Q&A with Campbell alum Bob Barker, author of new book, ‘I’m in Cells’

July 3, 2012 | 1 Comment

Q&A with Campbell alum Bob Barker, author of new book, ‘I’m in Cells’

“We were given very specific instructions to put labels with GITMO in large letters on every box. None of us knew what GITMO stood for, but we followed the instructions."

It all started with a bag of tools and a boy barely big enough to carry them. And the story of North Carolina native Bob Barker - founder of Bob Barker Company, the world’s largest supplier to jails, prisons and detention facilities like Guantanamo Bay … or GITMO - is the subject of a book, “I’m in Cells.”

Barker, a graduate of Campbell University, former Board of Trustees chairman and the man for whom Barker-Lane Stadium and Barker Hall are named, co-wrote the book with Tony Cartledge, professor of Old Testament at Campbell Divinity School. He said the idea for his book came from a discussion with management at his company who pitched the idea for a keepsake book to honor BBC’s 40th year.

Luckily for them, he said, he’d already written 30-40 short stories on his childhood and early business ventures … not for publishing, but because he wanted stories to pass down to his grandchildren and future generations of his family.

“My grandparents on my father’s side died long before I was born, as did my grandfather on my mother’s side,” Barker said. “I did know my other grandmother, but I never really knew how they lived or what they went through. I want my grandchildren to know a little about their grandpa.”

He approached Cartledge, a former pastor and former editor of the Biblical Record, about co-authoring the book, and immediately, Barker said, Cartledge put him to work.

“He really had me under the gun,” Barker said with a laugh. “I had all those stories, and I furiously wrote more and updated what I had for the next two months.”

Cartledge, according to Barker, edited his work, added style, organized the chapters and came up with the catchy pun of a title.

“Bob’s story is a real Horatio Alger tale,” Cartledge wrote for Baptists Today News Journal. “A child of the Depression, he was dragging plumber’s tools around a mill village in Cherryville, N.C. for 25 cents per week at the age of 5 and tried just about every legal means known … to lift himself out of poverty.”

“I’m in Cells” is available at amazon.com.



Recent Campbell University graduate Jonathan Bridges sat down with Bob Barker, a 1965 graduate of Campbell College and chairman and CEO of Bob Barker Company, in the spring to talk about his career and his experiences with Campbell University. Barker is a longtime friend of the University and was formerly Campbell’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees.


JB: Mr. Barker, think back to when you attended Campbell College in the mid 60s. What is the biggest change that you have noticed with the school since then? Was there something prevalent at Campbell in the 60s that is not present today?

Barker: I think probably the biggest change I have seen is that the enrollment of the school has tremendously increased. I think maybe - and I’m not able to really experience this since I’m not a student there now - the students were a little closer to the faculty at that time, since there were fewer students. The school was smaller it was easy to get in to see almost anybody that you wanted to see.

I could walk into President (Leslie) Campbell’s office anytime I wanted to and speak to him. He had a fabulous memory … always remembring people’s names across campus. I was only there for 12 months, but he knew me.

I enjoyed really being there, and I think that the growth of the school has really given the students a broader opportunity to participate in more things and in different classes. There are a lot more offerings in classes and fields than there were then. When I was there, it wasn’t quite a senior college yet.

Another big change is the campus itself. At that time, it just seemed like a bunch of buildings around, and I could park right up to almost every building that I had class in. I could just park behind the building and walk in a few steps to get to it.

But today, it looks more like a really thriving university … the landscaping of the campus and so forth. It just makes a world of difference; and it sort of reminds me of the larger universities like Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I lived on both campuses. Campbell has taken a big step in that area.


JB: You have a successful business, and you have had the chance to serve in numerous civic and leadership roles as mayor of Apex and in the N.C. General Assembly. What, perhaps from your time at Campbell or in general, has contributed to your success? 

Barker: I think that when I returned to school, I had been out of school for about six years and had gotten married. We lived on the campus at Duke while my wife finished her master’s, and our plans were for me to go back to school. I had planned on going back to Carolina because I wanted to go to law school there.

But I had taken a number of courses at other universities and schools in South Carolina and Georgia and Washington, D.C., and when I had went to Carolina, they were not too happy about accepting those courses. So somebody told me about Campbell, and I had gone down and talked to the folks at Campbell, and they were very receptive of the idea. I told them that I wanted to get into law school for the following year, but I lacked 59 hours of coursework in order to do it.

So I they let me do this as I took correspondence courses at Campbell from UNC, and I was taking about 18-20 hours a semester. I think I took 12 hours in the two summer sessions.

Of course, my wife helped me with the coursework. But I think that the opportunity to excel was the biggest boost for me. I knew I had a goal of finishing that many hours in order to get into Carolina the following fall, and the only way I could do it was to take all of that coursework; which really wore me down.

When I graduated on the summer session, I took my last course and finished about 30 minutes before graduation. I had to have the course in order to graduate. But I made it, and I had been up three days and three nights studying for my exams.

After graduation, my family was there and we went back to our house and had dinner, but I was so out of it that someone passed me the potatoes and I had put them right into my coffee.

