Former Dean Embodied 'the Best' of Arts, Humanities
By Sean Smith
Rev. J. Robert Barth, SJ, never let the business of running the College of Arts and Sciences interfere with the pleasure of having a good chat about cinema or other forms of art.
Once, winding down a conversation with a colleague about the state of academics in A&S, Fr. Barth recounted enthusiastically his recent viewing of the 1931 film classic "Dracula." He then recited his favorite line, shifting into a chillingly polite, near-perfect Bela Lugosi voice: "I never drink...wine."
In public and in private, on the Robsham Theater stage or in his own office, Fr. Barth - who died on Sept. 22 at age 74 after a recurrence of cancer- was an avid and unabashed champion of the arts at Boston College. His 11-year tenure as A&S dean helped to usher in what has often been described as a "renewal" of the arts on campus.
Fr. Barth, who stepped down as A&S dean in 1999 and following a sabbatical became the inaugural James P. McIntyre Professor of English, first came to BC as the Thomas I. Gasson Professor for the 1985-86 academic year.
In the first years following his 1988 appointment as A&S dean, Fr. Barth established the Music and Theater departments and oversaw the opening of the McMullen Museum of Art.
Perhaps his most visible and enduring achievement was founding the Boston College Arts Council, which organizes the University's annual Arts Festival. The event, which began in 1999, draws some 10,000 BC alumni and area residents to enjoy a wide variety of performance and artistic activities offered by BC faculty, staff and students.
"He loved every aspect of the arts, and he represented the best of everything about the humanities," said Arts Council Chair Prof. Jeffery Howe (Fine Arts).
Fr. Barth was honored at the inaugural festival as the first recipient of the Arts Council Faculty Award. A&S also established the J. Robert Barth, SJ, Award for Excellence in the Arts, given annually at Commencement to a graduating senior for outstanding contribution to the arts on campus.
Interviewed by Boston College Chronicle in 1998 after announcing he would step down as A&S dean, Fr. Barth explained his devotion to the arts at BC: "The Jesuit tradition has always included a high interest and regard for the arts. So as a Jesuit institution, one which places such a high premium on formation of the individual, it is natural that Boston College reflect that tradition. That was a priority right from the beginning."
Colleagues point out that Fr. Barth played a key role in boosting the sciences at BC. Under his aegis, the University's program in physics was strengthened, and the Chemistry, Geology and Biology departments saw the regular arrival of major fellowships and grants. In addition, Fr. Barth played a major role in revising and expanding the University's core curriculum to include a greater emphasis on cultural diversity, writing and the arts, and the creation of a University Core Development Committee.
Fr. Barth's excellence extended to his teaching and spiritual vocations, colleagues also note.
"He was absolutely loved in the classroom," said retired Rattigan Professor of English John Mahoney. "Whitney Balliet, the New Yorker jazz critic, used this metaphor to describe a favorite musician: 'A feeling that lets you in.' If that isn't Bob Barth, I don't know what is."
"For all the attention he gave to the arts and academia, he never forgot his pastoral roots," said Jesuit Institute Director Prof. T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, who chairs the Music Department and was one of its first full-time faculty members. "He celebrated liturgy on campus regularly, and was always ready to give spiritual direction."
But Fr. Barth's love of the arts - and their importance to his vocation as a Jesuit academic - was the most evident aspect of his deanship. He appeared in productions at Robsham Theater, concluded administrative meetings with poetry recitals, and, capping his tenure as A&S dean in the spring of 1999, served as narrator for the Boston College Symphony Orchestra's rendition of Aaron Copland's "Portrait of Lincoln."
In recent years, Fr. Barth found another avenue for his artistic expression, recording two CDs of read poems by William Wordsworth, Francis Thompson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ.
Fr. Barth was the son of Philip C. Barth of Juno Beach, Fla., and the late Mary Eustace Barth. He is survived by three brothers - Philip C. Barth Jr. of Juno Beach, Fla.; Dr. Eric Barth and his wife Phyllis, of Park Rapid, Minn.; and Roger V. Barth and his wife Christina, of Bethesda, Md. - and two sisters: Sue Starapoli and her husband Frank, of Rochester, NY; and Shari McCarthy and her husband Daniel, of Bonita Springs, Fla. He also was the brother of the late Karl E. Barth of Elmira, NY.
He was buried in the New York Province of the Society of Jesus Cemetery in Auriesville, NY.
-Reid Oslin contributed to this story. •