Celebrating Converse University President Jeffrey H. Barker’s Life and Legacy

Converse University

On August 27, 2021, the Converse community united to commemorate and reminisce about Converse President Dr. Jeffrey H. Barker, while still grieving his sudden loss.

The unexpected death of President Barker on July 21, 2021 left Converse, the Spartanburg community, and all who knew President Barker shocked and saddened.

Tributes immediately began pouring in from alumni, co-workers, current students, family and even someone who Dr. Barker had interviewed for a position at Converse in 2005.

Many knew Dr. Barker as a quiet, poised, pensive man who would be seen walking campus in a full suit and tie, even in the sweltering South Carolina summer heat. Dave Meurer, Dr. Barker’s brother-in-law, shared a side of Dr. Barker that not many people had seen. “He had longish blonde hair and played a guitar, singing the songs of Don McClean,” Meurer wrote. “He drove a red MG convertible back then. He was a DJ at KBLF radio in Red Bluff, CA. He also worked on the family cattle ranch. Jeff rode a horse, moved irrigation pipe in hot weather, and engaged me in conversation about philosophy when the caliber of my reading at that time was Mad Magazine.”

President Barker had planned to retire as Provost in June 2021 and would continue with Converse in the upcoming years as a full-time Philosophy professor. He joined Converse in 2002 as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, and in 2015 became our first Provost. Dr. Barker had served as Converse’s Chief Academic and Student Life Officer, SACSCOC Accreditation Liaison, and a Professor of Philosophy. But, when the opportunity arose, Dr. Barker graciously accepted the position of President of Converse University on July 6, 2021.

President Barker was genuinely honored to serve as Converse University president and believed a university truly is the people who make up the community. He was consistently inspired by Converse’s mission to “See clearly, decide wisely, act justly.” President Barker planned to continue incorporating that mission to inspire the Converse community and to help students create personalized educational pathways leading to flourishing futures. His passing on July 21, 2021 stunned the Converse community. The community quickly united to process, grieve, and share condolences.

On Friday, August 27, 2021, the Converse community formally gathered to honor and celebrate the life and legacy of President Barker. The memorial was live-streamed by WSPA and Fox Carolina.

In the forestage sat Dr. Barker’s favorite rocking chair with his regalia elegantly draped across it, as a tribute and symbolic remembrance. The memorial service commenced with a selection from The Four Seasons played on the organ by Brennan Szafron, DM, while faculty solemnly processed. Converse University Chaplain, Reverend Eliza Smith opened the service with a hopeful prayer.

Interim President Boone J. Hopkins highlighted President Barker’s many roles in his 20 years at Converse. Hopkins spoke about how enthusiastic President Barker was to serve as Converse’s 11th President. Hopkins spoke of his awe for the vision and passion President Barker had for Converse. He spoke of the transformations Converse had already seen under Barker’s two-decade leadership including the introduction of nine new undergraduate major programs, seven new minors, and ten new graduate programs including the EdD in Professional Leadership which elevated Converse to level five doctoral-granting institution. He was a key figure in establishing the Converse International School and Converse’s partnership with Anhui Medical University and Dalian Art College.

Hopkins seemed most impressed by President Barker’s unwavering devotion and investment to the people of Converse. President Barker attended nearly every event at Converse, from capstones to recitals, to athletics events and gallery talks, in addition to his demanding role.

Hopkins’s words echoed the thoughts of many in the Converse community grieving the loss of President Barker. “Personally, I have been missing my missing friend and mentor,” Hopkins said. “His wisdom and thoughtful, balanced approach to challenging situations continue to serve as a daily inspiration.”

David Church, DHA, (Vice President, Oncology & Support Services, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, Adjunct Faculty at Converse) spoke to the importance of celebrating President Barker’s life – “Jeff,” as he knew him.

Church spotlighted Jeff and Jan Barker’s vast community contributions that the couple always managed to find time for. Church emphasized President Barker’s selflessness, saying, “It was not about him; it was about you and students in our community; our future leaders.”

The Converse Gospel Choir performed Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water. Its poignant lyrics were a fitting tribute to President Barker’s strength and poise.

President Barker’s former student, Stinson Woodward Ferguson ’07, read an excerpt from The Apology of Socrates; Board of Trustees Chair Sandra Shearouse Morelli ’78, read On Grief for Lost Friends. Both were writings from Plato, one of president Barker’s favorite philosophers.

Dr. Kevin DeLapp, Department of Religion and Philosophy Chair, spoke on behalf of the faculty and encouraged the Converse community to remember Dr. Barker through his intellectual passions and own writings, saying, “Jeff truly lived the examined life– his philosophy’s greatest aspiration.”

Dr. DeLapp spoke of the different capacities in which people knew Dr. Barker — Barker’s dry wit, not escaping anyone. DeLapp said, “Students knew him, in their words, ‘as the serious professor, their funny professor and their seriously funny professor’.”

DeLapp expounded upon Dr. Barker’s passion for teaching philosophy and challenging students to think deeply. Dr. DeLapp shared, “I know he considered it a philosophical job well done when a student truly confronted ultimate questions about the meaning of life.”

DeLapp concluded with a call to action to carry on and keep Converse strong, as Dr. Barker would have done. “Converse was a part of Jeff’s and his family’s hearts. And Jeff, Jan and Sam will always be a part of Converse’s heart,” DeLapp said.

A touching interlude: Andante From Sonata in C, was played on the piano by Steven Graff, DMA, Assistant Professor of Piano and Douglas Weeks, DM, Professor Emeritus of Piano.

Former Converse Chaplain, Jason P. Loscuito, MTS spoke about his long-standing relationship with Jeff and the challenges of making sense out of this senseless tragedy. Loscuito said, “When tragedy strikes and grief is raw, people of faith, whatever faith that might be, often turn to sacred texts, philosophical texts or to poetry to find comfort. He read a text from the Book of Genesis 22, and then gave a message saying, “Every unbearable agony eventually becomes a painful memory, and finally, a sacred story.”

Husband, father, friend, philosopher, athlete, musician, volunteer, President, colleague—whatever hat Dr. Barker was wearing, he was always a devoted supporter of our beloved Converse.

As one alumna eloquently stated, “Dr. Barker’s leadership, mentorship, and friendship will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to live on through all those who were inspired by him.”

Prepared by Converse University.