Stay in the fight

After a long real estate career, John Barber still exemplifies persistence

click to enlarge John Barber, right, with his friend and coach, Mike Suhadolnik.
John Barber, right, with his friend and coach, Mike Suhadolnik.
Patience and persistence add up to inspiration. That is what describes John Barber, who has been fighting cancer for several years and a series of chemotherapy treatments for over 18 months, some that just didn’t work. He can teach us all a lesson – to work hard, to not give up and to face each day with strength and determination.

That is really what he has been doing his entire career.

Barber became a well-known realtor in Springfield with his years with Capital Reality, Barber-Gebben and Smolenski, Charles Robbins and, later, he did a lot of realty work with Phil Spengler. Barber retired just four years ago, after a career that totaled over 50 years. He was instrumental in bringing businesses into Springfield and all over the Midwest. Some of those include CVS drugstores, Family Video, Lowe’s and many of the stores in the Southwest Plaza such as Bed Bath and Beyond and Old Navy.

Barber grew up in Springfield, the son of an attorney, but he didn’t want to follow in his father’s profession. He says, “I got in the real estate business cold; I didn’t know anything about it, but I got my license and worked at Capital Realty.”

Growing up, he became interested in airplanes through an uncle in Chicago who owned his own plane and often visited, taking young John for flights that got him hooked. Barber earned his pilot’s license at age 15 before he was old enough to get a driver’s license. His mother would have to drive him to the airport, then Southwest Airport, located off Chatham Road north of Lindbergh Drive.

Later he had his own plane, and even spent eight years, along with a friend, building a two-seater plane with a retractable landing gear, which he proudly states was “very fast.” It won a prize at the Oshkosh airplane show in the early 1980s.

Having his own plane became a part of his realty work. For example, he flew to North Carolina, to Lowe’s headquarters, with pictures and markings on maps in order to entice Lowe’s to come to Springfield. He was known for flying to locations of businesses and working in his quiet, determined and persistent way to convince them that Springfield should be a location for their stores.

Working with Charlie Hoogland, Barber helped to find the right locations for Hoogland’s Family Video stores.

Irene, his wife of 45 years, and Barber both acknowledge that getting involved with diet to control diabetes which hit him many years ago, and then CrossFit training, has kept Barber strong. Mike Suhadolnik, his CrossFit coach and friend, visits Barber almost daily to encourage him and help him keep his body strong. Suhadolnik remarks how much Barber has shown others what can happen with staying fit. Three years ago Barber was down in weight, deadlifting 220 pounds, and is featured in a YouTube video, “CrossFit Instinct Longevity: Cheaper than Insulin” (

Barber’s wife adds that the camaraderie and friendship of people from the gym have been a huge piece of John’s persistence. They “give him a focus and are good friends who encourage each other.”

Suhadolnik says that John “gave me the best education in my life. It was a war, having to compete with all his chronic illnesses and with the side effects of medicines. He never quit fighting. We dedicated a t-shirt to him.” The members of the CrossFit team surprised Barber with the shirt that says, “Stay in the Fight.” Barber turned 79 on Aug. 20 and is recovering from another round of treatments. His wife, Irene, says, “I have never heard John complain, not one time.”

Irene’s family story is interesting in its own right – her father, an officer in the Polish Army, was arrested and put in a concentration camp, and when liberated by the Americans settled in a displaced persons camp where he met Irene’s mother. They emigrated from Germany in 1951, along with Irene, her sister and grandmother, and settled in Houston. Her father heard that there were job possibilities in the Midwest, loaded the family onto a Greyhound bus and would get out at stops to look around. The Springfield stop proved to be the place that impressed him and so they settled, her father getting a janitorial job and later moving to a position at Bunn where he developed the machine that makes coffee filters. Her mother worked at Horace Mann.

Both Barber and his wife dote on a grandson who is an athlete at his school in Williamsville and a granddaughter who is heading off to college for nursing.
When asked what really keeps him going, John’s eyes light up, “I have a young wife and a great family.”

Cinda Klickna taught English in District 186, served as president of the Springfield Education Association and the Illinois Education Association, and recently retired. She is always inspired by those who have lived interesting lives, and knows she is lucky to have her 99-year-old father and 90-year-old mother, Ray and Margaret Ackerman, close by.

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