The Early Years

Gertrude Barber, far right, at age 5 with siblings and cousins
1911 – Gertrude Barber, far right, at age five with siblings and cousins

Faith, family, and service to others. These were the values instilled in Gertrude Barber as she grew up in a large Irish Catholic family in Erie, PA.

Of the many people who inspired Dr. Barber, the person who had the greatest influence was her mother, Kathryn Cantwell Barber. The Irish-born girl who would become the family matriarch was not even supposed to be onboard the ship heading to America in 1890. Plans were set for Kate's sister to accompany their aunt on the voyage from their small town in County Tipperary.  But when the older sister did not want to leave home, Kate jumped at the chance. Always ambitious and adventurous, Kate, just 16 years old, was quickly hired as a domestic for a prosperous Erie family.

Kate connected with others who shared her Irish roots, including John Barber, a native-born American whose parents immigrated decades earlier. After a long courtship, the pair was married at St. Patrick Church on June 5, 1890, and settled in a working-class eastside neighborhood near the shores of Lake Erie.

The couple went on to have 10 children, including their first daughter, Cecilia, who died of pneumonia at just 11 weeks of age. Gertrude, their seventh child, was born on September 16, 1911, and would have six brothers and two surviving sisters.

In the fall of 1918, the great influenza epidemic that claimed the lives of millions of persons around the world took the life of Gertrude's father. John Barber died on January 27, 1919, at the age of 46, as his wife was expecting their youngest child.

While many encouraged Kate to place her children in an orphanage, she resolved not only to keep her family together but also to ensure that each of them got an education and contributed to society. Fulfilling a promise that she made to her dying husband, Kate instilled in her children an expectation of service to others. All of her children graduated from high school, with five going on to earn college degrees. Two were awarded law degrees and one, Gertrude, would receive a doctorate in education. Kate's offspring would go on to become a mayor, a judge, a nurse, and business owners. Both Gertrude and her youngest sister, Kathryn, would become teachers.

For their elementary education, the children attended nearby St. Ann's School, where the sisters noticed Gertrude's quick mind and enthusiasm for learning. They encouraged the sisters at Villa Maria Academy, an all-girls high school across town, to take on the bright young student, allowing Gertrude to board at the school.

Gertrude Barber at Erie's Villa Maria Academy in 1928
The future Dr. Gertrude A. Barber.

After graduation, Gertrude began her studies at Edinboro Normal School, which later became Edinboro University, and then completed her bachelor's degree in elementary education from Penn State University. She went on to earn other degrees, including a master's in psychology and doctorate in educational administration from Penn State University, as well as complete post-doctoral work at Syracuse University, the University of Buffalo, and Adelphi University.

All of this formal education, as well as the instruction she received in living a life of faith and service, prepared her for her life's work bringing hope and opportunity to children and adults with disabilities.



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.

Diana Zenewicz, parent of Missy
Erie, PA

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.

Tom Ridge, former PA governor and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security
Erie, PA

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.

Rhonda Schember, parent of Jodi
Erie, PA

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.

Mary Therese Riley, friend and teacher
Erie, PA

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.

Joe Schember, Erie Mayor and parent of Jodi
Erie, PA

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.

Cathy Crawford, parent of Norah
Erie, PA

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.

The Rev. Msgr. Robert D. Goodill
Erie, PA