Who is Duke, to you? Invariably, many will think of a favorite professor or classmate, perhaps even Coach K or J.J. Redick.
For us, however, the answer is Stuart Barr.
We met Stuart by virtue of his constant presence in Perkins Library, where he spent many a day listening to classical music and soaking up as much knowledge as humanly possible. Very seldom do you meet a retiree who spends more time learning than you do—but that was Stuart!
We were so enchanted by the man that we made sure to continue the friendship even after graduating. We talked sometimes over the telephone but mostly by email, where our correspondence overflowed with literary suggestions, fiery philosophical debate, sports talk, Duke news: in a word, everything. In searching through emails, we recently found that Stuart had sent us north of 1,400 in all.
Sadly, Stuart passed away in early October, and with him, a bit of Duke’s very essence. Outside of maybe a few notable Duke basketball players, it wouldn’t be too much to say that Stuart was the most recognizable man on campus. You could pick him out from 400 feet across the quad, especially on those gorgeous North Carolina days—walking slowly, deliberately, usually whistling, always with a bucket hat on top and a copy of The Chronicle in his right hand—no doubt on his way to Perkins Library. By our count he usually spent ten hours a day in Perkins, arriving as soon as it opened and staying until 6 or 7 at night.
Stuart attended Duke as an undergraduate (Trinity ‘64), then Duke Law School (‘67), then had a career as a lawyer, proudly serving on the USS Intrepid in Vietnam. But despite these varied experiences, he believed there was always more to learn: “So many books, so little time,” to paraphrase Mae West. It was one of his guiding mottos and something he repeated to us probably a hundred times. It often seemed he’d read the whole of Perkins Library—and perhaps he truly had, given how much time he spent there. Not surprisingly, Stuart also had an excellent memory and could tranquilize the mind for half an hour or more in a web of historical storytelling, more often than not weaving himself into the narrative.
Always pithy, witty and wise in his own writing, Stuart demanded no less from the students he tutored. We’ll never forget how much red ink he left on the first draft of Jonathan’s essay about the Duke economics department—and good thing, because the final version turned out to be miles ahead of the first. Stuart also spent hundreds of hours editing the essays of international graduate students, always in search of the winning word, the right turn of phrase, the appropriate voice in which to convey their ideas. To this day, Stuart remains one of the fiercest editors we have ever known. (It’s a scary thought, but one wonders what he might say about this tribute.)
Why does Stuart so embody the spirit of Duke in our minds? Well, for one thing, he loved the school. A former chief editor of the yearbook, he knew Duke’s history, the professors (going back sixty years), the hoops, the football and he even got excited about the “non-revenue” sports. In addition, he adored the campus grounds. If he wasn’t in Perkins, you could find him offering a tour in the Gardens, charming visitors from all around the world and showing off the Gardens’ manifest beauty.
In our short time as alumni, we’ve already begun to experience the various ways in which professors, religious leaders and other university employees can preserve our connection to the university. Given that Stuart’s association with Duke later in life was entirely voluntary and unofficial, his physical presence on campus solidified him in our minds as a sort of intellectual par excellence. In exactly that spirit, he passed along to each of us a collection of his books and delighted in selecting who should receive which. It was a fitting and generous parting gift.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Stuart, his family, and the countless students and acquaintances who had the good fortune of knowing this remarkable man.
Jonathan Stern, Harrison Ferlauto and Carter Duncan are members of the Class of 2017. Harrison is also a member of the Class of 2021 at the Medical School.
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