Opinion: Goodbye, friend
by Michael Ceraso
Editor’s note: Oris V. Barber, 86, passed away May 5 after a full life enjoying the company of others during his travels biking around the country. He also made a profound impact on their lives. Here is one story from a longtime friend. His obituary was published in the May 14 edition of the COURIER. —PW
Pedaling across Old Route 66 on a bike that logged 115,000 miles and four cross country trips, Oris Barber stopped in Galena, Kansas on his way home to Claremont. He captured a picture of a retired 1951 Harvester Tow Truck. Oris printed and delivered the image to Gina Rodriguez, a waitress for 20 years at the Village Grille who became friends during years serving him.
Oris was Claremont’s present conversationalist, always leaning in, asking questions, and following up in surprising ways.
“Oris met my husband once and found out he loved Disney Pixar’s Cars and the character, Mater,” said Mrs. Rodriguez. The 1951 Harvest truck was an inspiration for the beloved Cars character.
Oris was 18 when he enlisted in the Marines with three of his friends from Tallahassee, Florida. He served as an honor guard at the United States Embassy in Rome, Italy, where he developed his habit of putting others first.
“His focus wasn’t on the pain, or the blisters, from riding a bicycle, but on the people he met, and the experiences they brought to his life,” said James Thurman, who met Oris twenty years ago.
Oris journaled about his bike travels across the country on crazyguyonabike.com. Riders learned where to avoid torrential rain, washboard highways, and the routines Oris used to care for his bike after long rides. In between his travels, he stopped at restaurants, motels, and farms, where he introduced himself to the local servers, clerks, and ranchers. He posted their photos and bio-vignettes on his site, along with the beautiful vistas that wrapped around their towns.
“I read all of his blogs on the site. The tempo of how he wrote and ‘folksy style of writing put me in mind of Will Rogers – who ‘never met a man he didn’t like,” said Peter Foltz, who corresponded with Oris through the site and Facebook.
Oris had landing spots across Claremont, drawing people with various backgrounds to each location. They bonded over their differences, discovered shared interests, formed a camaraderie, and they watched out for each other while downing loads of coffee.
Oris never blended in. He often wore a brown stetson hat and creased pants and an ironed Hawaiian shirt, courtesy of Rocky’s Dry Cleaning. He had a closet filled with vintage clothing, including a mustard jacket with a pop-up collar, that turned heads. The image of his General Douglas McArthur ray bans and gilded shark tooth necklace stayed with people long after they met the 86 year-old.
In 2001, Donna Lowe relocated to Claremont and she noticed Oris. Mrs. Lowe spotted Mr. Barber at the 42nd Bagel, where he was sitting and eating and chatting with two telephone electricians and a published author, or what she endearingly describes, “The Old Man’s Club.”
“He always had these funny things to say. I would ask, ‘where do you come up with this stuff,’” said Mrs. Lowe. “‘Donna, I spend hours and hours on a bicycle by myself. You start to think of everything under the sun to analyze.’”
“He saw beauty in a lot of people, specifically, he saw beauty in their struggle,” said Gabrielle Tunnelle, a former barista at the Last Drop. Mr. Barber and Mrs. Tunnelle’s carefree attitudes sparked a decade-long relationship.
“He never met a stranger,” said Michael Manning, the founder of Last Drop.
“When he found someone hurting and he could help, he would. I struggled with my diabetes after I received my diagnosis. But he was outside of the Last Drop every day, and every day we would talk. He understood what I was going through because he had seen other people go through it.”
Oris was the only customer invited to Mr. Manning’s wedding.
One afternoon, he approached Mrs. Tunnelle with an odd request: he wanted to post an ad on Craigslist, looking for a driver to take him from Florida to New Orleans.
“Oris! Your stuff is going to get stolen,” she said in shock.
“Oh Gabby, you need to trust more people,” he said. Mrs. Tunnelle offered to drive Oris, he accepted, and the two created their own road movie.
In the last year, Oris was hobbled from a back injury and COVID restrictions.
“We talked about everything,” said Tee Nguyen, the owner of the Hands Down Nail Salon, a business that has struggled to stay afloat in the pandemic. “It helped a lot to have someone to talk to, with everything happening.”
Oris once said, “they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
The people he touched will never stop saying his name.
Oris’s memorial will be held at Walters on May 24th from 11:30 to 1:30pm.