In Memoriam: Ruth Barker

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of philanthropist reads:  (noun) one who makes an active effort to promote human welfare.

If Door County had its own dictionary, it might get more specific with these three words:  Ruth Baldwin Barker.

Ruth Barker. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Ditto if Wisconsin Rapids and Scottsdale, Ariz., had their own dictionaries.

All three of those communities lost a good friend when Ruth Barker died after a long illness on Sunday, April 14, 2013.

“The Barkers have always been what I would call rock star benefactors in all the communities they’ve lived,” said Dan Powell, chief executive officer at the Door County YMCA, one of many county organizations that has grown thanks to the attention of Ruth and her late husband Hartley Barker.

In addition to a $1 million gift to jumpstart the YMCA Endowment Fund in 2000, Powell said the couple gave a six-figure gift so a gymnasium could be added to the Northern Door Program Center in Fish Creek and they contributed regularly to the annual Strong Kids campaign to fund scholarships for families who cannot afford Y memberships.

After Hartley’s death on Sept. 24, 2010, Ruth gave one final major show of support in the work of the Door County YMCA by providing a capital gift for the creation of the Y Child Development Center that opened in April 2012.

Powell said he visited with Ruth in Scottsdale, Az., to talk about the childcare center. He had come to know the Barkers well and knew they preferred to be quiet, unassuming donors.

“That’s just the way they were,” he said.

But after their incredible generosity, Powell said he felt it was time to recognize the Barkers by naming the new child care center after them. He said Ruthie’s House was one of the names proposed.

“I told Ruth, ‘We would be honored if you would let us have your name up’,” Powell said. “Ruth agreed, but she said, ‘Just call it Barker.’ It was more in honor of Hartley’s passing than anything else. She wanted to leave a legacy for him in Door County.”

The Y was just one of many organizations that benefitted from the Barkers’ generosity. It was their own strong sense of community that led them to share the wealth.

“Ruth Barker was everything you want a philanthropist to be,” said Bret N. Bicoy, president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. “I don’t mean that just in terms of her financial giving, although she and Hartley were exceptionally generous. Ruth was thoughtful and strategic with her philanthropy. She wanted her contributions to have a real impact on the community. She volunteered to serve on countless charitable boards of directors and never shied away from championing the causes she cared about. Ruth gave so freely of her heart to this community she loved so much.”

The Barkers were just as well known as philanthropists in their winter home of Scottsdale, where more than 2,000 children between the ages of 6 and 18 are members of the Ruth and Hartley Barker Branch of the Boys and Girls Club of Scottsdale.

Ruth also served as a trustee for the Scottsdale Healthcare Foundation.

“Ruth Barker was the consummate trustee,” said John Ferree,

President of the Scottsdale Healthcare Foundation. “Not only was she generously involved philanthropically, but she was also dedicated and involved. She didn’t say much in our meetings, but never missed one and always had questions and input after each. She was an intelligent and analytical contributor to our mission and set a high standard for other trustees.”

As the granddaughter of George Mead, the man who turned a Wisconsin Rapids water power company into Consolidated Papers, a major player in the 20th century paper industry for its invention of coated papers, Ruth felt an abiding commitment to Wisconsin Rapids and the people who helped her family’s company thrive.

“Even though for the last several decades they spent part of the year in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Door County, and even though they loved both places, they loved their friends and the communities – Ruth would consistently say, ‘South Wood County and Wisconsin Rapids is my heart’s home’,” said Kelly Ryan, president and CEO of the Incourage Community Foundation.

In 2001, The Barkers transferred their 40-year-old family foundation to the Incourage Community Foundation of southern Wood County, which gave Ryan the opportunity for an even closer look into Ruth’s philanthropy.

“That enabled them to control giving in the way that they wanted to, which was all over the United States, but in many respects was concentrated in Door County, Scottsdale, Az., and southern Wood County. We’ve continued to do that for them,” Ryan said.

In the decade after selling Consolidated Papers in 2000 for $4.8 billion to the Finnish company Stora Enso, the Barkers watched as Wisconsin Rapids lost half of its paper manufacturing jobs, amounting to 2,200 workers.

“Ruth felt a real connection to the place and to the community,” Ryan said. “She said to me, ‘I feel pretty strongly that I’ve been blessed and that this money came from the community and the paper industry. I want to give back to the community because it pains me to read the headlines in the local newspaper about the job losses that are happening.’ She did not have to stay connected in that way to the community, but that was a primary focus of her last 10 years or so of her philanthropy through our organization. It was really a privilege to work with Ruth because she was such a quiet philanthropist in that she never sought recognition and that was not ever a motivator for her in giving. She was so grounded in her love for her family and in her faith, and unwavering in her values. For me, that was an inspiration to work with her, because not everyone is like that. She was quiet but very thoughtful. Ruth never wanted to be in the limelight. She was the wind beneath the wings.”

And, that, says Bret Bicoy, is what set Ruth Barker apart.

“I once wrote that a true philanthropist is one whose actions are even more inspiring than the substantial dollars they give,” he said. “That is the epitome of Ruth Barker. She was, and forever will be, an inspiration to all of us in Door County.”