It was the Spring of 1983. I was just weeks away from graduating college and my Dad had just retired from Public Service Indiana. We both were at significant crossroads in our lives. I was on the verge of leaving home for good and Dad was on the verge of being at home for good. On that particular evening I could not find anything on television that collected my interest, but I did notice a stack of congratulatory retirement cards on the coffee table. As I read through the cards, I recognized many of the sender’s names from past dinner table conversations between Mom and Dad. Of course, I had the pleasure of meeting many of those names in person during my trips to see Dad at his office in Plainfield.
As I reached for another card that was contained in a white envelope, I noticed the return address, which indicated it was from Al and Jan Barker. That brought a smile to my face as I had previously met Al and knew he was the CEO of Public Service Indiana (PSI). I also knew that Dad deeply respected Al and considered him a friend. They were both WWII veterans. Al wrote some very kind remarks in regard to Dad’s career and his 35 years of service in the card, but what left an impression on me was how Al addressed Dad in his written remarks: “Boss”. Asking Dad why the CEO of his company would have referred to him as Boss, I learned that Al worked for Dad at Wabash River Station during the 1959 strike.
Al would later tell me about his many experiences during strike duty which included accidentally turning off all of the lights in the plant control room. We both chuckled at that and I reminded him that if it was just the control room lights, it could have been much worse. He also told me about the many lessons he learned from Dad and his appreciation for those lessons. The more that I got to spend time with Al, the more I understood that he was a dedicated student of life’s lessons. He certainly ended up with an advanced degree and graduated with honors from the school of life.
Just couple of months later it was early Summer of 1983 and I was evaluating post-college job offers. One was in Fort Wayne, one in Chicago, and one at Marble Hill Nuclear Power Station in southern Indiana. I accepted the offer at Marble Hill for several reasons. First of all, the compensation compared to cost of living ratio was the best. Second, there were several people working on the project site that I knew because of their associations with Dad. I liked the idea of having some personal sounding boards available to me as a new engineer. Last, my girlfriend at the time was attending Hanover college just a few short miles away from the power plant. It was probably a sign of immaturity regarding that last reason, but a consideration nonetheless.
Those of us from the PSI family know that the project was ultimately cancelled on January 4th, 1984. When the project was cancelled, I lost my job just 6 months after starting my employment. Looking back, it was definitely a life changing event, but I was young. I had a new job within a week at another Nuclear Power Station located in Illinois. My relationship with my girlfriend did not survive the long distance after that, but I did meet the mother of my children while living in Illinois. Marble Hill was very quickly a speck in my rearview mirror.
Of course, the Marble Hill project had been incredibly stressful for Al. There were state politics involved and resulting financial challenges for the corporation. For him, there was no rearview mirror perspective. There was only the challenge and the commitment ahead to stabilize and restore the company. I would learn years later how his belief in the employees would carry PSI back to a positive trajectory. As I look back from today’s perspective, I believe that the financial recovery that Al lead was to become the foundation for the largest utility in the United States. The 1980’s had been a challenging and stressful time for Al. Fortunately, he had a powerful stress combatant that he utilized along the way: Swimming. An activity that we both shared.
3 ½ years later, it was time for me to put another Nuclear Power Plant in my rearview mirror. The Nuclear Power industry was an industry of rotating projects and to exist, one had to be a vagabond. My next assignment was to be in Texas. That was too far from my parents, for my sensibilities, so I decided to look for other options. I was very fortunate to be able to return to PSI at that time, as the company was back on its feet thanks to Al and the dedicated employees. I started work at Cayuga Generating Station near the time that Al retired as CEO and Chairman. Fortunately for me, Al would still serve on the board of directors for several more years. That meant that he was an ongoing presence around Public Service Indiana.
Cayuga Generating Station was a memorable place for me, starting in 1970 before it had ever generated 1 single Watt of power. Dad had transferred to Plainfield in 1968 from Edwardsport Generating Station where he was Station Manager. His new role was over all of generation, so the construction of Cayuga was a prominent fixture in his life at PSI. Dad had taken me to Edwardsport many times in years prior as a small boy, and in 1970, Cayuga was his favorite power plant to take my brother and me. We would fish from the ash pond, camp at the bottom of the spillway, and tour the control room which was nearing readiness for operation. At that time, as a 10 a year old, I never could have imagined that I would be working there 17 years later.
