EPS 114 – Meet “Mayor Phil” Barker

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Hear the story …

"Mayor Phil" Barker of Havre de Grace, photo from his facebook pageBorn in Salisbury, MD in 1934, Phil Barker never expected to go to college. Although poor, his childhood was rich in experiences. He and his friends were creative and ambitious. Listen as he shares the story of learning to drive – literally – while taking his driver’s test! Do you know what ‘doffing’ is… keep listening.

Entering the Army toward the end of the Korean War, he discovered that he had the ability to learn a language – and chose Russian. He worked for the Army Security Agency*.

*Human resources (1945–65)

The ASA, during the majority of the years of its existence, was largely a “Cold War” operation. ASA enlisted troops were usually recruited
from those scoring in the top 2% of scores in aptitude tests given during initial induction.

Click the link for a bit of history on the ASA and it’s role in Korean War!

He returned to DuPont in Seaford, Delaware following his Army years and soon realized he wanted more than factory work. Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he entered college at Salisbury. Oh… there’s much more. He played baseball, married and had two children, and enjoyed a 31-year career with J.M. Huber Corp. in Havre de Grace. When his children were in their late teens, he married “Charlie” (May) whom he lost in 2013 to cancer after a long fight. He and “Charlie” actually had a couple small business in historic downtown Havre de Grace, were both professionals, both enjoyed actively participating in community organizations, and they loved to travel.

Phil Barker of Havre de Grace, photo from his facebook pagePhil Barker has been active in many community organizations since moving here in 1961 as well as having spent a total of 8 years on city council, was Mayor of the CIty of Havre de Grace, and also sat on the Harford County Council.Though not born here, he gave great energy to our city and is a wonderful thread in the tapestry of our community!

This is only an excerpt. In the full length interview, he discusses his love of writing and the three novels he’s authored, the ups and downs of running for public office, his desire to major in Law and the path life took him in relation to this dream, and more.

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(c)2016 Thriving Owl Publ. Ellie Mencer, 343 Green St., Havre de Grace, MD


Philip J. Barker

Born:  9/24/1934     Interviewed:  12/7/2016 w/Ellie


I was born in Salisbury, MD on September 24, 1934. I remember we lived in a house on West Isabella Street. In fact my brother (Levin) and I were just talking about it. We were looking at pictures of us when I was a baby. My mother always told me that I was chubby; I weighed 10-1/2 pounds when I was born.

When I was a year and half or two years, I was playing with the girl next door. She got whooping cough. My mother said, “You got the whooping cough and lost all your weight. You’ve been skinny ever since.”

Your brother is older than you? Yes, he’s 86.

I grew up there in Salisbury. One memory that pops in my mind, in my day of being a youngster on the west side of town in Salisbury, we had lots of kids in the neighborhood. We all played together, football in each other’s yard, crazy things. We had woods all around us. In those days we would be aggressive enough that we’d go find vines in trees and cut them and swing on them. You know, like Tarzan! We’d build platforms. We were just kids.

We didn’t have computers, iPhones and all that stuff. We had television. But we played together all the time, went to school together.

We were ambitious children. We all had bicycles. We’d all go to the store there in town that sold old Army equipment. Every one of us had a canteen and we bought a portable stove. We’d take off! We’d ride out to the country and camp out. We were just small kids – grade school.

In one area we had a sand quarry, and we’d go skinny dipping in those old ponds that filled up with rain water. We ice skated constantly. In my days, when we were young, we had colder weather. Every kid ice skated. We’d fall in the water, we’d come out. We just didn’t seem to have any problems that seem to manifest themselves today. Everyone walks around now with the thing (phone) in their face, no communication.

Most all of us were on the poor side, but we had a lot of fun. We really enjoyed children’s activities.

(Were these just boys?)

Well, (chuckle) we had one girl. She was a tomboy! But we all got along, played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and all that stuff. My brother and I used to go to the movies. My mother gave us a quarter. We both were ushers at the movies later on, just to make a couple bucks.

Our family never had a car. We walked home at night, no one bothered us. It was a nickel to get into the movie. Every Friday night was a cowboy movie. Then you had 20 cents left over to buy a candy bar and a bag of popcorn.

In high school in my senior year, I worked at the Boulevard Theater just to have money to go to the prom, buy a ring, and all that stuff. Without a car, we just walked or we had to get a ride with someone else. When Levin graduated from high school, he went to work for a printer, who printed newspapers, small business. He made a little money and that’s how we got our first television. Later on, he bought this old 1941 Dodge, huge old car. But it was car! We could travel!

