Insanity is said to be doing the same thing, expecting a different result. By that measure, today’s culture is insane. Increasingly, we rely on an ipod or video game to help think and learn. Lacking: a voice of sanity to fight deviancing-and dumbing-down.
Recently, such a voice was hailed in Columbus, Mississippi, on the centenary anniversary of his 1908 birth. Walter Lanier (Red) Barber defined an age before cynicism, victim hood, and elbow-in-the rib scatology. Recalling it/him, we teach ourselves.
Barber won broadcasting’s Pulitzer, the George Foster Peabody Award; made six Halls of Fame, including baseball’s; and aired the 1934-66 Reds, Dodgers, and Yankees, a three-minute egg timer his reminder to give the score. Always Red seemed constitutionally unable to utter a prejudicial word.
The stickler for preparation was then introduced to a new generation on National Public Radio’s 1981-92 Friday Morning Edition, with then-host Bob Edwards, the Ol’ Redhead’s voice falling lightly on the ear. Bob and I spoke at this month’s birthplace bash. Dead since 1992, Red still shows how ethics are not situational; curiosity, passé; knowledge, not a belated nor transient taste.
First, he was unafraid to dream. The son of a teacher and locomotive engineer grew up in back country drawn by Ansel Adams. In 1929, Red, 21, hitchhiked to the University of Florida. One part-time job was cleaning a teacher’s boarding house. Another: reading his paper on campus radio. Barber had wanted to teach English. Finishing the paper, he was hooked on radio. “Remember Lot’s wife,” Red said. “Never look back.”
Second, Barber told the truth. The Greek Heraculitis said, ”A man’s fate is his character.” Broadcasting’s fare profited from Red’s character. Early Voices used wireless telegraphy to re-create a game. Most used sound effects to mask being in studio. Barber put the mike adjacent to the telegraph, amplifying the dot-dash. “That Barber,” said a Brooklyn cabby, “he’s too fair.”
Third, story-telling made the utterly inner-directed man an ultimate other-directed Voice. Like any anecdotist, Red pined to tie crowd and tale. Jesus made the inanimate, animate. Story. studded Lincoln’s narrative. Franklin Roosevelt invented a piano teacher to illustrate a theme. Barber added a rhythm ideal for radio’s, mythy and sweetly rural, knowing how yarn fills baseball’s – indeed, public speaking’s — core.
Finally¸ Red’s speaking flowed from reading Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty – all Mississippians. The mound became a “pulpit.” A listener heard “tearin’ up the pea patch,” then Carlyle and Thoreau. A runner advanced on a concomitant error”; the sky was “a beautiful robin-egg blue with … very few angels in the form of clouds”: there was a “rhubarb on the field.” Red was a distant cousin of writer Sidney Lanier. Hearing, you could tell.
“[We] have forgotten about the most beautiful thing I know next to human love, and that’s the English language,” he said, 25 years before a recent study that the typical 15-to-24 year-old averages seven weekday minutes on voluntary reading. Red read poetry, biography, and The Book of Common Prayer, aping Winston Churchill terming words bullets to use as ammunition. Churchill used words to thwart tyranny. Barber used them as ammunition to inform.
On Morning Edition, millions heard Red’s infinitives never split and tenses always match and participles never dangle. “Each Friday people’d delay when they left for work,” Edwards said. “Their world stopped for Red.” Depending on date and mood, he canvassed cats, cooking, or crape myrtle in his Tallahassee yard, once segueing from Geraldine Ferraro to Mary, Queen of Scotts, to caddies at the British Open. Time of discourse: three minutes. Barber skipped his egg timer.
“Red’s notion was that education continues,” Bob said. “A man who remembered when cars and airplanes were new inventions found some new marvel each day.” The real marvel never patronized, nor stooped to meet his audience. Instead, Barber asked it to rise, meeting him.
“Do a little plowing,” he quoted cousin Eula of Boston, Georgia, ”because if you stop, you’re gone.” Barber’s heart stopped 16 years ago. His sanity can help ensure that Red is never really gone.
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