I spent 4 pivotal years at Cayuga. During that time, I married, started a family, acquired lifelong friends, and tried my best to support the operations and maintenance teams at the plant. I unquestionably learned a lot. There were many trips to the Corporate Office in Plainfield during those years and I encountered Al many times where he made time to ask about “Boss” and Mom. I began to appreciate our conversations more and more as I was fortunate enough to have them. When Al learned that my Mom was battling cancer, he would routinely reach out.
In 1991, I received an opportunity to take a position in Plainfield where the Corporate Office was located. Naturally, I discussed the opportunity with Mom and Dad but also included Al as he was becoming an important sounding board for me. Mom was deteriorating quickly, so it was time to get back to Hendricks county. The bonus was that in the new position, I would be working for a cherished friend that I had met at Marble Hill, Doug Elam.
As I was in the process of relocating to Plainfield, Mom lost her battle with cancer. I was 31 years old, with a 2-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter. It was a tough time and I hated that my kids would not get to know my Mom. During the memorial visitation for Mom, I was struggling of course, but appreciated the support from my friends which included my PSI family. I distinctly remember Al coming in wearing a pair of white shorts and a melon colored golf shirt, looking like he had just stepped off of a grand sailboat. It was great to see him, and Dad could not have appreciated it any more. The weight on Dad’s shoulders lightened up considerably as he and Al talked. When Al saw me in the funeral home he reached out with a smile and his right hand to greet me, and as we shook hands he did not let go for quite some time. As he was about to tell me how grateful he was to know Mom and the enjoyment that he and Jan had shared with my parents over the years, I took notice of his deliberation. With my right hand in his, and his left hand on my right shoulder, he shifted his weight back and forth before speaking as if to confirm his foundation. His words were delivered with direct eye contact and on solid footing. I would bear witness to this gesture many times in future years.
The next 10 years for me were a blur of work commitments, raising kids, and growing concern for my Dad’s decline into Alzheimer’s. One of the best memories that I have was from 1993, when my Dad was still in relatively good health. I was selected to present a technical paper at the corporate Engineering Conference. It was considered to be an accomplishment for Engineers to be selected, although the presentation preparation and surviving the rehearsals in front of the conference committee members were the real accomplishments. Of course, Al was an annual attendee and most often did some speaking during the course of the day. On this particular year, my Dad attended as a retiree. Naturally Al took time to speak and talked about Dad’s history and my presence being an extension of that history. At the end of the day when the speakers were awarded their plaques, Dad was asked to present mine. It was a great day.
A year later and I was in desperate need of getting back to an active lifestyle. I was a swimmer in High School and had always wanted to compete in a Triathlon, so I dedicated that as a goal for the Summer of 1994. As a result, one fateful afternoon I pulled into the parking lot of the Plainfield Elks club which had an outdoor swimming pool. I approached the check-in window and met the pool manager, TJ. Asking whether the pool offered lap swimming, he promptly replied “sure, I will put a lane rope in for you anytime”. When he learned that I worked at PSI, he immediately inquired whether I knew Al Barker. Upon confirmation that I did, he recounted Al’s journey to that same window with the same inquiry 13 years prior. Al had referred to TJ as “Coach” from that point forward. My favorite story from TJ was about when Al would spend his lunch time knocking out laps at the Elks. Occasionally after an hour or so, TJ would remind Al that he should wrap it up and get back to the office before the boss started looking for him (not knowing that Al was the CEO). Al’s response was to shake his head in acknowledgement and say with a smile, “oh yea I better get back”. Later TJ would later learn from acquaintances that Al was “the boss”. Al was never inclined to let him know personally, of course. So, that was the beginning of my triathlon career which would continue for the next 15 years and over 120 events.
