Gertrude Barber's love of learning, coupled with her desire to work with and help others, led her to a career in education. Following her graduation from Villa Maria Academy, she entered a two-year teacher certification program at Edinboro State Teachers College. After receiving her teaching certificate in secondary education in 1931, she hoped to find a teaching position at an Erie high school.
Jobs proved scarce during the heart of the Great Depression, however, and Gertrude could only secure a post as a substitute elementary teacher in the Erie School District. During those two years as a substitute teacher, Gertrude reached an important decision that was to dramatically change her life – and alter the course of disabilities services for generations to come.
Inspired by an assistant Erie school superintendent, who told Gertrude that she didn't have to leave the country to become a missionary – she could do that right in her own community by helping the handicapped – Gertrude decided to commit her life to serving children with physical and intellectual disabilities. In 1933, she became a full-time special education teacher. Soon, she initiated her first change in the system, bringing parents of the children directly and actively into the education process.
After a decade in the classroom, Gertrude decided to take on a new challenge and in 1943 was appointed as the district's home and school visitor. Her responsibilities included telling parents that no services were available for their children, who would either have to be kept at home or sent to a distant institution. "I would have to go to the parents and tell them that their children could not go to school anymore," she recalled. The experience was making an impression on Gertrude that would shape her future.
Gertrude pursued a certificate in psychology and, in 1944, was appointed as the district's assistant psychologist. In this role, she gained experience in student testing, assessment, and placement. She continued her studies at Penn State University and in 1945 was awarded a master's degree in psychology. Gertrude was soon appointed the Coordinator of Special Education for the school district and would remain in this post through 1954. Now in charge of all the district's special education programs, she began the monumental task of pulling school officials, teachers, parents, and students out of what she called "the Dark Ages."
At the time, most school officials regarded handicapped children as beyond help, but Gertrude had a vision of what could be done for the children. Part of her responsibilities involved signing papers for parents who made the agonizing decision to send their child to an out-of-town institution for care and training. Each time a child was uprooted from his or her family, Gertrude said it devastated her. "I knew we had to find a better way," she said. Gertrude believed that all individuals, regardless of their disability, have unique gifts to offer, and have the right to live to their fullest potential. But in the early 1950s, the idea that children with disabilities could be educated and reside in their own communities was largely unheard of.
Bringing together a small group of parents and teachers, Gertrude started a program for children with developmental disabilities in a classroom at the local YWCA in 1952. She continued her work with the Erie School District but spent the rest of her time talking to the community about the growth of services and a need for a permanent site for these programs.
Shortly after Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio in 1955, the City of Erie no longer had a need for its Lakeview Hospital at 136 East Avenue. On July 1, 1958, City Council approved leasing the former communicable disease hospital to be used as a school for children and a sheltered workshop for teaching vocational skills to adults. "At last, we have a building with enough space to accommodate all of our needs," Dr. Barber said at the time. But she was wrong. With the added space, programs continued to expand to meet emerging needs. In 1962, the Exceptional Children's Center, later to be renamed the Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Center, earned state accreditation for its school programs.
Word of Dr. Barber's work spread throughout the state and the nation, and in 1962 she was appointed to President John Kennedy's White House Task Force on the Education and Rehabilitation of the Mentally Retarded. Together with members such as Ethel Kennedy, she assisted in bringing national attention to the needs of persons with intellectual disabilities.
She had a huge impact on the community; she got people to accept people who were different … Gertrude created something really special and unique and if you go across the United States, you'll have a hard time finding an organization like the Barber Center.
We were her family; our children were her children, and we could pretty much talk to her about anything. I think part of what Dr. Barber was doing came from her instincts as a woman to make sure that children – all children – had the same benefits in the community. She's left a legacy of memories and has left a true and lasting effect.
Dr. Barber was the Mother Teresa of Erie. She saw the suffering of the exceptional children and adults of this area and used her manifest skills and above all, her love, to respond. With indomitable faith in God, Dr. Gertrude was a pioneer in service to those beloved by Christ. She left a thriving institution to carry on the work of service, education, and love that will always reflect the ideals of this humble, resourceful and noble woman. She has enriched our world.
Dr. Barber gave you a different perspective on people with disabilities. She called them 'abilities' and so it just really had a positive spin on everything. It really gave you hope, and that's what most parents really needed.
Gertrude was a beautiful lady, but her outward beauty was a reflection of her inward refinement and peace knowing that she was doing God's work. Everyone who came in contact with her knew how special they were, for she had that ability to make each of us feel so special.
Dr. Barber was always there to compassionately guide families through the darkest hours. She guided us through trying times and brought us to a much higher level by allowing us to find some reason for our experience, and then to put it to good use in assisting others. Dr. Barber ... delivered every individual she encountered to a place that can only be described as their personal best.
As a loving and caring individual, a highly respected and admired professional, and a concerned civic leader, Gertrude delicately touched the souls of many and left behind a precious imprint of herself on families, friends, and her community.