By Clay Evans
For the Coloradan
Sportsman Tred Barta (A&S ex’74), pictured above, has overcome a paralyzing stroke to make his hunting and fishing show more popular than ever.
Brashly opinionated, irascible and confident, Tred Barta (A&S ex’74) is perhaps the most successful host of an outdoor sports television show today, maybe even of all time. In its eighth season his hunting and fishing series, The Best and Worst of Tred Barta on the Versus cable channel, has been described variably as infuriating and inspiring.
“It’s the Howard Stern effect,” says Jeff Macaluso, director of field sports programming and production for Versus. “Love him or hate him, you’ve just gotta watch and see what he’s going to do next. I’m not sure how much of him I could handle, but he’s absolutely authentic.”
Barta, 59, credits the university for setting him on an unconventional path to success and, within certain circles, fame.
But not in the way you might expect.
He says he came to CU from Long Island to join the ski team coached by Bill Marolt (Bus’67). While in school, he took an entry-level business class from associate marketing professor David H. Bowen. He recalls Bowen wore a patch on one eye.
“This guy didn’t like my act,” says Barta, who lives on his ranch in Eagle, Colo., with wife Anni Davis Barta (EnvDes’74), who competed with the pre-Title IX CU women’s ski team. “He told me I would be a failure . . . Looking back at it, the anger I had for professor Bowen probably set me up for success my entire life.”
That success is not inconsiderable, given Barta’s long-running cable series. But in the past two years, his dogged native determination has served him in ways even he could never have imagined.
In spring 2009, after losing feeling in his legs, he suffered a rare “spinal stroke” that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Later diagnosed with the uncommon disease Waldenstrom’s macroglobular anemia, the indefatigable Barta went from pondering suicide to continuing to hunt, fish and host his cable show from his wheelchair, offering powerful inspiration to thousands of viewers.
“Anyone else would have said, ‘That’s it. I’m done,’ ” says Mark Freedman, the man behind the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles media phenomenon who created Barta’s show and is Barta’s manager and dedicated friend. “Once he got past knowing he would survive, he really just needed to get back outdoors.”
Even before he faced the biggest challenge of his life, Barta made for an unlikely TV success story. Freedman first met him in the late 1990s, drawn by Barta’s fishing columns and his pioneering “canyon fishing” off the continental shelf of the East Coast.
“I’m a diehard fisherman, so I called him up and said I wanted to meet him,” Freedman says. “When I met Tred, he was sort of like a comic book character, and I thought he’d be a great host for a TV show.”
Freedman used his connections to produce and shoot a pilot, which was picked up by the Outdoor Life Network, now Versus.
Self-described as “to the right of Attila the Hun” politically, Barta famously eschews modern hunting and fishing technology in favor of bow hunting with weapons of his own making. He is free — to put it mildly — with his opinions and preaches respect for the hunter’s prey and excoriates warm, fuzzy sentimentality toward nature. His motto, oft repeated: “I do things the hard way, the Barta way.”
“What has happened is we’ve gotten so technological about the morality of a supposed clean kill that we go ahead and have high-powered rifles that can shoot 900 yards and use chemicals to attract wildlife,” he says with evident disgust.
“We sit in boxes in cornfields, spray ourselves down [to mask the human scent], use cameras in the woods and go back to the computer to let us know when it is a ‘worthy’ time to go out.”
Unaided by such tools and with great pride, Barta often does not make a kill when he hunts. He prides himself on the fact that he hasn’t read a book in 10 years, has never sent an e-mail and runs the business he inherited from his father. It’s a commercial aviation sales company calledBarta-Iso Aviation, which he runs with John Iso (IntAf’76), formerly Juhani Isokangas, the old-fashioned way — one-on-one.
“It’s one of the most successful retail companies in the world and it’s been in business 67 years,” Barta says. “Despite the computers, video tours and all that, I sell most of my airplanes over the telephone.
“People call me. We have a thing called a conversation. While everybody else is e-mailing, using the Blackberry or video graphics, I’m talking to [the potential customer] about his son and my disability. And before you know it, we have a personal relationship.”
He continues to write and publish articles on hunting and fishing and runs several fishing tournaments that have raised millions of dollars for charity.
He rips the typical American’s distance from his or her food.
“We go down and buy chicken wrapped in cellophane that was killed for you by a proxy,” he says.
In terms equally colorful, brash and at times scatological, he condemns the state of American manhood.
“The average guy has never changed the oil in his car,” he says. “Life is about survival of the fittest, but all the skills have been lost. Patent leather loafers, Nehru jackets, iPods and Blackberries can only get you so far.”
Yet for all his fight, Barta came close to surrendering to his disease.
Trapped in a hospital bed at a series of Denver hospitals in 2009 and facing a future of chemotherapy, 24-hour IV drips and administrations of antitoxins that would bring his liver and kidneys to the brink of shutdown, Barta told his wife he would rather go home and take his chances.
“The original problems were the paralysis, his liver, but really it was about his will to live,” recalls Anni Barta, who was aggressive in learning about the disease and handling all medical decision-making.
“I knew I had to get that back. I knew the only shot was to get him out of the hospital. Even if he got home just one week, he’d get his heart and soul back.”
So she took her husband to their ranch to care for him herself. She reminded him daily his life had changed, but it was far from over. He’d still hunt and fish, she told him. He’d continue to do the show.
“His intention had been to come home, get his gun and shoot himself,” she says. “Believe me, it’s a thought that every paraplegic goes through. And believe me, I didn’t let him have his gun anywhere close.”
To the shock of many, Barta responded. Once he realized he would live and have the use of his hands and arms, he had Freedman call Versus to let them know he wanted to continue his show.
“It took us a minute,” Macaluso says. “But then we said, ‘If Tred wants to do the show, we want to do the show.’ ”
The wheelchair has added challenges to Barta’s already difficult method of hunting and fishing, but it hasn’t kept him from success. In May he shot a bear in British Columbia. Barta has done some trophy hunting but is always willing to eat his quarry, whether it’s a possum, chipmunk or bear. Since his stroke, he has gone scuba diving, fly-fishing and mono-skiing.
“I have a colostomy and a urine bag,” he says. “I have to be winched up onto my horse. I wake up many times crying, ‘Boo-hoo, poor me, boo-hoo.’ But the net is that life is about every single minute. To be honest with you, I’m amazed at what I have been able to accomplish in life with what I have had to work with.”
Tred Barta (A&S ex’74), shown with his dog Ahi, holds multiple world records in fishing and hunting. His paralyzing stroke has not stopped him from hosting his popular show, The Best and Worst of Tred Barta, on Versus.
And that spirit has made him a hero to thousands of viewers who have written to him or to Versus to say he’s inspired them or a friend or relative with a disability to get off the couch and get busy with life.
“His old mantra — the hard way, the Barta way — took on even more and new meaning,” Macaluso says. “Most people in a wheelchair would never think of going out into the field to hunt and fish. He’s still the same old Tred in a lot of ways. But his outlook on life is more inspiring than it has been in the past.”
And lest anyone think Barta left CU only with the dubious “inspiration” of professor Bowen, Barta praises former ski coach and athletic director Marolt for teaching him more than skiing. He also credits the school for not just teaching him a “great work ethic” but for introducing him to Anni, “the love of my life.”
“To be honest, especially since the injury, a cup of coffee with my wife in the morning is worth about $50,000 bucks,” he says. “And Colorado is a wonderful place to be a paraplegic. People here care that you try, not about what you do.”