In the years following my reawakened swimming career, Al had an office just off the main lobby. Ironically, it was just a few feet from where my Dad’s office had been back in the 70’s when I would go visit. With even more irony, it would be where my office would be located 10 years later. Al was comfortably casual in those days, often sporting workout pants and a sweat shirt as he would navigate the halls meeting with people. I had many hallway conversations with him and occasionally would catch him in his office first thing in the morning, where he typically would be leaned back in his chair reading the newspaper. I caught him in his office one morning and we talked swimming. Al had become a connoisseur of swimming venues in those days. He, at that time was swimming at the Indianapolis Athletic Club primarily, but also occasionally at the IU Natatorium (the “Nat”). I was splitting time between the Elks Club in the Summer and a couple of high school pools in the winter. In the interest of being closer to home, I managed to negotiate a deal with the Plainfield Middle School where they would open that pool at 6 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. The deal required that we have at least 10 swimmers and that there would be a fee of $2 per swimmer. I asked Al if he would be interested. “Definitely, that will put me that much closer to breakfast after my morning swim”, was his response. It was a fun group that included my brother and good friends, in addition to Al. Al was a steady metronome in the pool and after each workout would announce, “I am off to breakfast”. We spent the Winter of 1994/1995 swimming at the PMS pool but when the school closed for the Summer, our pool access was terminated. From that point forward, I swam exclusively at the Nat with the Master’s Team. Al was nearly always there, and we would have many, many conversations in that locker room during the next 8 or 9 years. Several proved to be milestones in my life.
Public Service Indiana had been renamed PSI Energy by the Summer of 1995. It was during this Summer, that PSI Energy merged with Cincinnati Gas and Electric to become Cinergy. The world had changed forever, and I experienced the challenges that accompany merging two corporate cultures. It was stressful for everyone, but thankfully I was fully engaged in the art of swimming my stress away. For a year following the merger, there were many television advertisements that were aimed at promoting the merger’s benefits. The tag line of these advertisements, proclaimed: “Cinergy, the Power behind PSI Energy”. I never gave much thought regarding the advertisements, but apparently Al did. Al had lead past United Way campaigns at PSI, and in the Spring of 1996, he continued leading the United Way campaign for the PSI region of Cinergy. There was a cookout at the Plainfield Corporate Office to kickoff the 1996 campaign. Al, as campaign leader spoke to the attendees, and opened his remarks with a reference to the TV advertisements. He commented that he was going to have a chat with the marketing folks since they missed the mark on those TV ads. He declared, with conviction, that the employees were the power behind PSI Energy. That was Al, and that was how he felt about it.
The following 5 years, Dad’s health steadily declined. We moved him into a retirement community, where he became the “Mayor”, in a figurative sense. He would teach classes, such as Billiards, to the residents and he appeared to be a leader of the community clan. Ultimately, the dementia became more extreme and physically he was weakening. In late 1999, he fell and broke his back which landed him in a wheelchair and a rehabilitation facility. He would never part ways with either. Al was a continual visitor at Dads’ side during his time there. I know Dad deeply appreciated his visits, but my siblings and I were equally appreciative.
By the early Summer of 2001, I was throwing myself enthusiastically into another Triathlon season. By this this time, I was traveling to out of state races and had some minor sponsorships that helped with those expenses. It would turn out to be my best year as a Triathlete. By this time, my visits to see Dad were at times disheartening. The man who had been a Mensa, did not always understand who I was but always seemed to comprehend that I was someone important. Al would maintain his visitation schedule with Dad and during our morning locker room conversations at the Nat, he would offer positive perspectives of his visits. One morning in June, I was in the locker room preparing myself for the dreaded plunge into the 78-degree water of the Nat’s pool. In walked Al, and he spotted me with a smile. He walked over briskly and grabbed my shoulder. As he looked me in the eye and shifted his weight back and forth to confirm his foundation, he announced, “son, I had a great visit with your Dad yesterday”. He recounted that during his visit he was complimenting Dad on his successes throughout life which included his career, marriage, and children. Dad’s comprehension capacity was fairly compromised at that stage, but on that afternoon, he sat up, looked Al in the eyes, and proclaimed, “I tried”. Dad passed way a few weeks later, but Al and I would revisit that life lesson many, many more times. During those times Al would reference a quote from T.S. Elliott as a companion to my Dad’s proclamation: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business”.
