This last spring, on May 3, 2016, St. Mary’s lost what was unarguably one of its finest professors. Professor Tom Barrett taught in the History Department for over 20 years, and all who knew him knew of his indescribable presence, the warmth and the passion he exuded—from the shelves in his office overflowing with Russian books and sci-fi memorabilia, to his love for all things Soviet and all things Jazz, to his love for his students. Many of his past students, even some from more than a decade back, showed up for the Celebration of his Life last month on September 30. His colleagues from the history department, as well as faculty members from across campus, even some from as far as his alma mater of Georgetown, spoke to a packed crowd in the Daugherty Palmer Commons. We came together to hear stories of his life, and speak of the immense loss that he—Tom to many, Barrett to some, Prof. B to me and many others—would leave behind.
Prof. Barrett lived with illness for most of his life. History professor Christine Adams donated her kidney to him in 2002, and he received his sister’s in his youth. But as many of the speakers at the September celebration would attest, that seemed only to give him a greater appreciation for life and the good things that came with it, whether it be good food, film noir, or the Chicago Cubs. One of those greatest passions, though, I believe, was his students: as student after student stood up and spoke about his role in their lives as a mentor, his family members who were present said that they could not have imagined the impact he was having on this little corner of the world at St. Mary’s.
I only had Professor Barrett for one class—what I consider my first college class, the first class I loved: his Core seminar with the funny name that stood out on my transcript, The Radioactive Ants Versus the Crab Robots. Barrett believed in pushing his first year students, at throwing everything he could at them, as if to say, “This is what college is going to be! Better get cracking!” Our discussions were raucous, the films we watched eccentric; when you showed up unprepared to talk he knew, and could make you feel his disappointment, not just for disrespecting him and your classmates but for disregarding your own learning.
My spring semester freshman year, I received a notice out of the blue saying that I’d received an honor in recognition of my performance as a first year. I was a little bewildered, and upon asking was told that the main consideration was a letter, sent without even telling me, by my Core class professor. At the ceremony that May, I introduced the man to my family, and he shook hands with my father with whom he shared an age, and he told my mother, “She’s built for this place, just you wait.” This last May, I got an email saying what everyone had known was coming, but had feared.
Professor Barrett was St. Mary’s to me. He embodied all the good that is to be found here, all the passion that I believe its students can find (as long as they show up, and do the work, he might say). I sat at a table in DPC for that memorial service, beside students who’d been with me in just that one class, students who’d gone on to have him for Western Civ, students who’d had him mentor them through their SMPs, students who’d gotten their first jobs because of his recommendation. We are to be lifelong pupils of Professor Tom Barrett; I know it.
Dr. Tom Barrett died of multiple myeloma at age 55. He leaves behind a wife and two children, and a thousand students still learning from him.