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Gladys Barker demands excellence

When Gladys Barker retired from a career in occupational therapy in 1982, she didn't quite know what she wanted to do. But she knew what she didn't want to do. "There's no way I'm going to spend the rest of my days playing cards and going to luncheons," she thought.

It didn't take long for Barker to find her calling. She would spend the next 25 years stirring the pot by starting an OASIS program called "Contemporary Issues." That's a dignified title, but as any participant will tell you, Contemporary Issues is just as provocative -- and far more intelligent -- than anything you'll find on cable news shows. In fact, her events fairly sizzle as speakers and audiences have taken on such topics as: "Do lawyers have to lie?" and "Have you horsewhipped an editor today?"

Barker's first programs were lightly attended, but a buzz developed because the speakers were leaders in their field and they didn't just talk at the participants; they discussed and sometimes argued with them. Departing from the conventional format that left just a few minutes for questions, Barker gave the speakers 30 minutes and allowed an hour for discussion. Some in the audience brought their rhetorical flamethrowers. The speakers got slightly singed but were delighted with the experience. The participants returned with their friends. And now says Barker, who is still going strong at age 90, "We only take a hundred and there's a waiting list."

Barker's work on behalf of St. Louis OASIS gets attention for two reasons. She demands excellence. "The best is none too good for me," she likes to say. And she is relentless. "No one says no to Gladys," says OASIS chairman Marylen Mann.

"Every person is gifted," says Barker. "What a person can be, he ought to be."

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