Oskaloosa alum inspiring classmates more than five decades later
by Dennis Sharkey
More than 55 years later, Ross Barton is still inspiring his classmates.
Last month the Oskaloosa High School class of 1956 honored Barton at their 55th reunion for his accomplishments in life and for overcoming some major obstacles.
Barton grew up on a farm north of Oskaloosa where he helped his parents operate a farm. In the spring of 1951 when he was 13 years old, Barton dreamed of what high school would be like next year and yearned for his opportunity to play football and basketball.
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Barton’s life changed in 1951 the summer between his eighth-grade and freshman year in high school.
That year a great flood devastated Topeka and the surrounding areas. He believes that is where he contracted the disease polio. Barton’s simple plans for the next year were erased.
“I thought, ‘Next year I get to go play football,’” he said.
Barton would spend more than two months at Stormont-Vail Hospital recovering. But one day at the hospital has stuck in his head for 60 years.
A man named Dr. Trees came to see Barton in his room. He remembers a very tall intimidating man with a thick beard and gruff voice.
“‘You will never walk again,’” Barton said the doctor told him. “It was kind of bleak. They didn’t give me much promise for walking.”
The challenges Barton would face going to high school were mostly physical. He said he felt accepted by his classmates, many of whom he had known most of his life.
“Going to a small school like that was probably the best thing that could have happened,” he said. “They didn’t really think anything was different.”
Even though Barton never got to play football or any other sports, he did face some extraordinary physical challenges that his classmates did not.
The old Oskaloosa High School was two stories and many classes were on the second floor. Every day Barton would climb the stairs with his crutches and his books.
Classmate Gary Parker said he amazed students at the school.
“Most athletes that are honored are outstanding because of points and everything they do,” Parker said. “You don’t have to make points and you don’t have to score goals to be a good athlete.”
Parker said Barton was also remarkable because he never asked for help. But he urges the class of 2011 to take notice of everyone, especially those who struggle with everyday challenges that most people take for granted.
“Observe what’s going on around you,” he said. “Don’t take people for granted.”
Classmate Dorothy Knudsen said not only did Barton not ask for help but he also displayed a will to succeed.
“To me he’s quite an inspiration for anybody,” she said. “If just one kid can realize that you can get an education if you are determined.”
Knudsen said most kids today would quit in the face of the adversity that Barton faced.
“Most kids today don’t know what it’s like to work,” she said. “If they had to go up a flight of steps on crutches every day they would probably say, ‘I can’t do it.’ But to him that was never an option.
“Some people would call it bullheaded,” she added. “In his case it was good to be bullheaded.”
Knudsen said Barton’s approach to life made it easy to not feel sorry for him.
“You wanted to feel sorry for him,” she said. “But he did not want you to feel sorry for him. I don’t think then we realized what grit and determination he had.”
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Barton was not only a standout and a hard worker at school, he was also a valuable employee of the Oskaloosa Independent.
Barton was a classmate of a young man named Jonathan Barker. Barker’s father, Roger Barker, was a professor of psychology at KU and ran the Midwest Psychological Field Station that studied the effects of growing up in a small town. Jonathan’s mother, Mrs. Barker, took an exceptional liking to Barton and introduced him to John W. Roberts, the editor of the Independent.
Mrs. Barker convinced Roberts to give Barton a job. Throughout high school Barton worked at the Independent running a linotype and letter press.
“I’m sure when Mr. Roberts saw me on crutches he thought, ‘This guy can never run a linotype.’”
Barton said having the job was one of the greatest things that could have happened to him. The job not only taught him independence, it allowed him to be independent.
Barton saved his money and bought his first car. A local mechanic outfitted the car with a hand shifter to operate the clutch.
It wasn’t long after being hired that Barton had to be put on a salary. Roberts would pay Barton five cents for every word he could linotype. After a few weeks Barton was producing more work than expected.
“He found out it was cheaper to pay me a salary,” he said.
Roberts saw a work ethic and drive in Barton and soon began mentoring him.
“He was real helpful,” Barton said of Mr. Roberts. “He’s the one who encouraged me to go to college.”
Mrs. Barker began taking Barton with her on trips to Lawrence. He said she instilled a belief that he could go to college.
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Barton’s experience at KU when he went to enroll was challenging. When he arrived one of the longest lines he had ever seen awaited him. Once he got to the end of the line after waiting on his crutches more hurdles awaited him.
“‘Oh, he went to that little school,’” Barton said two college kids told him as they looked him up and down. “‘He can’t do it.’
“I’m going to have to work real hard to show these folks I do belong,” Barton told himself. “It turned out to be the best motivation tool they could have given me.”
Barton said in hindsight the experience not only served as motivation but as a survival tool as well.
“I might have relaxed and had real trouble,” he said.
After graduating KU, a job offer took Barton to southern California where he spent 13 years working. While there he obtained a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California.
In 1974 Barton was looking through the L.A. Times and saw an advertisement from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency looking for electrical engineers. He applied, got the job and moved to Washington D.C. at the height of the Cold War.
Barton worked on some of the biggest projects the U.S. would use during the Cold War and still uses today.
CIA officials on a daily basis would monitor the Soviet Union through satellite images and later developed the spy drones that are used in modern day spying. He said on some occasions they would actually watch the Soviets test missiles.
Every day Barton and the rest of his team would prepare news stories for the President to read. The main job was to keep an eye on the Soviets.
“What was the opposition doing and are they doing anything we ought to know about,” he said was the focus.
Barton sites the drone plane program as one of the biggest projects that he worked on during his 25 years working full-time for the CIA. Eventually all his work was turned over to the Air Force.
Some items worked on are used in everyday life by Americans. Barton said “thumb drives” were developed for spies to quickly download information from computers.
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Barton has been retired from the CIA since 2000 but still serves as a consultant.
In 1990 while back in the area visiting his sister Barton contacted his former classmate Marie. Barton had divorced from his first marriage and Marie had been widowed. The two dated for one and half years before getting married.
The couple lived near Washington D.C. for 10 years and are now retired in Topeka. Marie still works part-time as a nurse.
Barton’s classmates were somewhat apprehensive about honoring him since he had lived such a modest life. Barton appreciated the recognition and said he was surprised.
“I was surprised that they felt that way because I always just felt like one of them,” he said. “I hope people can see that you can do things.”
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