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« on: July 24, 2009, 03:17:20 PM »
Art Barker: The Seed's Chief Sows A Mixed Crop of People Reactions

By Eleanor Randolph
Of The Times Staff

Few who know him are lukewarm about Arthur Robert Barker.

There is not much middle ground.

The man who created The Seed Inc. is either adored or despised, a Hitler or a hero, a Godsend or a curse.

Miami Metro Mayor Jack Orr says Barker's pronouncements are a paranoid's ravings.

SOME OF the most prominent business leaders in Pinellas county say Barker is a miracle worker who has turned their children from dirty, rude, distant, drug users into clean, neat, obedient children who revere God, country and family and wouldn't touch drugs again.

"I think Barker is a dangerous menace," one local educator told The Times last week, "a man who is playing around with children's minds and turning them away from any growth into thinking individuals . . . that's how the Hitler youth corps took over Germany."

But another says: "All I know is that my daughter had slipped into total drug and sex degradation, was flunking everything in school, cursing at her mother and disappearing for days at a time. Now that she has graduated from The Seed, she is a new person dressing neatly, making As in school, being friendly and obedient to her parents . . . a perfect daughter in every way."

The parent also adds: "I don't care what Barker is doing to those kids at The Seed all I know is that it works and it returned a lost daughter to me."

ART BARKER was born 49 years ago in a rough section of Brooklyn. As Barker tells it, with the flair of a man who has been on stage, his father was an alcoholic and his first vacation from selling razor blades and needles was when he joined the U.S. Army in 1942.

Police reports on Barker from those early years show that when he was 16, he was arrested for burglary and "being a wayward minor." Those charges were dismissed. Two years later he was charged with assault and robbery and those charges also were dismissed as young Art Barker enlisted in the U.S. Army a few days later.

Early in his Army career, Barker went AWOL, but the war had started by then, and Barker was beginning to find something that he could do well. He could fight.

As a tail gunner with the Army Air Corps that later became the U.S. Air Force, Barker received an Air Medal with silver leaf cluster, a Good Conduct Medal, a Purple Heart, and a Presidential Unit Citation.

BARKER LEFT active duty in 1948 and told one reporter later that he took with him more than a box of medals. Like many young men after those war years, he had a drinking problem.

Barker talks about the next eight years in excruciating detail. A short man who squints angrily at enemies, Barker paints the sad picture of a young man who made the back seat of a used car his home. A wife of 20 days left him, as he tells it. He had no friends except a dog named Brandy who nuzzled up to him nightly as much for warmth as friendship.

"I was in show business for a while," he say in his rough voice, grown granular over the years from the early booze and the cigarettes he still smokes almost constantly. "On the opening night, I would be sensational. The second night, somebody might beat me up because I was too drunk to go on."

Barker got fed up one day and walked down the street to Alcoholics Anonymous.

CLAUDE GREENE, head of the advisory committee for the Seed in Pinellas County, adds another side to Barker's self-told story of those post-war years. Greene says that Barker found himself under a truck, close to death, and it shook Barker out of his Whiskey and into a lifelong dream of helping others.

Barker's story, told often to reporters and Seedlings he wants to shake of their reported drug habits, includes a comeback to nightclubbing. By 1968 when he came to Miami for a stint at the Playboy Club, one year earlier than the contract stipulated, Barker was trying to help other alcoholics and drug addicts.

The manager of the Playboy Club in those days, Richard Ancona, told one reporter that Barker lived in a boat at a nearby dock and often was used as a stand-in comic at the club.

"HE WAS CONVENIENT," Ancona said a year ago. "If we needed someone to fill in a weekend or something, he was there. In all, he probably worked for us about six weeks in any year that's about $3,000 a year."

"When I was in show business and working the Playboy Club and living on a 46-foot boat, I could make all the money I wanted," he told one group when somebody questioned his motives.

"I'm not in it for the loot. Nobody can buy me and nobody can threaten me," he said.

ANCONA agrees that Barker did not seem interested in money:
"Art was not motivated by money. We used to joke about him. We'd say 'We laugh because he doesn't work, but who's getting the headaches and who is sleeping until 11 A.M.'?"

Barker's lifestyle has improved considerably since he became president of The Seed Inc.

Barker and his wife Shelly, who married him in 1970 and began to help him expand The Seed program, live in a sprawling cement house at the end of a finger of land near Fort Lauderdale.

A CHAIN LINK fence surrounds the Barker home and a sign wards off unfriendly visitors with the warning "Beware of Bad Dog." Spotlights at night reveal a spreading lawn on the estate that Barker once said was donated by a Seed supporter to eventually revert to The Seed corporation after Barker stops using it.

