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According to Dennie Barker Burke, Hopkinsville, Ky., her parents never wanted to leave Hindman.Although their last years were spent in Hopkinsville, their hearts remained behind with the mountain people they loved.

When Dr. Denzil G. Barker retired in 1987 after 40 years of practicing family medicine in Hindman, he and his wife, Gladys (Mickey) Barker, planned to live out their lives there. However, in 1989, after learning he had cancer, Barker put his wife first, moving her across the state, next door to their daughter and her husband to ensure her care after his death March 1, 1991.

Barker, the son of a coal-miner, attended Tulane Medical School, New Orleans, thanks to Alice Lloyd College. There at Charity Hospital, he met a vivacious registered nurse, nicknamed Mickey. The couple married the day he earned his medical degree. Shortly thereafter, he deployed to the Philippines during World War II, not knowing he had left behind a pregnant wife.

Their daughter Denzila (Dennie) was 18 months old when the war ended and her father returned to Mickey’s parents’ Alabama cotton farm to retrieve his wife and daughter.

Dr. and Mrs. Barker and their daughter soon boarded a rickety train headed north to East Kentucky so he could begin to fulfill his pledge to Alice Lloyd to return and serve his own people.

Having grown up in the flatlands of South Alabama, Mickey had never seen such mountains. Looking out the dirty windows of the train as it wound along the mountainside, she was overcome with anxiety. She didn’t know if she could adjust to this alien land.

But “Bark” assured her all would be fine. This was his home, his calling, his promise before God and Mrs. Lloyd. And like Ruth in the Bible (Ruth 1:16), by her words and actions, Mickey confirmed, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”

Even during high school, according to daily entries in his diary, Barker had an unusually strong work ethic, great ambition, high intelligence, and a burning desire to attend college.

What he did not have was money. None.

After graduating from Hazard High School, he received a partial scholarship to Transylvania University, Lexington, for which he was required to work several hours a day at the college. As a supplement, he also worked at a restaurant at night, washing dishes from 7 p.m. until midnight or later. During summer and holiday breaks, he mined coal during the day, worked in a grocery store at night, and fed a neighbor’s chickens twice a day.

Despite his willingness to work, it became obvious Barker could not continue his education at Transylvania. Although his scholarship paid tuition, the money he scraped together from odd jobs would not be enough for books, housing and food.

But he did not give up. Quitting was never an option.

Then someone told him about Caney College—and it were as if the sun broke through heavy clouds.

Barker visited the then-tiny campus to talk with Mrs. Lloyd, who saw something special in this young man. Over the years, he would became a source of pride for her—the son she never had.

Greg Barker, the Barkers’ son and a resident of Houston, recalls Mrs. Lloyd was asked to go to Hollywood to be on the 1950s hit television show, “This Is Your Life” to tell her story and that of Caney College. Various alumni were invited to “surprise” Mrs. Lloyd and summarize what their education meant to them.

Barker was not among those chosen by the producer.

However, Mrs. Lloyd dug in her heels, stubbornly refusing to go without “Denzil.” So he closed his office and accompanied her to California. Although Barker was to remain back stage during the show, Mrs. Lloyd made her own rules, instructing show host Ralph Edwards to tell Denzil to join them on the set toward the end of the show.

Despite his momentary embarrassment, it turned out to be a good thing Barker had gone with Mrs. Lloyd to Hollywood for, without him, she simply would not have gone and Caney College would have missed the invaluable national television exposure.

The book, Stay on Stranger, written by William S. Dutton in 1954 and condensed in Reader’s Digest (January 1954) tells the true story of Boston newspaper woman and Radcliffe College graduate Alice Geddes Lloyd—beginning with her acute health issues that forced her southward away from the cold, damp New England winters that caused her chronic pain. The book recounts how she—a “furriner”—ultimately made her home among the folks along the banks of Caney Creek.

There, by her sheer determination and the help of neighbors and Caney College students, she established a college, declaring to anyone who would listen, “The leaders are here.”

With her one useable hand and an ancient Oliver #9 typewriter, Mrs. Lloyd changed the destiny of an entire region, soliciting support for her students from donors nationwide.

Among the young students she took under her wing was Denzil Barker.

In Stay on Stranger, Dutton writes, “Barker was born in a mountain shack, and first walked to Caney without shoes. In due course, Caney sent him on—an honor student—to the University of Kentucky. Again an honor student, he went on to Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, Caney paying his way, even to the clothes on his back.

“He wears a Phi Beta Kappa key and was Kentucky’s candidate for Rhodes Scholar. A dozen famous institutions would have welcomed him, but Dr. Denzil Barker’s shingle hangs from a modest second-floor office opposite the county courthouse.

“His most valued property is an ex-army jeep, the one vehicle that can negotiate the ‘roads’ of the hollows. Where the hollows are dead ends and roadless, like Onion Blade, he plods in afoot, or mounts the mule sent to meet him.

“His office is crowded with patients by day, and night calls leave little time for sleep. But he isn’t awed by the magnitude of his task. ‘My value here is that I’m one of these people,’ he said.”

His fees?

“Mountain people pay what they can, and that’s all anybody could ask. They pay as certainly as the sun rises. And they don’t forget a service.”