2001 turned out to be a great year athletically, but a real challenge personally. Dad’s passing was the first blow, and it was followed up four months later with the end of my marriage. It was a total shock at the time, by it probably should not have been. Kids had been a priority, work had been a priority, and training had been a priority. 2002 turned out to be a dark year for me. Since Dad’s death the Summer before, Al had made frequent and consistent stops by my desk. I am sure that he recognized that I was spending more time drinking beer with friends than swimming laps in the pool, and I am positive that he was somewhat concerned. Nonetheless, he would simply state that he was dedicating a few laps in his morning workout to prayers on my behalf. I would later learn he had a similar year in 1945 and had good reason to.
By the end of 2002, I was tired of what had become a completely non-fulfilling year. I gathered up my brother and a couple of good friends and extracted a commitment that in 2003 we would tackle an Ironman distance triathlon together. By then we were seasoned at all other triathlon distances but had not dipped our toes into the Ironman waters. It was just what the doctor ordered for me as I needed a reason to push myself physically, which had the secondary effect of rejuvenating me mentally and emotionally. Al was an enthusiastic supporter of the quest, but at times I think he wondered if I had suffered irreparable damage to my judgement during the dark Summer prior. Besides our regular meetings at my desk that Summer, I would run into Al often on the greenway paths around Plainfield, where I was doing my run workouts. Al would ride up behind me on his bicycle saying, “good show, son! you are looking more like your old self every day”.
Typically, Al had a full schedule every day and I am sure that was by design. Our conversations at the office were not overly long because he had more people to see than just me, and I am sure that he was conscientious of my time as well. On November 5th, a few days before I was scheduled to travel to Florida for the big Ironman race, Al took me to lunch at Chili’s in Plainfield. Al and I sat down to salads and began a 3-hour conversation. We talked about Dad and his service at PSI, as well as his service in World War II. Dad was working at Chrysler in Oklahoma City when Pearl Harbor was attached. Shortly after, he left Mom and my infant oldest sister at home in Oklahoma in order to fight the Japanese and Hitler. Dad and Al were both Veterans of the 2nd World War. We talked about Al’s life and I learned about his dark Summer of 1945 after he had come home to Minnesota following his military service. Al was wounded in action and spent time in 2 prisoner of war camps. We talked about forgiveness and how he learned that lesson on a trip to Europe with Jan. It was not preplanned, but they decided to venture into Germany and on that leg of the trip, he found himself forgiving the German people. We talked about the power and importance of prayer. I am certain that these were not random topics, and each one had purpose. We said goodbye in the parking lot of Chili’s, where he wished me Godspeed in Florida. He also gave me a hug and said, “love you, son”. Finishing that race in Florida is still one my favorite lifelong memories.
In the years following my 2003 Ironman, there would be more triathlons, more kids sporting activities, and more utility industry changes. In 2006 Cinergy would merge with Duke Power to become Duke Energy. From this point forward, work life would continue to be more demanding. I was rarely in my office, as meetings and field responsibilities kept me away. Many times, I would find a note on my desk from Al, or someone in the office would mention that he stopped by while I was away. Of course, he never pre-announced that he might be in the office. I am sure that he was concerned about imposing himself on someone’s schedule. On one such occasion, I returned to my office to find a framed document left on my desk. It read:
“For us there is only the trying;
The rest is not our business!”
I smiled and immediately hung the treasured piece of art on my office wall. I am looking at it right now, more than a decade later, in my Colorado home office as I record these memories.
By 2007, I had decided to reduce the travel demand associated with my swim workouts and began “hitting the water” at the Avon Middle School pool. It was a nice small group that would that would begin with warmups at 5:30 am. While swimming with the Master’s Team at the Nat, I was spoiled by having a coach on deck and a predetermined workout. Without such luxuries at the AMS pool, I took it upon myself to design the workouts for those wanting something structured apart from just swimming laps. It was rewarding.
It was about the same time that Al and Jan moved into a facility that would help Jan recover from hip surgery since she was wheelchair bound. Jan lived in the rehabilitation center, while Al resided in a cottage on the property. The facility was called Marquette Manor and Al referred to it as “the Manor”. In a narrative all too familiar, Jan would not vacate the wheelchair or the rehabilitation facility. In September of 2008, Jan “went on ahead” as Al would refer to Jan’s passing.