When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to have some of these things my senior year. So I went to work at the Boulevard Theater.  I’d walk from home to school 2 miles, then back home. Then back to the theater where I worked. Then back home a mile and a half after the movie. I did that for a year. No worse for the wear, really!

My brother went into the Air Force and left the car. He said, “Mom, you can use the car.” I went to get my driver’s license. I’d never driven a car in my life. I borrowed a car from my cousin. I borrowed that particular car because it was a small car, only a 2-seater. I’d never driven before in my life. I took the written test and passed. I’d studied for that.

Then he said, “Let go for a ride.” This is stick shift. I didn’t know how to do this. In those days you also had to use hand signals. Once around the block at the Old Armory in Salisbury, I remember he said, “Pull over here. You’re not doing so well.” My father was with me. When we pulled over, my father was standing there. This guy knew my dad. He got out and started talking with my father. They ran a nice conversation and I’m just sitting in the car. He finally said, “Okay, let’s go.” He gave me some instructions and then he said, “Park the car.” I parked the car somehow. I remember I hit the curb twice. Then we walked into the Armory and he said, “Okay, you got your license.”

Then after I learned, I was able to drive my brother’s big old car. I could drive it to the theater and back at night and some other occasions. It was a matter of understanding the car.  I remember it burned oil like crazy. In that old car, you had to lift up the floor board. The oil depository was underneath the seat not under the hood. I’d buy oil and fill it up.

Children are way ahead of us today, they all have cars.

It was quite an experience. My transportation was feet and legs.

 (Activities in school)

Yeah, pat myself on the back; I was a good baseball player. I played intramurals football and basketball. I played baseball on the school team. I was 17 when I got out of high school. After I went to work and was working shift work, I wanted to play baseball. I got to know somebody in Pittsville. I signed the contract to play bi-county league for Pittsville. The only trouble was I was working at DuPont – shift work. We played all our games on Sunday. Some weeks I’m working 4-midnight. Some weeks I’m working graveyard – midnight until 8 a.m.

I was a pitcher and was pretty good. I remember it was a close game. I hit the umpire with a baseball. I didn’t mean it. The catcher missed it. But he was aggravated. But it was a tough game. Every strike had to be a ‘strike’!

Now Seaford Delaware was twenty miles away. I’ve got to get to work at 4 o’clock. I started the game at 1. So I’m pitching as long as I possibly can. Then about 3 I’d say, “Well, I’ve got to go to work.” The coach would say, “Okay, you got to go work, you got to go to work!” The relief pitcher would come in. I’d go to my car and change into clothes for work. I did that a whole summer! But I enjoyed it.

Working at DuPont and Enlisting in the Army

I enlisted when I got out of high school. Our family was poor to put it mildly. I had no thought of going to college, so I went to work. I got a job at E.I. DuPont, the Nemours Co., in Seaford DE and they made nylon. This was 1952. Korean War was winding down. DuPont came to our high school and interviewed students who weren’t going to college. So they hired me. I graduated and the next week I was working in their factory. My entry level job was a custodian, sweeping floors and keep the place clean. The machinery was constantly kickin’ out oil and such.

I stayed there a year and half working my way up to Group 1, Group 6. I’m now running the machines. We called it ‘doffing’, removing the yarn from the machines. At that time the foreman came to me and said, “You know, Phil. The war is going to stop. We’re going to be cutting back making nylon. I think you’ll get laid off in a couple months.”

I said, “Well, okay.” It was still war time by all government standards. So I thought, well, if I’m going to be drafted at one time or another, I might as well sign-up. My foreman said, “Well, if you go into the military, the Army or wherever, your job is secure. You can come back to it.”

So I enlisted in the Army. I took a lot of tests and qualified for the Army Language School in California. That’s when I studied Russian for a year. Then went overseas and did my job.

(Did you take a language in school?)

No. I never had a language. I was a good student. I was on the honor roll. When I was in college, after the Army, I was on the Dean’s List. I just happened to pass a crazy test related to English, English language, grammar, etc. They asked what languages you want, I said, “Japanese.” My brother was over there at the time in the Medical Corps in the Air Force. So I signed up for that. They said, “Well, you qualify for this and that…”

So I went to Fort Devens, MA first to attend their Morse Code School. When I got there, I was in the casual  company waiting several months to go to school, as a casual soldier with nothing to do, I’m now a custodian there. I took care of the bathrooms – latrines as we call them. I realized I didn’t want to keep doing this.

