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Rick Barber, longtime KOA overnight icon, in brave struggle with ALS disease

In January 2012, Rick Barber, who began hosting KOA's overnight shift thirty years earlier, found himself out of a job, replaced by syndicated programming amid budget cuts and sinking revenue.

Most people would react angrily to such an ouster, but Barber responded with gratitude and class, just as fans from across North America who'd listened for decades would have expected. And according to a longtime friend, he's facing a diagnosis of ALS, often known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, in much the same way.

We profiled Barber in the 2000 Message column entitled "At 3 a.m., KOA's Rick Barber is the only game in town," and the headline wasn't exaggerated. Even then, when terrestrial radio was relatively healthy and profitable, especially compared to now, no other local station broadcast live and local talk all night long. And thanks to KOA's 50,000 watt signal -- the outlet's nickname is "The Blowtorch" -- his program could be heard over much of the continent. A post on last year's item about his departure from the station put his reach into perspective. A listener wrote, "I am situated in Yorkton, Sask. Canada, about 200 miles north of the border, same latitude as Denver. With a clock radio beside my pillow, listening to Rick Barber every night became almost an addiction."

Barber behind the microphone in 2000.
Barber behind the microphone in 2000.
Photo by Susan Goldstein

At the time he left KOA, he was hoping he'd be able to do fill-in work at the signal, but there were few if any opportunities to do so. Still, he remained hopeful that a new gig would come along. His Facebook page lists his status as "Temporarily out of work Radio Talk Show Host."

As the winter of 2012 melted into spring, Barber kept active by playing golf five times a week, and he seemed in fine health, says longtime friend Michele Fields of Bon Jour Matchmaking Service, who's written a blog about Barber.

Then, five months ago, something happened. According to Fields, Barber thought he'd pulled a muscle in his leg, and a doctor he visited treated the ailment as such. But the leg kept getting weaker and weaker, and after visiting a number of other physicians, he was told he had ALS.

After receiving this news, Fields says, Barber visited a chiropractor in Lakewood, who disagreed with the ALS diagnosis and said if he paid $1,200 for treatments over the next month, he could return him to 90 percent of his previous function. But the only thing this outlay of cash did for him was worsen his already precarious financial condition as his health continued to deteriorate.

Before long, he'd moved from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair -- and because he lived with his girlfriend in a third-floor apartment accessible only by stairs, he was virtually unable to leave. After one outing, Fields says, friends had to more or less carry him up the stairs. So he seldom left, communicating with friends like Fields mainly by telephone.

Peter Boyles with Rick Barber in January 2012.
Peter Boyles with Rick Barber in January 2012.

Eventually, a neurologist with CU who Fields met put Barber into contact with an ALS expert at the university, and the ALS diagnosis was reconfirmed. Around the same time, Barber and his loved ones came to the conclusion that the apartment was no longer safe for him, so they began exploring assisted living facilities. Fields soon pointed him to EMERITUS at Highline, 1640 South Quebec Way, which she says went out of its way to make it financially feasible for Barber to get the help and care he needs. He moved in on Monday.

How's he dealing with the situation? "Better than I'd be," Fields says. "He's facing everything head on, and there's no subject you can't talk about with him.

She adds that "his voice is still the same -- pretty strong. He's very calm, much calmer than he was when he was all alone at the apartment, and he's still smoking his cigarettes. I bought him some cigars," as well as some rum-raisin ice cream, to encourage him to keep eating.

Meanwhile, admirers like Tom Jensen, music director for the Junior Symphony Guild, are rallying to raise money for Barber's continued care. Here's his Facebook post with the details:

Hi, I am happy to report that the Rick Barber (Richard Barber) Trust -- # 3026864420 -- took 30 seconds at my local Chase Bank. Dropped off a check and am glad to help Rick during his illness. Please share!!! You can also mail it in to Chase Bank re: Rick Barber, 5800 S Parker RD, Aurora CO 80015

In the meantime, Fields's blog, reproduced below in its entirety, pays tribute to the way Barber is dealing with the biggest challenge of his life.

"A lot of things are written about people after they're gone, and he's not gone yet," she says. "But I wanted to write it now, so I could let everyone know how brave he's being."

Continue to read Michele Fields's blog about her good friend, Rick Barber.

"A DEDICATION TO MY DEAR FRIEND RICK BARBER" by Michele Fields

I can't think of a person who deserves this fate less than Rick Barber, former KOA talk show host and my friend. Rick and I met ten years ago when his producer called me after reading my columns in The Denver Daily News on Dating and Relationships. He asked me to appear on the show which aired from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Although that was not really my target audience Rick's reputation preceded him and I thought it would be good practice.

Rick and I had such a great chemistry on that first show that on the air he invited me to appear monthly, which lasted for three years. Meanwhile during that time Rick and I hung out discussing possible TV ideas, collaborating on topics for our shows and he attended several events with me that I was writing about on another weekly column in The Denver Daily News covering nonprofit fundraisers.

Our antics grew into a deep friendship talking everyday, getting together periodically and being there for each other. A few years ago I had foot surgery and Rick was one of three friends who was such a big help to me with doctor's appointments, shopping and anything else I was unable to do at that time. Something I so appreciate and will never forget. I have been so fortunate to call Rick one of my closest friends. He knows the definition of friendship and walks the talk!

Michele Fields and Rick Barber.
Michele Fields and Rick Barber.

Then a little over a year ago Clear Channel let Rick and many others go due to new management decisions. Rick always looked at the upside conscientiously applying for lots of other talk show positions at a variety of stations both in state and out of state. While doing that he enjoyed his favorite pastime of golf. Rick could golf 5 days a week and never tire of it! He cleverly applied for a position at a golf course so that he could play there for free and although the hours very crazy early, he thoroughly enjoyed the work and being outdoors on the course.

In around September he experienced what he thought was a pulled muscle that took him off the course for a few weeks. Rick is special in that he does not have a problem going to a doctor (like many men) if there is an issue. The muscle seemed to heal but in fairly short order he started experiencing weakness in that leg. One never jumps to the conclusion that it is something serious so he still chalked it up to a sore muscle pull.

Eventually as you may know by now it progressed leaving him weaker and weaker having to use a cane for assistance for stabilization when he walked. That went on for a few months but the strong leg started to weaken and he found in short order the need for a walker. Shockingly after only using the walker for about 3 weeks his strong leg weakened and he is now in a wheelchair.

But Rick is the bravest person I know...he faces all of this head on not shrinking away from any subject from end of life to okay what is next, okay now it's a wheelchair, okay now it's an assisted living facility I found for him, okay whatever comes next. He stays calm, smokes his cigarettes and the cigars I give him and just takes one thing at a time. He is seeing a doctor who fortuitously phoned me for my service and turned out to be an expert on neuroviral diseases at the University of Colorado and we are hoping she comes up with another diagnosis or prognosis than the first of ALS.

Everywhere I look in my house I think of Rick because of something he fixed, helped me with, enjoyed like my cat who loves him. Little did I know in December that would be the last time he would visit my home when we exchanged Christmas gifts. I've been holding a bottle of wine and a wine cooler for him for a year but now I guess I will have to take them over to EMERITUS at Highline where he is residing. The staff is wonderful and the Executive Director, Tom Hunter, was kind enough to work with me negotiating with his superior to waive the entrance fee for Rick and get him a more affordable monthly fee for a private room.

The staff is very attentive to Rick's needs and he is safe and well taken care of there.

This is a description of my friend Rick Barber celebrating the person he is and how very brave he has been while going through this devastating illness.

More from our Media archive: "Rick Barber out after thirty years at KOA, Jon Caldara's show also ending."