President Valerie Smith shared the following message with the campus community on October 20, 2021:
With deep sadness, I write to share the news that Dean Emeritus of Admissions Robert A. Barr Jr. ’56 died Thursday, Oct. 7, in Gwynedd, Pa., of complications during cancer treatment. He was 87.
Bob devoted more than 30 years of his professional life to the College, in leadership positions in both admissions and student life. He is remembered for his compassion, quiet encouragement, and support of students throughout and often after their journeys at Swarthmore.
Bob is survived by Eleanor “Nony” Moore Barr, his wife of 60 years and a former archivist in the College’s Peace Collection; sons Richard and Jeffrey; four grandsons; and his brother David. A memorial service will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his memory may be made to the Robert A. Barr Jr. Scholarship c/o Swarthmore College, Attn: Gift Records, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, PA 19081.
I invite you to read more below about Bob and his many contributions to our community.
In Honor of Dean Emeritus of Admissions Bob Barr ’56
Dean Emeritus of Admissions Robert A. Barr Jr. ’56 died Thursday, Oct. 7, at age 87. With his passing, the Swarthmore community has lost one of its most dedicated and steadfast supporters.
“I remember Bob’s interest in the academic and personal lives of students, even after they enrolled at the College,” says Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90, who worked in the Admissions Office as a student. “He had an open-door policy and was always available to lend an ear and offer guidance.”
“As a new member of the Swarthmore community, I have truly enjoyed learning how many lives Bob touched as an alumnus, staff member, volunteer, and friend,” says Vice President for Advancement Liz Wood. “He welcomed everyone with warmth, and his continued support of the College, even after he retired, is a true testament to his affection for this special place and the many alumni with whom he maintained strong relationships over the years.”
Born in Cleveland, Barr grew up in North Jersey and Chicago’s northern suburbs. After graduating from Rumson High School in New Jersey in 1952, he came to Swarthmore.
A decade ago, Barr reflected in an interview on his involvement with student council, the varsity soccer team, and other campus activities. “I was fortunate enough to get into a variety of leadership roles that I’m not sure I was ready for, but the experiences helped me,” he said. “I grew up here — not just physically but emotionally and mentally. It was a wonderful preparation.”
Barr earned a B.A. in political science in 1956 and thought it would lead to law school. But his plans changed when, a year later, he was hired as assistant dean of admissions in the College’s newly formed Admissions Office by the same man who had interviewed him when he was in high school. In 1961, he received an M.A. in American studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
Barr served in admissions until 1962, when he was appointed by then-President Courtney Smith as dean of men, a position he held until 1970. Following Smith’s death in 1969, Barr considered pursuing a college presidency himself and explored the idea during three years as assistant to the president of Chatham College in Pittsburgh. He ultimately decided against it because he missed being more directly connected with students.
In 1977, after four years as a dean at Dickinson College, Barr returned to Swarthmore, this time to stay, serving as dean of admissions until 1994. He worked in development for two additional years before retiring in 1996.
Memories of his early mentors remained. “Courtney Smith got me started in college administration, supported and encouraged me every day, and challenged me to reach farther and higher than, at times, I thought was possible,” Barr said. “I don’t know what my life would have been like without his influence, but I can’t believe it would have been as satisfying and — I hope — useful.”
Any doubt of Barr’s usefulness was put to rest in 2011, when a group of alums spearheaded the effort to endow a scholarship as “a fitting way to honor a man who gave much of his life to Swarthmore.” Named for Barr, the scholarship recognizes him “for his contributions to the lives of Swarthmore students; as an unfailingly supportive adviser to so many he admitted to the College, and as a role model who taught us how to treat and respect one another.”
When Barr learned of the scholarship from two of the alums who started it, they noted afterward that it was the first time in Barr’s life that he had been speechless. Later, Barr admitted that the recognition felt terrific and that he had been “deeply affected by it.”
An avid birdwatcher, Barr enjoyed traveling in retirement and spending time on Cape Cod and Sanibel Island. He also served on the boards of Foulkeways at Gwynedd, where he lived for many years, and Germantown Friends School. Barr also frequently returned to campus for events such as Alumni Weekend and Garnet Weekend.
“He would graciously take my calls and offer advice and support,” Bock says. “He and Nony were regulars at the annual scholar-donor lunches, and he loved engaging with students who received the scholarship that bears his name.”
At this year’s virtual reunion, Barr received the Joseph B. Shane ’25 Alumni Service Award — a fitting honor since he shared many characteristics of the award’s namesake, a longtime College administrator known for his warmth, humor, dedication to the College, and Quaker spirit. The award recognized Barr’s support of the Chester Children’s Chorus, the Scott Arboretum, and the Swarthmore Fund, as well as his numerous volunteer contributions, including serving on his 65th Reunion committee and the McCabe Award Selection Committee.
“Losing an institutional figure like Bob is never easy,” Wood says, “but I am grateful that his memory and spirit of helping people will continue to live on through the students who benefit from his scholarship.”
Indeed, Barr was inspired by the College, and in turn helped students achieve their goals. “Swarthmore is a magical kind of place to me,” he said. “I’ve seen it transform lives and bring order out of chaos, happiness out of frustration, and help people become successful according to their own definition of success. What’s not to like about that?”