Education

Pioneer at West High, former principal Edwin Barker dies at 91

Commitment to education had outsized impact in community

A sign designates Iowa City West’s soccer field as Ed Barker Field. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
A sign designates Iowa City West’s soccer field as Ed Barker Field. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — From West High’s green and gold to its proud academic tradition to its athletic facilities, Edwin “Ed” Barker still permeates the Iowa City school he helped open and lead for more than a decade.

And family and friends say the principles he followed will live on at the school where he was principal from 1968 to 1979, long after his death. Barker died Friday at the age of 91.

“The final meaning of principle is ‘an inward or personal law of right action; personal devotion to right; rectitude, uprightness, honorable character,’’ according to his son David Barker, who today is carrying on his father’s commitment to education by serving on Iowa’s Board of Regents. “There is no better description of Edwin Barker.”

Ed Barker’s principles of hard work, discipline, persistence and education were on display when he left his post atop a junior-senior high school in Boone to serve as the new West High School’s first principal.

The opening wasn’t without controversy, as some of the students ordered to leave the community’s sole high school at the time — City High — weren’t happy about it, according to an article in the West Side Story, the student newspaper.

Barker responded by giving students a strong voice in decisions affecting their new academic home — from the school colors to the classrooms and educational offerings. For excelling students, he debuted Advanced Placement courses. For those on the other end of the spectrum — those struggling academically — he opened “Room 20.”

“We had students who didn’t have a love for school,” Barker once told the student newspaper. “I wanted them to have a good education, and so we were in what was called Room 20.”

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Barker established a good rapport with the students and even took them on a cross-country trip — visiting the governor’s mansion in Lincoln, Neb.; the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan.; and Harry Truman’s childhood home in Independence, Mo.

After they returned, Barker decided Room 20 wasn’t big enough for the needs of that sector of his school’s population. He pushed to build what became “The Community Education Center.” That eventually evolved into Elizabeth Tate High School — meaning Barker played a role in sowing the seeds of two Iowa City high schools.

Although Barker was a principled man with strong disciplinary tendencies, his son said he led with an open mind — which was paramount to his success at a time in the 1960s of protests and political activism.

“What he had to do was decide which of his principles he could keep, and which things could change,” David Barker said. “He thought very carefully about this. What are the bedrock principles that we can’t change, and what are the things that we need to be flexible about?”

He stayed firm against things like cutting class, vandalism and showing disrespect to teachers.

But the younger Barker also told a story about the time his father suspended a student for violating the strict dress and grooming code by wearing his hair long.

“He talked with the student and he realized, ‘Well, you know, the student wasn’t trying to be rebellious or do anything disruptive; he just wanted his hair long,’” David Barker said. “And he thought about that and changed the dress code.”

Eventually Principal Barker grew a beard himself.

“He looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln,” his son said, noting his dad also relaxed a no-hand-holding policy.

Principal Barker’s two daughters and two sons attended West High with him at the helm, and his elder son recalled his dad’s decision to retire in 1979 — with his side business in real estate thriving. David Barker said he was working for the student newspaper when his dad decided to retire.

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“And he gave me the scoop, before the Press-Citizen or anyone else heard about it,” he said. “I think someone complained about it, and his secretary told the person, ‘Look, Mr. Barker is not going to let any educational opportunity go by.’ ”

Ed Barker left West High to focus on the real estate business he started with his wife, Ethel — but he never ventured too far from the school emotionally, or even physically, according to Jerry Arganbright, one of only three West High principals to succeed Barker.

Arganbright, the school’s longest-serving principal from 1983 to 2015, said Barker was among the first to welcome him to the job and the town when he was hired from a school in Nebraska. Barker had Arganbright over to his house for lunch.

“From that moment on, he was a good friend of mine,” Arganbright told The Gazette upon hearing of Barker’s death. “I’m disheartened to hear he passed.”

Arganbright said Barker — true to his upbringing as a hardworking, frugal Army veteran raised in the Depression era — was fiscally wise and persistent in his fundraising efforts.

When he started, Arganbright said, West High had classrooms, a cafeteria and a gym — but no outdoor facilities or other amenities.

“He had to scramble and work very hard to try to develop that school into the awesome school it is today,” Arganbright said. “I appreciated Ed’s hard work and advocacy all these years.”

Including his own philanthropy to West High, post-retirement. In 2012, Barker came to Arganbright and told him he wanted to donate back the sum of his salary over his 11 years at West — amounting to $270,000, according to Arganbright and an article in the West Side Story.

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That gift outfitted “Barker Field” with lights, bleachers, bathrooms and other amenities. But it was the gift of his presence that Arganbright remembers vividly.

“He would stop in and visit and offer his support,” he said. “He was a frequent face while I was there.”

After Barker’s retirement, he remained active in the Iowa City community, participating in Rotary and other civic and diplomatic activities, according to his younger son, Jim Barker.

Ed Barker participated in several American-Soviet Peace Walks, for example, and he took Jim along on one in 1989 — where Jim met the woman he wanted to marry.

“He just went to all kinds of effort to arrange for her to come to the University of Iowa,” Jim Barker said of his Ukrainian-born wife, echoing his older brother’s characterization of their father as an educator, businessman but foremost a father, grandfather and husband.

“He talked about the importance of family to me, when I was alone with him,” Jim Barker said of his final days with his father, who ended up in business with his two boys after leaving West High. “And how it’s important to spend time with your children.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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