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Bruce Barker: The Retirement of a Purdue Legend

You know the difference between a hero and a legend don’t you?

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“The Sandlot” Cast Reunion Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to return to Purdue. I went with my best friend from middle school, high school, college roommate for four of my six years at Purdue, the best man at my wedding and all around great guy Matt. We had seen each other only sporadically since we both got married. It’s just the nature of life. We live many states away and are focusing our time and money on other things.

We last got together during the 2022 football season when Purdue came to Maryland. It’s always sports that bring us back together. Maybe it’s because men just naturally are taught to not talk about their feelings, or maybe it’s just because we love sports, but there’s a bond between men who watch sports together and talk sports together. It just lasts. It’s hard to explain for even the best of storytellers. So, surely it was sports that brought my friend Matt and I together once more right? Well, yes and no.

It was announced earlier this year that a Purdue legend was retiring. No, it wasn’t Matt Painter. It wasn’t Dave Shondell, heck, it wasn’t even basketball announcer Carson Tucker. It was none other than The Piano Man himself, Bruce Barker. You’re probably wondering why this story has a picture of The Sandlot as it’s photo well I promise I’ll get there.

The number of nights that Matt and I, along with numerous others, spent at the Neon Cactus and in the Rusty Bucket Saloon is incalculable. We’d head out with folks on Thursday night, pay our $5 cover, maybe buy a new Cactus cup if we’d lost ours (or if they had the ever elusive gold cup which cost $1 more), and then we’d get the cheapest 32 oz. rail rum and coke you’ve ever had. Sometimes they would mistakenly give you a whiskey and coke and oh man that was a shocking discovery each time. Sometimes you might splurge and get the 32 oz. Long Island. As we got our drinks all Matt would have to do was nod in the general direction of the Piano Bar and we knew where we were spending the next hour plus of our night.

We weren’t alone in this tradition either. You were never alone in the Piano Bar, even if you showed up by yourself. There were always friends to be made. There was a party side to win. There was a party side to maintain. But perhaps most importantly, there were songs to be sung. Nothing else mattered, not even your phone. I was at Purdue when the proliferation of smart phones really began. Everyone knew that being on your phone, smart or not, while in the Piano Bar could get you called out by Bruce, the show stopped, and get you mocked by the entire crowd. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to experience so for me the phone stayed in the pocket. This was just as true in 2007 as it was when I returned in 2023.

Matt and I planned a Purdue trip, his first since 2010, on the basis of seeing Bruce perform one more time (and of course squeeze in a football game, a basketball game, and a breakfast club). We wanted to live like we were 22 again. Not many people get that opportunity, but because Bruce was retiring it gave us one last shot. Experiencing a night out at the Cactus until 2:00 AM, and then Harry’s until 3:00 AM, followed by Fat Franks after that at the age of 37 is a lot different than 22. But you know what was the same? The riveting performance put on by Bruce Barker.

The line was long to get in to see him but it was worth the wait. I was joined by my brother, who is even older than me, and a number of other friends who wanted to see The Piano Man one last time. Matt made shirts celebrating the farewell tour, and now I’m getting to The Sandlot connection, with Bruce’s silhouette on them. We wore them to the show. The shirt included that famous quote from The Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” We got a chance to go up to Bruce after the show to give him a shirt and let him know how much he meant to us during our time in college. He entertained us for so many nights and all he asked was our attention and for us to participate alongside him and the rest of the crowd. A small price to pay. Bruce was nice enough to actually have an in depth conversation with us and show us some of the gifts he had received just that night including a custom painting. It’s a testament to the man himself that people travelled hundreds of miles to see him one last time before he retired.

You may be reading this and think that it’s silly to focus on a guy that just plays guitar and piano while people drink and yell at him. To that I’d say that he also has a drum machine! But seriously, there’s something incredibly beautiful about sharing your talent with the world. And Bruce Barker has a talent. He’s an entertainer. No matter what happened the rest of the week I, along with countless other Purdue students over the years, knew that we had Thursday to look forward to. We had Thursday to drown our sorrows after a bad exam. We had Thursday to celebrate getting our funding for grad school (that’s how I celebrated at least). We had Thursday to find someone to be with, even if it was just for one night.

For one night in November 2023 I had Thursday again, to reunite with my best friend, to put my cares away, and to scream out the words to Mr. Brightside while I held a 32 oz. rum and coke (with grenadine on top, we call it The Elitist). There was nowhere else I’d rather have been that Thursday.

As I type this Bruce Barker is playing his very last show at the Neon Cactus, unless he comes back on his birthday in a few years as he suggested he might. I’ll always be glad that I got one more night to enjoy the music of a legend. So long Bruce.

For those asking, here is the link to the shirt my friend designed and gave to Bruce and that Bruce actually wore last night during his show. While this shirt was designed by my friend I am in no way receiving any money from the proceeds of this shirt.