football and track, Principal Mike Farley visited with each of Seun’s classes, trying to console students and sharing stories about a kid whom Farley said he visited with an average of a half dozen times a day.
“Everybody knew Seun — and I mean everybody,” Farley said. “He was the kid who would give you his jacket if you didn’t have one. He was the kid you wanted to be around.
“If I was having a rough day, Seun was the one kid who would approach me and say, ‘Mr. Farley, you OK?’ I’d run into Seun during football season when he was doing a lot of weightlifting and he’d say, ‘Mr. Farley, you won’t believe how much I bench-pressed today.’
“This kid was so full of life. He was a magnet. Everyone wanted to be with Seun, Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.”
A sophomore, Seun dreamed of going to college and recently visited Minnesota State University, Mankato, even though he was still two-plus years from finishing high school.
His mother stressed the importance of school to all of her kids, Ifonlaja recalled. Olabisi-Barbington — Ola to neighbors and friends — held a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota and was evaluating law schools before her unexpected death, her sister said.
Loved the Twin Cities
It was the University of Minnesota that brought the family here from Nigeria. Another sister, who now lives in Arizona, attended the university 35 years ago. Siblings who visited her in the Twin Cities fell in love with the area. Twenty-five years ago, family members made the move. While a brother remains in Nigeria, Ifonlaja lives in Cottage Grove and the Barbington family moved to Coon Rapids.
John Akinbowale Barbington, 51, who was driving the van, remained in serious condition after the crash that took his wife, son and mother-in-law. He was known in his neighborhood as a “caregiver,” next-door neighbor Judy Johnson said. A former emergency medical worker, he now cares for adults for a Brooklyn Park agency.
His mother-in-law, Olabisi, was a nurse practitioner in Nigeria but never got her license here, Ifonlaja said.
“But everyone knew she was there if you needed here, ready to mend your troubles,” Ifonlaja said. “My mother was Grandma to the world. She talked to everyone.”
But Ola, often reserved, made a great impact using few words.
She was involved in another accident on I-94 in Minneapolis 19 years ago. Her car was struck by a drunken driver, and she lost the use of one of her arms, her sister and neighbors said.
“She learned to go on without it,” Johnson said.