After Jan passed way, I was concerned that Al might have lost his rudder, so to speak. I should not have been surprised that Al took the approach of celebrating Jan’s life as opposed to lamenting his loss. It indeed was a celebration as he would tell me stories about their days in Minnesota and how he met her during halftime of a University of Minnesota football game. He told me about their cocktail party adventure the night before Al interviewed for his initial job at PSI. With little sleep and a terrible cold, Al caught a plane for Indianapolis and interviewed for the job opening. He returned home to Jan and said, “well, they have seen me at my worst”.
Of course, he got that job reporting to PSI President, Robert A. Gallagher. When Al would recount stories about Bob Gallagher, he would always do so in an Irish accent holding his mouth as if he had a cigar in his mouth, which “Robert A” always did, apparently. I got to hear many stories about the PSI generation of my Dad’s. All of which was very entertaining, while some, I promised not to repeat.
At that point, I made a commitment to spend more time with Al and looking back, I wish I had done better. Nonetheless, I have some cherished memories of my visits to “the Manor”. Al would start off by making what he proclaimed to be the “World’s Best Margarita”. I am not a margarita aficionado, but I cannot dispute his claim. He would show me many pictures of days past. We would spend time discussing our latest book encounters, and one particular evening I told him about a book that I read in one sitting: “Unbroken”. He recognized the name and immediately got a copy.
On one visit, he took me to his computer and printed a copy of his essay called “Swimming”. It recounted his early swimming days back in Minnesota, taking the plunge in such bodies of water as “Duck Shit Pond”, swimming around islands in the St. Croix River, and ultimately grand pools in London, Paris, and the great Barrier Reef off Australia. Learning life’s lessons every stroke of the way. I also received a copy of another essay narrating his High School graduation speech that he delivered as class President. He chuckled, as his appraisal looking back, was that he came across as a naive and somewhat arrogant youngster. I did not agree. Given that point in history, I found it fascinating. I keep copies of both essays in my office.
Al had a favorite restaurant near the Monon Trail off 86th street where we would get dinner after our World’s Best Margarita and our reciprocal book reviews. It was great place, and I never ceased to be amazed at all of the patrons that knew Al. Our table was the center of the establishment’s universe, at least during my visits. I suspect that was true for all nights that Al was “in the house”. We would continue our discussions that we had started over our Margarita. Most of the time, he would share stories of his life’s lessons. There were many. He never did let me pick up the tab. I would drop him back off at his cottage and we would exchange hugs and he would grasp me by the shoulder and say, “love you son”. I would return, “love you Al”. Those were important times for me then, and now they are important memories.
The best times that I had with Al during the last 10 years were traveling by car to a PSI (Duke at that point) facility and/or function. Al had a never-ending demand to speak at various corporate events. Any event or leadership gathering that required a healthy dose of inspiration, Al received a call to speak. Al had decided that he was no longer comfortable with long drives. Either that or he just enjoyed my company because he would ask me directly, or through the event organizer if I was able to drive him. I choose to think that he just enjoyed my company. There were events honoring military veterans, there were leadership retreats at parks, there were all-hands conferences at Generating Stations, and there was the 40th anniversary of Cayuga Station celebration in 2012. Of course, I had no intention of missing the Cayuga Anniversary celebration anyway, so I was thrilled to have Al’s company.
On our drive there, we walked down memory lane talking about my Dad and his association with the Cayuga. I shared a story from my childhood when I remembered Dad taking a call from someone at the plant who was informing him that a construction worker had been killed during a rigging accident. Dad was completely despondent about the event. Al remembered that tragic incident like it was yesterday. At the celebration, Al spoke about the state of the world and country in 1972 and tied that history to present day events. It was a wonderful speech. I reunited with many past co-workers, some that I had not seen since 1991. On the drive home, we were both quiet and reflective. Time was whizzing by at an unsettling rate.
