Veteran license examiner's
career reaches end of the road
Serving as a sonar technician on a destroyer escort for three years in the late 1960s and early '70s, Ken Barker had a front-seat view of the Cold War gamesmanship played between Soviet submarines and U.S. Navy ships.
Kim Snook (left), director of office of driver services, presents Ken Barker (right) with an engraved clock for his 25 years of service to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Barker retired Jan. 3. He started at the Iowa DOT in 1988 with the maintenance division in Corning. In 1990, he accepted a position as a driver’s license examiner and moved to Carroll.
Soviet subs approached Navy ships, Barker says, "to see if they were detected and what are responses were. They were testing to see how good our equipment was and how good theirs was."
For the last 22 years, Barker has had a front-seat view to some other anxious times - such as the steering column on a truck erupting in fire or a driver toppling a traffic-light pole on a corner in Onawa.
"It's been quite a ride," says Barker, of Carroll, who recently retired after a 25-year career with the Iowa Department of Transportation, including the last 22 years as driver's license examiner based in Carroll.
Over the years, Barker has tested drivers seeking licenses to operate motorcycles, cars and commercial vehicles (trucks and buses).
At the finish of his career, Barker leaves with a couple of main concerns for keeping the roads safe.
"Almost anybody can drive a car," he says. "They can move it from Point A to Point B. But the biggest thing is to look out for the other guy a little better and try to prevent some crashes rather than cause them."
Especially, Barker says, too many drivers roll through stop signs.
"People aren't cautious enough at intersections," he says. "They don't stop and look left, right and then left, right again. They're in a big hurry. They don't have time to ease up."
Drivers in a hurry risk failing to process an approaching car, motorcycle or bicycle, or they may not see pedestrians in crosswalks, Barker observes.
During his career, Barker not only emphasized to drivers the importance of that safety habit, he failed those who didn't follow the law.
Barker strived to play a role in keeping roads as safe as possible.
"I like to think I tried to show them the right way or give some pointers on how to be better drivers," he says.
But in his profession, there are also episodes that catch even the examiner by surprise. For example, the incident of the steering-column fire.
Barker conducted safety checks on applicants' trucks before accompanying them on their test drives. One applicant returned a day after Barker noted the truck's turn signals didn't work.
"I told him to get them fixed, come back and we'd do the driving test," Barker recalls. "He worked on them, came back and said, 'I have them fixed, I think.' We started the test, and we were going to make a left turn (from U.S. 71 onto Heires Avenue) by the Pepsi plant and he turned on the signal. Smoke started rolling out of the steering column, and then it burst into flames before we got it put out (using a fire extinguisher in the truck)."
In another ride, Barker's repeated directions to stop failed to save a traffic-signal pole in Onawa from a truck driver who cut a right turn too close.
"I told him three times to stop," Barker says, "but he didn't stop until he heard the big crash."
Neither driver in the fire and traffic-signal episodes received their licenses that day.
"They had to come back and try another time," Barker says.
Barker, a native of Gravity, Iowa, located about 100 miles south of Carroll, near Shenandoah, took a long road to his DOT career.
He graduated from Bedford High School in 1965, and after a short time farming he served in the Navy from 1968 to '72. He spent three of those years on the USS Koelsch, which plied waters in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean.
Following the military he received a degree in agricultural chemistry from Northwest Missouri State University and farmed for about 11 years. To make financial ends meet, he says, he also drove a truck for several companies: Armour Food Express, Hilt and Werner Enterprises.
Barker was encouraged to apply for a DOT job by the boss of a road-painting-crew boss from Corning, who also was a Navy veteran.
"I thought (road-stripe painting) would be a summer job," Barker says. "I didn't figure that they painted year-round. But I found out it was a full-time job. In the wintertime, the paint crew ran snowplows or snowblowers (on roads in southwest Iowa)."
The driver's license examiner position opened in 1990 when the DOT expanded staff due to conversion from chauffeur's licenses to commercial driver's license requirements.
Barker then moved to Carroll and most recently had been part of a five-person staff here.
Barker and his wife, Kim, program coordinator for Elderbridge Agency on Aging, have a daughter and two sons: Sarah, a Corning High School graduate whose husband, Stephen Harding, is a Marine Corps major at New Bern, N.C., and they have two daughters; Clint, an Indianola High School graduate, serving in the Navy in San Diego, Calif.; and Matt, a 2011 Carroll High School graduate, who's a sophomore in management information systems at Iowa State University.
Barker says he plans to take it easy for awhile before the new golf season.
"I love to golf and plan to spend a lot of time on the golf course," he says.
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