October 16, 1987
In 1935, Gerry Barker was a junior at Ottawa University and Alf Landon was governor. On a night when Baker University played at Ottawa for the league basketball championship, Landon was in the stands. Ottawa won in the final seconds, and Barker was the star.
Later, Barker was just coming out of the shower when E. C. “Ernie” Quigley, who had refereed the game, came into the Ottawa dressing room and asked, “Where is that young man Barker?” Gerry stepped forward and Quigley said, “Hurry and get dressed. The governor wants to meet you.”
When they met, Landon congratulated him on the victory and on his efforts. Barker says today it was a high point of his career, and then some. It was the start of a long and enduring relationship.
In 1947, Barker went to work for radio station WREN, which had just been moved over from Lawrence. In 1952, Landon bought the station, and when he met the staff he looked at Gerry and asked, “Are you the Barker who played at Ottawa?”
Indeed he was, and he was sort of a marked man from then on. Landon called on him for all kinds of chores that didn’t exactly fall under his job description at the station.
For example, when Landon’s daughter, Nancy, married Phil Kassebaum, he called Gerry in and said he wanted to buy the newlyweds a new car. He told Gerry to go by “something nice.”
“I went down to the Pontiac place,” Barker said, “and picked out a real fancy station wagon. I pointed to it and told them I’d take it. Dale Sharp said fine, and asked how I intended to pay for it. I told him who it was for, and he just nodded, and that was that.”
Speaking of cars, Alf at the time was driving an old Nash Ambassador. It was a wreck, but he refused to trade it because it had a reclining front seat that he could sleep in when he visited the oil fields.
“You never thought much of cars,” Barker said. “he loved his horses and took really good care of them, but he thought of cars as just a necessary evil. They were just something you had to have to get around.
“One day, he called me and said I was going to drive him to Greenwood County, where he had a new well coming in. We took his old Nash. I remember it had a stick shift, with not even a knob on it. It was a rod sticking out of the floor.
“We drove to the well, and Alf immediately got out and started talking to the man. He loved that. It was late, and I went to sleep. Finally, about 4 a.m., he came to the car and said it was time to drive home, that the well had come in dry.
“He wasn’t upset. He just said you win some and you lose some. Then he went to sleep.”
Barker left WREN in 1956 to work for Washburn University, but his relationship with the Landons changed very little. One day this Mrs. Landon called him and said, “Alfred needs a new hat, Gerry. Please go to Cunningham-Shields and get him a new hat.”
“It was true,” Barker said, “that he always wore battered old hats, so I went to the store, and Phil Cunningham, John Shields and I guessed at the size and color. We must have guessed right, because he wore that hat for years.”
Landon called Barker one day and told him the Smithsonian in Washington wanted to do a portrait exhibit of “also-rans,” as Landon put it. They wanted pictures of unsuccessful presidential candidates, so AlF wanted Gerry to crate up a portrait of him and ship it.
Barker did it, and about six months later got another call from Alf. The picture was back at the Express office here, so would Gerry get it, uncrate it, and hang it back in the house?
So, Barker arrived at the front door one afternoon with the picture, and Mrs. Landon asked him to hang it back on its hook.
“I carried it into the room,” Barker said, “and Alf was there playing cards with Oscar Stauffer, Bob Peele and another man I can’t remember. I hung the picture, and Alf thanked me. On the way out, Mrs. Landon said she wished the card game would break up because, as she put it, ‘it is time for Alfred’s dinner.’”
What kind of man does Barker remember Landon to be?
“Well,” said Jerry, “there’s this: when I was still working for him at the station I was appointed to the school board – with his permission, of course. Then, one of our biggest advertisers let me know by innuendo, how I should vote as a school board member.
“I went straight to Alf, and told him the account might be jeopardized by my votes. Alf, in very strong language, told me to go back to the advertiser and tell him he could take his account and shove it, that I had the duty to vote as I saw fit, and fear nobody.”
Barker later was elected to the school board, and Alf told him with a laugh, “you should retire after this term. You could retire undefeated, and that’s a lot better than I did.”
The last time Barker talked to Landon was last December. As usual Lois, his wife, baked cookies for The Landons, and as usual, Gerry delivered them. But this time, he didn’t get there until Christmas Eve. Mrs. Landon invited him in and told “Alfred” that Jerry was delivering the cookies.
“It’s about time,” Landon said.
Landon scolded him one other time it was at a Washburn function and Alf, as usual, was trying to bum a cigarette and a light. Jerry said he had neither, and Alf said, somewhat scornfully:
“You’ve really gone to academic, haven’t you?”