So they gave us this other test and I passed it. It was for the Army Language School in California. When they got enough soldiers together, they brought an airplane in – military air. They flew us from Boston to Monterey, California. It took us 36 hours. It was storms the entire way. It was a propeller driven thing. We landed 11 times just to get across the country. This was in 1954. The Armistice was signed sometime after that.


When I got out of the Army, I went back to work. I decided I had the GI Bill and didn’t want to work in this plant the rest of my life. So I quit! I walked into the Salisbury State Teachers College. Fine! Sign here. It was that easy. The cost of going to school there was very nominal I was getting $115/month from the GI Bill for going to school.

That’s what brought me to Havre de Grace. My freshman year there were several people from Havre de Grace that were going to school there. I was older than them. I met my first wife my freshman year. (Juanita Gordy) We fell in love and all that stuff and decided to get married the summer between my freshman and sophomore year. We had our sophomore year in Salisbury. Then I went to the University of Maryland (College Park) in my junior year.

My son Kevin was born there my junior year. We lived in an Army barracks. In those days behind Fraternity Row were old Army barracks for Veterans. Cheap. We had a little bathroom and one small room. There were about 6-7 barracks there. We were all living hand-to-mouth, trying to get our education.

The guy who lived above us was working on his PhD. We’re still friends today. He lives in Williamsburg, VA. He taught a class in Biology, so he had an office. Kevin was sick as a baby. So I used to go with this guy to his office every night and study for 2-3 hours. Then came back to our little place and slept on our hide-a-bed. We survived that two years.

My wife was Juanita Gordy. Her parents lived on Otsego Street. The house is still there.

As Mayor, Phil enjoys the creation of a sister-city in Estonia

When I was mayor, I was retired. But I loved it. Best job there is.I was very content doing the job of mayor.

In year 2000, I went to Estonia. That was one of those things that I was allowed to do as Mayor. Plus those from Estonia came to Havre de Grace. Pastor Ed (Heydt) from the Methodist Church went over. We became sister-cities, Sillamae and Havre de Grace. It was such an exciting trip. Plus I met every mayor of every town over there. That was my job.

Their mayor and I got together during this little visit. What attracted me to this was the Maryland National Guard had an attaché there. My driver, a Colonel in the Guard, had been an attaché at one time. MD National Guard in Estonia, they were celebrating their 10th anniversary of being free of the Soviet Union (the Baltic States – Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia)

(What made you pick Estonia?)

They picked it, that National Guard picked it.

The Maj. General James A. Adkins of the Nat’l Guard, he and I were friends. So he called me one day in the office and said he’d like for me to represent the City of Havre de Grace at the celebration. He said I’ll send the Colonel; he’ll pick me up and go with me. He’ll drive me around to all the communities in Estonia.

Estonia was a backward country as the Soviet Union had been harsh. When I finally got to Sillimae, you could see, it was built by the Russians. You could see the architectural influence: big, old, concrete, cinderblock buildings, people crammed into them. They had built Sillimae to develop uranium for atomic energy because it was right on the water. Russian and Estonia were separated by the body of water. I wanted to go across the bridge, but I didn’t have a Visa.

I wanted to go into the Soviet Union. When I graduated from language school in the Army,
newspapers in the Soviet Union had my picture with my name, rank and serial number:
another  “Amerikanskiy Shpion” – American Spy!

To explain: when we graduated from Language School, they told us we could never go into the Soviet Union.

The vice President of Estonia and I went to a middle school dance. I took pictures of Havre de Grace and a banner of the Baltimore Orioles because in one class they had a big poster for Yankees. (Laughter) It was quite a trip, so interesting.

(What kind of conversations do you have in a trip like that?)

We were trying to teach them, or show them, illustrate to them American life. And I was trying to learn what they were doing. How they handle the politics of the area. Some of their councils were huge! Basically it was to show friendship and concern. In Sillimae, the mayor there and I wanted to be sister cities. It’s a matter of exchanging ideas and thoughts. Plus we got to see historical things, churches and other places that were historical in nature.

(You don’t have memories of the Race Track?)

Well I have memories because when I got here, racing had stopped. But the National Guard was out there and still is. And organizations then used the main grandstand, that was enclosed, for all the big parties. Like the Elks Lodge, for example, they had their big charity ball out there every year – 2 big bands, music would never stop, hundreds of people would go out there all dressed up in tuxedos and gowns.

© 2016 Thriving Owl Publ.,  Ellie Mencer, 343 Green St, Havre de Grace, MD
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