It was a deep, gliding voice on the other end of the line.
“Hi Nick. It’s Bob Barker.”
I was sitting in my Jeep in a picturesque little parking lot overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, and one of the greatest entertainers the world has ever known had just called my phone. For a once timid and soft spoken boy from Saint Paul, it took me a moment to adjust. “Surreal” doesn’t quite describe what it feels like to take a phone call from such an icon in the world of entertainment and animal rights, but the first time I heard his throaty, familiar laugh, I was at ease. I immediately knew that laughter was one of the keys to his success in life.
Bob Barker is known best for hosting The Price is Right, North America’s longest-running game show of all time, between 1972 and 2007. But these days, at 92 years of age, you’ll find him speaking out for animal rights in newspaper, television, and radio interviews. “For me,” he says, “It’s not work. It’s pleasure. I thoroughly enjoy doing anything that is helpful to animals and get more satisfaction from it than almost anything else I do.”
I feel sorry for people who don’t love animals
As a young kid growing up in the tiny town of Mission, South Dakota, Bob Barker was, as he calls it, a “busy boy,” selling the Minneapolis Tribune and Denver Post, among various magazines, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation where he lived with his mother, Tilly. To this day he speaks with pride about his mom.
At the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, Tilly was a young, unemployed widow in Missouri with a six-year-old son. After her husband died she moved to Mission to look for work, eventually finding a job as a teacher at the public high school. She worked her way up to principal and ultimately became the county superintendent of schools, he remembers with a chuckle. While there, she wrote a history of South Dakota called “Our State,” a book for the sixth grade. Years later when Barker was the host of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, several contestants from South Dakota told him they had studied his mother’s book. “It warmed the cockles of my heart. It really did,” he beamed.
Her love for animals left an indelible mark. Most young children have a natural fascination and love for animals, but over time that sentiment tends to erode under the weight of deeply rooted societal and parental pressures. Given the right environment, though, that fascination naturally flourishes and can provide the foundation for compassion later on in life.
“I was one of millions of people,” he says, “who are just born with a love for animals.” “I have always loved animals,” he continues, “and when I was a kid, I used to pick up strays and in my amateurish way, I helped animals that were injured, and so on. Actually, I feel sorry for people who don’t love animals because they miss one of the very nice parts of life.”
I had never done anything in front of an audience in my entire life
After the eighth grade, his mother remarried, and back they went to Missouri. He spent his high school and college years in Springfield, deciding later to focus on economics not because he loved it or even liked it, but because he thought “…it would be good to know something about economics.” He genuinely had no idea what he wanted to do for a living.
With one year left of college, Barker joined the Navy as a fighter pilot during World War II, buying himself some precious time before he had to decide what to do for the rest of his life. When he got his wings, he married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Jo.
Out of the navy, Barker was eager to get back to civilian life. With one year left in college and a brand new bride, he set out to find a part-time job. Catching wind of a local radio station manager who was crazy about airplanes, he figured, “…if he loves airplanes, he might like to have a former fighter pilot work for him. So I put on my naval officer’s uniform and my wings of gold on my chest, and I went in and met G. Pearson Ward.” And so began his unlikely rise to international fame. “I had never even thought about getting a job at a radio station. I had never been in a radio station. I had never been in a school play. I had never been a debater. I had never done anything in front of an audience in my entire life, and I got this job.”
Barker’s storied career followed a course most actors in Hollywood could only dream of. But he looks back on several strokes of good luck not so much as luck, but as a blessing from above. “I made a very good living,” he said, “doing something that I had no idea I could do, and I am very grateful to the good Lord.”
He went about learning as much as he could about the radio business, and being that he worked for a small station, he had the opportunity to do just about everything. “I did news. I did sports. I was a commercial staff announcer. I wrote local news. You name it, I did it.” One day the host of a daily audience participation show didn’t come in. Ward came rushing in where Barker was working and said, “Bob, you’ve got to go in there and do that show.” Without hesitation he jumped up, ran into the studio and grabbed the microphone. “I talked to this first lady, and she said something. I made my reply and I got a big laugh. I thought, ‘Oh, I like that. I’m going to try to make them laugh some more,’ and I did. I thank the good Lord that that host didn’t show up that day, or I might never have known that I could do audience participation.”
When he got home, Dorothy Jo was beside herself. She had heard the show. “Barker,” she said, “that’s what you should do. You did that better than you’ve ever done anything else.” “She didn’t say I was good,” he jokes, “just that I did it better than I’ve ever done anything else.” With wind in their sails, they set out from that day on to get a national show. After a stint as a news editor and announcer in Palm Beach, Florida, Barker picked up and moved to California without a job. “I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a contact of any kind, and I was the right candidate to star. A lot of guys come out here working in restaurants or something. I came out here, and believe it or not, within a couple of weeks Dorothy Jo and I had a show on a local station, and from that we went right on up until I had a national show.”
Bob Barker once lavished his wife with furs. Today he’s one of the world’s most prominent animal rights activists
In this day and age when opinions fly unfettered across our social networks, it can be easy to lose sight of how effective a more subtle, soft approach can be in our effort to change hearts and minds.
“People have mistakenly said that [Dorothy Jo] was an animal rights activist, and I became one as a result. That is not accurate,” he clarifies. “She was never an animal rights activist, but she influenced me simply by the way she lived. For example, I had bought furs for her over a period of time. She stopped wearing them. I bought leather jackets for her, and again, she stopped wearing them. She became a vegetarian. I became more and more impressed with how she was living, and eventually joined her. I became a vegetarian.”
There were no impassioned pleas, no heated arguments over the rights of animals. She simply led by example, and Barker never had a reason to defend his way of life. He simply saw a woman living in alignment with her values, and that inspired him to do the same.
We’ve made such tremendous strides
That was in the 1970’s, and a lot has changed since then. I was curious to know how he has seen the role of men in animal protection change over time. “When I first really became active on behalf of animals, there were certainly more women than men involved. But today, it seems to me that there are far more men involved in the movement than there once were. I was pleased when I realized that more and more men were becoming involved.”
“I describe the animal rights movement like a huge snowball that’s at the top of a mountain rolling down, and it’s getting bigger and bigger and moving faster and faster all the time. We’ve made such tremendous strides. I think that the media has played a huge part in that. The thing that we have to accomplish can be summed up in one word: Awareness. People just are not aware of the animal suffering and the homeless treatment until we bring it to their attention, and we do that through the media.”
For those inspired to expand their circle of compassion, live in better alignment with their values, and become better men, Barker has a few words of advice. “If you want to be healthy and have a long, active life, become a vegetarian as early as you possibly can. I think you’re going to feel better as a vegetarian. I think you will get more done as a vegetarian. I think you’ll enjoy life more as a vegetarian. If you’re really interested in helping animals, go in and volunteer for a shelter. There are countless things you can do , like work on a fundraising campaign or help walk dogs. Go through and see those poor animals in those cages who look up at you and know that if you don’t help them, or if someone doesn’t help them, they’ll be euthanized. And of course, if you can afford it, you can help financially.”
I could tell his mind was churning; that he wanted to push just a little further. As a 92-year-old man who has been an animal rights activist since the 1970’s, he’s not afraid to push the envelope a bit further than some would like. “Go on,” I said.
“They say that 70% of homes in the United States have at least one pet, and so it would seem that people do indeed love animals. But many of them love their pet, yet don’t realize how other animals are suffering. Making them aware is so important.”
And that’s precisely what he’s doing.
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