The tax records show only that Barker's corporation owns the house, which is assessed at $73,000 for land and property and probably is worth much more on the open market.

Barker told The Times that his salary, paid by the corporation, is $25,000 a year. Mrs. Barker receives $9,500 from a federal grant as assistant director.

BARKER'S stature today is even a far cry from the days three years ago when he and a few church officials were struggling to create the Seed program.

"I went to people. I even went to all the professionals. They treated me very polite, like a demented child a man with no degree and a tattoo on his arm," he says bitterly.

Today Barker's Seed program is the largest of its kind in the state and could become one of the richest, if it receives all the federal support Barker has requested. Barker counts 5,000 successful Seedlings in four cities where his Seed branches use peer pressure to change the behavior of teenagers who are believed to be on drugs.

The peer pressure system assumes, probably correctly, that many kids who get on drugs do so because many of their friends are on drugs and it becomes "the thing to do" if they want to be accepted. The teenage need to be accepted by peers is well documented.

AT THE Seed, the young drug user is immersed in a society of young people, most ex-drug users, who despise drugs. In order to be accepted by this new peer group, the new Seedling has to renounce drugs for a new set of attitudes called "getting straight."

Part of the theory is that the young Seedling's desire to be accepted by his Seed peers is stronger than his desire to use drugs. So he adopts the new attitude.

Parker says also that he wants to take the Seed to Dallas, Atlanta, Tennessee, "the whole country, if necessary."

"If the Seed doesn't become a model program in this country in five years, you can forget about the nation. The youth will crawl off and die, and it'll be a whimpering kind of death," he said earlier this year.

RECOGNIZING Barker's past, clawing his way from Brooklyn to a position of respect, it is not hard to understand why he fights for The Seed with such vigor. It is not hard to understand why he often proclaims the Seed his invention, "the best drug program in the country, maybe even the world."

His enemies see a World War II hero who finally believes that he is a hero again. He is a nightclub comic who finally has the adoring audience all entertainers want, a sea of smiling young faces that screams, "Luvya" not at Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart but at Art Barker.

Barker's friends portray a man who is battling with the bureaucracies, the pushers, the protectors of the status quo including the drug scene. It is an uphill struggle against a society that doesn't want to move quickly enough, and it takes an Art Barker a quick, abrasive person to jar them into action, they argue.

With such backing, Barker can be swift to attack people he believes are trying to destroy the program often by simply criticizing it.

WHEN MIAMI Metro Mayor Orr announced that he would not be sorry to see Barker close his Seed branch in Miami, Barker retaliated.

"Mayor Orr was elected here on the premise that they didn't want a strong mayor and they got an Adolf Hitler," he said at one public meeting.

Asked about a Fort Lauderdale psychiatrist who believes that the Seed can cause severe reactions even suicidal tendencies in some youngsters Barker responded, "I'm saying the man's a liar."

BARKER RESERVES the same kinds of outbursts for those who contest his success rate of 90 per cent, a phenomenal figure in the drug cure business where 20 per cent is regarded as very acceptable.

At a meeting in St. Petersburg last winter where a member of his audience questioned the 90 per cent, Barker quickly asked for his name and where he worked. When the man responded that he was employed by the State Drug Abuse Program, which had estimated a 41 per cent success rate of the Seed, Barker promptly labeled the agency a "bunch of horses asses."

Barker said in July that 90 per cent figure is documented by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which has issued a $1.4-million grant to the Seed for eight years.

NIMH officials told The Times that their agency has not even assessed the success rate of the Seed program.

BARKER, WHO is the president, spokesman, first and final word on anything that involves the Seed, is the main target of its enemies, he believes.

Besides the psychiatrists and the directors of other programs whom he believes are trying to squeeze him out of their domain, he believes that the drug culture is after him.

He told The Times last March that the Seed is guarded and his office windows are bricked up against bullets from passing cars. ("The pushers are scared to death about the honesty of the Seed.")

Such crises started in the very beginning, Barker told reporters as the Seed was being formed.

"IT WAS A plot to ruin me," he said of one painful period in the early days. "We were thrown out of the church, the boat was sinking. Shelly was crying."

"Then an undercover narcotics man came in to us and told us if we didn't cooperate, they'd plant heroin on us and see that we were thrown in jail," he said.

Even today, he claims that "druggies" try to throw drugs on the Seed grounds to see if they can get Seedlings arrested.

"I'M NOT IN this to be liked," he recently said. "I don't care whether you like me or not, but I have put together the greatest program in the world, and that's all that counts."

Once, when he was being more philosophical about it all, Barker put it differently.

"Jesus said it a long time ago," he said in an interview last March. "You can't be a prophet in your own town."
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