The second to last drive we made was to a youth camp near Princeton, Indiana where the Gibson Generating Station leadership team was having a retreat. That was great because Al and I would have 5 hours of travel time round trip. Al spent the entire trip down unfolding his time in World War II. He talked about being wounded. He spoke about the German soldier that captured him, noting that “he seemed to be a good enough fella”. He talked about the “meals” that the Allies were served at the German POW camps. He called it Grass Soup. He talked about watching the Allied night bombing raids in Germany from the “yard’ at his POW camp, and how the bombers would drop metal confetti designed to obstruct enemy radar. He had picked up a handful of that confetti one night and it successfully came home with him to the United States. I believe that I saw that very same confetti in a shadow box at his cottage at “the Manor’. I listened quietly and noticed that while he was sharing this uncomfortable and surreal time in his life, he was smiling. It was almost as if he was entertained by the movie that he was playing back in his mind. That was a great day.
The last road trip that Al and I made together was to Wabash River Station. It was in the Fall of 2016. I think that Al may have even requested the trip as the plant was being prepared for decommissioning, and soon it would be gone. I naturally agreed to be his transportation. We met several of the past Station Managers there, including Bob Batdorf, my old manager at Cayuga in the late 80’s. Bob would migrate to Wabash River Station, and then to Gibson Station before retiring. Dad had originally hired Bob. Bob made miraculous improvements to WRS while he was there and brought it back to glory reminiscent of years past. We met the group in the station manager’s office and then took a tour of the plant. I had spent many, many days at Wabash River Station during my tenure in Generation. Some of those long hours did I not enjoy. The plant was always hot, dimly lit, and very noisy back then, with an ever-present smell of burnt metal. On this day, it was completely quiet, and it was destined to remain that way. Al seemed to be soaking it all in and I had to believe he was channeling those days in 1959 when he worked for Dad. I looked around at the 40’s vintage machinery, the decades of coal dust embedded into gray metal, the tile floors of the main turbine deck, and I thought to myself: This place is quite beautiful in its own way. We eventually found our way to the control room and Al found the infamous switch that he had inadvertently thrown to kill the lights, 57 years earlier. The day was a success. We made our way back to the station manager’s office and Al was presented with a plaque. It was a good drive back to Plainfield, but once again I was reminded that time was whizzing by.
A few months after our trip to Wabash River Station, Al paid me a visit in my office. The timing was perfect as I planned to call him that very evening with an announcement. I had an opportunity to take a leadership position at a small but terrific company. The prior years had been very productive and demanding for me. I felt that I had accomplished much of what I had hoped to do at Duke Energy, and I was tired quite frankly. The corporate retirement plan had just been modified and it certainly penalized those of us with PSI heritage. Apparently, compared to the other regions of Duke Energy originating from different legacy utilities, we had it too good. The change only hurt me if I stuck around. The job opportunity also offered me the ability to live in Colorado. I had been making multiple trips a year to Colorado for the previous 4 or 5 years. It was, and still is, an inspiring place for me. I felt the need to go while I was still healthy enough to be active in a state that inspired activity. In addition, I really wanted a place for my kids and grandkids to come visit and see the beautiful west. Of course, I would make monthly trips back to Indiana to see them. Al endorsed the change.
I retired from Duke Energy on April 30th, 2017. I requested to not have a large retirement party. I was happy to share it with only my work team, and my children. There was only one more guest that I needed to be there: Al Barker. Al graciously, and enthusiastically accepted the invitation. Al came into the office and met with the team before we when to the luncheon. He shared a few stories, made some observations about how young the population looked migrating the hallways on that day, and took many questions. Afterward, we went to lunch and my daughter Rachel was fortunate enough to sit next to him. I watched Al and Rachel converse about what was going on her life and I thought to myself from the opposite side of the table, things are not much different than when Dad retired 34 years earlier. Rachel was a few weeks from graduating with a RN nursing degree.. A young adult witnessing a Father’s retirement, and Al Barker being an important presence. One generation apart… Al seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. After lunch I walked Al to the car. He was less steady on his feet than the last time I was with him. So, this time, I gently grabbed him by the shoulders, confirmed my foundation and said, “love you Al”. He looked me in the eyes and said, “love you son”. He was 91 years old.
That turned out to be my last face to face conversation with Al. He would turn 92 years old six months later. He touched so many lives and I am so very grateful to be included in that group. As I told his daughter Pam, when she called to let me know about his passing: He was a great man, a great American, and an absolute blessing in my life. No doubt that he and Jan are enjoying some terrific swimming holes in heaven right now.