To this day, JoAnn Gayheart Martin, Evansville, Ind., hasn’t forgotten. JoAnn married her sweetheart, Gary Martin, shortly after graduating from Hindman High School in 1963. Gary had been accepted to the University of Kentucky to study engineering. The plan was for JoAnn to work while Gary earned a degree.

But after a year or so, the couple discovered she was pregnant. How would they pay for prenatal care and delivery of this baby?

Bertha Gayheart, JoAnn’s late mother, told her to come back to Hindman, that Dr. Barker would take care of her—and he did.

JoAnn recalls that Barker provided wonderful prenatal care and delivered her baby a few months later. Total cost? $50.

Hers is one of hundreds of similar stories about Dr. Barker. Without doubt, his and his wife’s 40-year service in the mountains was missionary work.

In 1969 Earl Bryant, M.D., now a pediatrician in Camden, S.C., served a multi-month externship in Rural Medical Care under Barker when Bryant was medical student at the University of Kentucky. It was a memorable experience for Bryant.

Remembering his first full day in Hindman, Bryant said, “Dr. Barker instructed me to meet him for a honeybun and coffee at a local drug store at 6:45 a.m. By 7:15 we were seeing patients—conferring, discussing, interacting as teacher and student in the mechanics and art of healing.”

At noon the two men left for lunch at the Barkers’ home. “Mrs. Barker, cheerful, supportive and totally committed to Dr. Barker’s work and to him, served us warm bowls of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, while another clump of patients gathered for quick consultations with Dr. Barker on the back stoop of his home. No complaints. No imposition.”

After lunch, waiting patients packed the afternoon hours. Finally, after a long day in the office, Bryant accompanied Barker in his jeep on a few home visits.

“Such were my days with Dr. and Mrs. Barker,” Bryant said recently. “Theirs was a remarkable commitment to the citizens of Knott County. It awed me in 1969—and it still sets a professional and personal standard that I aspire to emulate.”

As the two men became friends, Barker confided in Bryant that long ago he had promised Mrs. Lloyd, if she would send him to medical school, he would return and serve his own people.

In young Denzil Barker’s diary entry, written Oct. 23, 1935, as he sat in the Eagle’s Nest at Caney College, he wrote and underlined: “Mrs. Lloyd has chosen me as first Crusader this year!

“I’m doing work in her office now. Mrs. Lloyd is going to send me on to school if I make good at everything!”

The Crusaders were gifted students, selected by Mrs. Lloyd, to travel all over the country, speaking, performing, working as ambassadors for Caney College—always aware their primary mission was to raise money for the school to fund the education of other young people like them.

For the remainder of their lives, Dr. and Mrs. Barker were “Crusaders” for Alice Lloyd College. Not only did they make regular contributions to the school, any personal checks Barker received from someone who had heard about his work were immediately sent on to Alice Lloyd College.

When Dr. Barker died March 1, 1991, the family requested memorial gifts to Alice Lloyd College, but the word didn’t get out.

So when Mrs. Barker passed away April 7, 2011, her children already had decided to establish the Dr. and Mrs. Denzil G. Barker Memorial Scholarship Fund at Alice Lloyd College.

In return, ALC officials agreed to display some of Barker’s medical books, doctor’s bags, and plaques, such as Kentucky Citizen Doctor of the Year, 1962, to inspire other ALC students.

In Stay on Stranger, Mrs. Lloyd said, “If the only result of Caney were Denzil Barker, we could still hold up our heads.”

Thankfully, hundreds of other young leaders have come after Barker. Today, Alice Lloyd College is a private, four-year liberal arts college, located in the central Appalachian Mountains. Since its inception, its purpose has been to provide education of highest quality to deserving mountain students within an environment supportive of Christian values and the development of character. The school accepts no direct federal, state or local funds—yet is named a top-tier academic institution by U.S. News & World Report. And 95 percent of ALC students who apply to professional or graduate schools are accepted.

To honor their parents’ 40 years of service to Knott and surrounding counties, as well as to Alice Lloyd College, the family requests memorial gifts to the Dr and Mrs. Denzil G. Barker Memorial Scholarship Fund, Alice Lloyd College, 100 Purpose Road, Pippa Passes, KY 41844, designated for needy but ambitious students in pre-nursing and pre-medicine.

For more information, telephone Margo Sparkman, director of development, at (606) 368-6039 or toll free (888) 280-4ALC.

Sidebar to the article:
“Doc Barker”
Lyrics and Music by Mark Barker

There’s a leather bag riding in the passenger seat
Of an old jeep plowing through a flooded creek
A country doctor on a late night call
There’s a lady in labor down on Lower Ball
It had only been three years before
When he had come home from the war
And brought an Alabama wife
And daughter here to start a life

Back to East Kentucky to his beloved hills
He used to walk the railroad tracks to the baseball field
Right down from the tipple where they load the coal
Just golden memories from long ago

Alice Lloyd took him under her wing
And gave him a chance to pursue his dream
He took an oath and he made her a vow
And he was not about to betray them now
In his four-wheel drive up the hollows he’d go
With his medical bag through the rain and snow
Emergencies, house calls, whatever the need
They knew Doc Barker was a friend indeed

To God be the glory for a righteous man
Who would carry out the good work he began
To God be the glory is what I heard him say
When they asked him to speak at his retirement party that day

Back to Eastern Kentucky to his beloved hills
He used to walk the railroad tracks to the baseball field
Right down from the tipple where they load the coal
Just golden memories from long ago