DisPatches, Spring 2009
George Alexander Barker, writer, 1925-2008
George Barker, long-time columnist for DisPatches and a “founding student” of College of Marin’s Adapted Physical Education Program, died this summer of pneumonia.
An accomplished writer and a noted bon vivant, George was born on the fourth of July in 1925 in Greeley, Colorado. At the age of 13, George contracted Western Equine Encephalitis from a mosquito bite, and the virus so severely ravaged his cerebral motor cortex that he suffered from extreme spastic quadriplegia for the rest of his life.
“My motor neurons play involuntary wrestling games,” he wrote in his memoir, “pitting opposing sets of muscles against one another, moving and straining them back and forth” – a sort of all-over isometrics which kept his entire body clenched, and made his speech extremely difficult to understand.
Upon his graduation from high school in 1943, George earned a scholarship to Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado), where he received a Bachelor of Science degree after only three years of study. Shortly thereafter, he moved with his father and stepmother, both professors, to Marin County, where he lived for most of the rest of his life, except for extended sojourns in Hong Kong and, much later in his life, Belize.
George’s early poetry was published in Saturday Review of Literature, and he worked as a book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, critiquing three or four books a week for five years.
In 1956, George moved to Hong Kong, prompted by his love of Chinese culture and people. While there, he wrote articles and book reviews for the San Francisco Examiner, and married a Cantonese woman named Mei Ying. However, they divorced not long after returning to Marin.
At that time, George began writing a nature column three days a week for the San Rafael (now Marin) Independent Journal, which ran for 19 years. He also reviewed books for Asian Student, a newspaper which he said had been founded by the CIA.
In 1961, George returned to Hong Kong, where he married a Hakka woman named Paulina Woo, but was again divorced not long after they moved back to Marin. In 1966, he again moved to Hong Kong, and remained there for three years, serving as the Hong Kong Correspondent for Business Digest.
In 1976, George visited the physical education complex at College of Marin to ask if he might use the weight training equipment there, and was delighted to discover that a brand-new exercise program for people with disabilities was being started.
“We felt that we were pioneers, searching for new paths to rehabilitation,” recalled George in a 1999 DisPatches column. “We had a spirit of comradeship that made the class almost like a social club.”
George was a guiding spirit and inspiration for the Adapted PE Program for the next 32 years, as the program grew from six students to well over 100. Once, when budget cuts threatened the program, he coordinated and led a sign-waving protest at a college board of trustees meeting, resulting in full support being restored. He also wrote the script for a promotional video of the program.
In his later years, George found technology which broadened his horizons, particularly in the forms of his electric wheelchair and computers, with their word processing capabilities.
“Until I got my Mac,” he wrote, “I was at a great disadvantage as a writer: my typing was painfully slow and I had to get everything right the first time. I fumbled around, trying to put paper in the typewriter with my hard-to-control spastic fingers. I couldn’t make notes in the margin and then add them when it was retyped. The computer enabled me to cut and paste and move paragraphs around and reorder sentences, and do the things necessary to good writing, just by working at the keyboard. Printing was simpler than typing my name.”
He continued his writing as a freelancer, selling articles on disability to Disability Today, and a steamy candid piece on sex and disability to Penthouse Forum.
George had a great love of travel, having visited Europe, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Central America in his youth, and making a grand tour of Greece, Egypt and Israel in his later years. He had a far-flung network of friends, new and old, who welcomed him wherever he went, due to his tremendous charm and sense of humor.
In 1996, George went to Belize to visit a Chinese-Belizean friend who had worked for him in Hong Kong decades earlier. Intrigued by the warmth, inexpensive living possibilities, and the charm of the Mayan people, he engaged his friend to build him a house.
In 1997, having sold off most of his belongings and said goodbye to his Marin friends, George moved to Belize, but the experiment was a disaster. His “friend” had not completed the house – it was little more than a roof, walls and a cement floor – and absconded with most of George’s money. The ancient telephone system in Belize didn’t allow for George’s computer to connect with the internet, and his anticipated email connection with the world was cut off. The woman he hired as a live-in caretaker moved her huge family into the door-less house, and iguanas scurried through at will. All of his valuables had to be kept locked in his van.
After several months, three of his friends flew to Belize and “rescued” him and his van, and he returned to Marin, where he found a “Section 8” government-subsidized apartment in Mill Valley, returned to College of Marin, portrayed himself in a play, and revised his recently published memoirs to include this last great sojourn.
With his indomitable spirit, love of adventure and unfailing good humor in the face of Herculean challenges, George Barker was a friend to many and an inspiration to all.
[George Barker’s memoir, Moon Gate Dreams: A Quest for Romance and Adventure Beyond the Moon Gate, is available for free from the editor of DisPatches: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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