"It’s not easy to be the wife of a politician," one friend tells PEOPLE of Rep. Andy Barr's wife Carol Barr. "She handled that part of it all with the same grace she handled everything"

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
June 23, 2020 03:30 PM

On June 13, Carol Russell heard someone calling her name and turned to see her friend and neighbor, 39-year-old Carol Barr, power walking toward her wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses.

The two chatted about how the novel coronavirus shutdown had been hard on Barr’s daughters, 9-year-old Eleanor and 7-year-old Mary Clay. “Being away from school, being away from their friends,” Russell recalls, “it was difficult for them.”

Barr also asked Russell training for marathons — and Russell offered to loan Barr several books, if she wanted to start running.

“She said, ‘But I’m 39.’ I said, ‘Carol, I didn’t run my first marathon until I was 47. So you’re not too old,’ ” Russell, 65, tells PEOPLE.

Three days later, Russell learned that Carol — the wife of Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr — had died in her Lexington home. The coroner later said Carol was in her home office and the cause of death appeared to be a heart condition called mitral valve prolapse (MVP).

When Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn arrived at the Barrs' home around 6:55 p.m. last Tuesday, he told PEOPLE, “there was no explanation” for why Carol had suddenly died. “Obviously, an autopsy was necessary,” Ginn said last week.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for people with MVP the heart's mitral valve has "floppy" flaps that may cause blood to "leak the wrong way."

“Have you heard of people talking about a floppy valve in the heart that doesn’t seal well and it allows blood to seep through?” Ginn explains. “That’s that valve.”

“We are all just so deeply saddened,” says Russell, who was unaware of Carol's health issue. “I woke up at 2:30 a.m. just shaken to the core. I just started crying because it’s such a huge loss for us all. All who knew Carol.”

Carol Russell (left) and Carol Barr
Carol Russell
From left: Carol Barr and her husband, Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr
Carol Russell
Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr (right), with wife Carol Barr, being congratulated by supporters after his 2012 election win.
Pablo Alcala/Lexington Herald-Leader/Tribune News Service via Getty

Raised in Georgetown, Kentucky, Carol went on to major in communications and information at the University of Kentucky and served on the advisory board for the College of Communication and Information. She was the executive director of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship and most recently worked for Pfizer.

In a statement released Wednesday, Rep. Barr, 46, said, “At this time of tremendous grief and pain, we ask for prayers for our beautiful, dear and precious Carol, the greatest, most selfless and giving wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend.”

“In this moment of profound grief and heartbreak," he continued, "we are so grateful for the gift and blessing of Carol’s life.”

Dan Bayens, 40, has known Carol since they went to college together. He remembers her being a popular member of the local chapter of the Tri Delta sorority. He also worked with her on her husband’s 2012 campaign ads.

“I really, really miss her. I know how much Andy loved her,” says Bayens, co-founder and creative director of Content Creative Media. “You just felt comfortable around her. She was extremely kind. She always had a smile on her face. But when she needed to be she was really, really tough too."

"It’s not easy to be the wife of a politician," Bayens says. "She handled that part of it all with the same grace she handled everything. ... Everyone feels a tremendous sense of loss. I think the whole community does.”

Carol was buried Monday after a memorial service earlier that day — 12 years and one day after she and Rep. Barr married, according to The Lexington Herald-Leader.

"This was not the plan," Rep. Barr said in his eulogy for his wife, the paper reported.

“The plan was to work hard, save the world, raise our kids right, sprint through the chaos,” he continued, “and then, when the time was right to finally reap the reward — catch our breath, at last, spend more time together and enjoy our lives traveling, laughing, loving together forever. That was our plan.”

Carol's friend Russell says the funeral service, which she watched remotely, "was absolutely beautiful and so stirring with emotion."

Rep. Barr said in his eulogy that marrying Carol was his life's best decision, according to the Herald-Leader.

"She loved Andy," Russell tells PEOPLE. "She was so proud of him and his work. She was his staunchest supporter."

Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr (right) next to his wife, Carol, and their daughters Eleanor and Mary Clay in 2018
Timothy D Easley/AP/Shutterstock

Nick J. Hines, a 49-year-old horse owner and TVG analyst better known as “the Sarge,” met the Barr family about 14 months ago: His horse won, and he invited the family to join him in the winner’s circle.

“You know when you look at people and you know they’re a happy family? It was the perfect day,” Hines says now. Carol's death “breaks your heart, it really does. ... She left us far too soon.”

As for Carol's neighbor, Russell looks back at pictures taken of herself and her friend when they attended a charity fundraiser March 7. And she thinks of their brief conversation the weekend before Carol died, with Carol smiling and enjoying the beautiful weather.

“She exuded goodness,” Russell says, calling Carol a "radiant spirit."

“It’s going to be a huge loss for Andy. She was a tremendous support to him in every way.”