But I think that was an opportunity for me to set a goal that I felt pretty sure that I could attain. It was some really hard work on my part, and I think it’s probably some of the hardest work that I have ever had. But it was worth it. I was able to get into law school in the fall.


JB: Serving on the Campbell University Board of Trustees and while serving as chairman, what are some of your most memorable moments? Did you have any tough moments?

Barker: Well there were a lot of great moments, and I don’t know if one stands out more than the others. But one that I would mention is the convocation center.

Now this was something that we dreamed about for a long time. It was an undertaking, and the largest fundraising campaign that Campbell had ever had.

The University had said it would take us five years to raise $30 million to build a convocation center, and I was asked to serve as chairman of that convocation fund drive. It was a big decision on my part because that just seemed so large amount of money to try and raise. But after talking with a number of people, I felt like we could do it, and we could do it in a lot less time than five years.

So we raised $34 million in 24 months. I think that was one of the biggest thrills. I had many, many more opportunities. The law school moved to Raleigh, which was a great decision that I think was a monumental moment for the school itself. I was heavily involved in this and worked toward it happening.

The football program coming back was another big moment, and I felt like it would do a lot for the university and a lot for the students in particular. It would give the students a lot of camaraderie like I had when I was going to Chapel Hill’s football games. It just offers so much.

I think one of the really outstanding things we did as trustees was the decision to go ahead with the medical school. It was a great decision. I thought at one time it might be a real risky decision, but I can see now that it was not. I am glad that we made it and it is moving forward.

The new chapel ... it is just outstanding, and it was such a great pleasure for me to see people step forward to fund that chapel completely on contributions.

The landscaping on the campus is another big plus for me that I thought did a great deal for the school. The medical assistant program was a great idea ... the new library, the new pharmaceutical building that was built, and the new dormitories that were built.

So many things have happened in the past five, six or seven years that have just revolutionized the school, the campus and everything about it. I think the school is growing in prominence as far as a real top notch school in the Southeast, and it is going to continue to do that.


JB: On that note, with the new medical programs, where do you see Campbell heading in the next five years? What changes do you foresee?

Barker: I think we will see Campbell reach national prominence over the next 15 years. I think that more and more people will begin to realize what a great school Campbell is, and it is going to continue to attract real bright students. And I think we are up there already with our pharmaceutical school and our law school as far as graduation and passing the bar and national tests.

I think the way that Dr. Jerry Wallace is thinking, Campbell is going away from more of a liberal arts type of education to more vocational. The way the economy is changing, so that people are going to have to specialize in something in order to make a living. I think we will be seeing things like an engineering school and dental school in the future, and I think there will be a lot of new types of specialized education in the next 10 or 15 years.


JB: Now on a different note, you share a common name with a national game show host. Have you ever been mistaken for the Bob Barker of “The Price is Right” fame? Have you had the chance to meet him, or has the name led to any case of mistaken identity?

Barker: He shares the same name as me, and I get to meet him all the time. I’ll check into a hotel and people will ask me for my autograph. A lot of times I don’t tell them they have mistaken me for another.

We are celebrating our 40th year as being Bob Barker Company and we have such a reputation in the correctional field (such as jails, and prisons) that the Bob Barker name is synonymous with quality, timely delivery of products and good business practices.

I go into a lot of institutions, and people ask for my autograph. I go to national correctional shows and people get their picture made with me. So it’s not only because of the name being the same as the celebrity, but I think we have established our own notoriety in our field because we have been there for 40 years … starting out from the back of a barber shop 40 years ago with a $2,500 loan. We are the nation’s premier business in detention supplies all over the United States, the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico.

I was on stage with Bob on “The Price is Right” before he retired three or four years ago. He introduced me to his audience and we got a big round of applause. My brother who was with me was chosen to be a contestant on the show. He had a lot of fun with that, and my sisters who had been watching the show for years and years were thrilled to death to go with us.

But the name has helped me a great deal. Actually, I was elected to the North Carolina State Senate, and there were two “Bob Barkers,” and both of us were elected. I think we helped each other out with the name.

I did my advertisement with, “When you vote for Bob Barker, make sure you vote for the right Bob Barker.” Another one I had was, “When you vote for Bob Barker, make sure you vote for the right Robert J. ‘Bob’ Barker.” And something like that.

The name is easy to remember, and I guess that is one of the things that have helped us in our business. We have a website, bobbarker.com, where we have all of our products - like 10,000 products what we sell to prisons and facilities. The name has helped very much so.


JB: Thank you for your time, Mr. Barker. Anything else you would like to add?

Barker: Right now I am off of the board at Campbell; you have to be off of the board a year. Right now, I am the chairman of the President’s Committee and I am still on some other committees and so forth. I look forward to getting back involved on the board next year, but I am sort of resting up right now.


Wondering if I could get a copy of your book for a classmate/friend of yours, for his birthday.  Would you mind autographing a copy for me.  Please contact me for more information.

By G. Jenkins on August 19, 2012 - 10:17pm

Leave a Comment

We invite you to leave a comment if you want to discuss this article. Please note any posted comment will be viewable by the public. If you notice any errors please email Haven Hottel at [email protected].




Please enter the word you see in the image below: