Colorado College’s Writing Center will be renamed in honor of Professor Emerita of English Ruth Barton at noon, Friday, Dec. 7, in the Learning Commons at Tutt Library. Barton, a guiding force in the early years of the Writing Center, CC’s journalism program, Cutler Publications, and a host of other writing-related endeavors at Colorado College, died Nov. 23. She was 78.
A memorial service will be held in Shove Chapel at 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, with a reception afterward in Gates Common Room.
“The Writing Center was her baby,” said English Professor Barry Sarchett, who came to the college in 1981, at first to teach half time and work in the newly established writing program. He recalled Barton’s “seductive Texas drawl” when she aimed to persuade.
“She was larger than life,” Sarchett said. “We all missed her when she was retired, and now we’ll miss her even more.”
Barton, known for her love of poetry and her dedication to students, first began teaching at CC in 1964 as a lecturer in English. Faculty and students alike recall her kindness and fearlessness as she navigated turbulent decades of change at the college.
Former students remember a generous teacher who took them seriously.
“She was the first person who ever told me I could be a writer,” said Michael Nava ‘76, a Stanford-educated lawyer whose books include a series of well-regarded detective novels featuring Henry Rios, a gay criminal defense lawyer. “She gave me permission to go about fulfilling that ambition.”
Nava’s first class at CC was a two-block creative writing course with Barton. “She was a monumentally important person to me,” Nava said. “She not only encouraged my writing, but also understood my position at the school, as a poor scholarship boy in a school that was basically middle and upper-class.”
A specialist in late 19th and early 20th century poetry, Barton wrote her dissertation on W.B. Yeats at the University of Wisconsin. It was in a class on the romantic poets that Molly Gross ’96, now associate director of the Writing Center, felt emboldened as a writer.
“She encouraged risk-taking, a creative approach to writing,” Gross said. “But she was rigorous, too. She was really good at guiding, ushering you along the way, even if neither of us knew where you were going.”
Early on, Barton lobbied for a college-wide writing program, which began in the mid-70s when a professor was freed for a block to help students. By 1979, the faculty approved an all-college writing program, including what became the Writing Center, “to help all students write more clearly, cogently, and gracefully by offering a wide variety of writing opportunities,” Barton wrote in 1988. She recruited faculty by holding monthly lunches to discuss teaching writing. In the early days, she invited new faculty to retreats at the Baca to discuss teaching writing. Her husband, the late Tom K. Barton, professor emeritus of history, shared her conviction that writing is central to learning.
Barton enthusiastically supported the work of the center, said Molly Wingate, the Writing Center’s second director and now an author and writing consultant. “She was warm and gracious and made it really easy for people to participate,” Wingate said.
With writing at the core of her teaching, Barton and her husband continued conversations about literature and history by inviting students to their Spanish-style bungalow on Custer Avenue just east of the college.
Her small son, Tiff, was often underfoot as students gathered in the Barton living room to discuss poetry and life. Once a year, students would come in costume for an Alice in Wonderland party to commemorate the Lewis Carroll novel, which she taught in her children’s literature class. Often, students would incorporate the youngster into re-enactments of scenes from the book.
He remembers that his mother would soak raisins in rum and light them on fire, tossing the flaming specks to willing students in commemoration of the snap-dragonfly, a character in the book whose head was a burning raisin.
Tiff, who graduated from CC in 1992, ended up taking the children’s literature class from his mother. “It was wonderful,” he said. “I lived that class.”
One student who spent a lot of time in the Barton living room was David Owen, who transferred to Harvard after attending CC for two years in the mid-70s. Owen never took a class from Barton, “but she was still the most important teacher I had in college,” he wrote in a 1994 commemoration in a special issue of Leviathan, the student literary magazine.
“Through the force of her intelligence and her enormous kindness, she attracted a large extended family of literary dependents – some of them her own students, many others not – and she surprised them by taking them fairly seriously. Somehow she left all of them intellectually more presentable,” wrote Owen, who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Barton was instrumental in setting up Cutler Publications, the umbrella group for student publications on campus. It arose out of a crisis in 1969, when the student newspaper, then called the Tiger, reported on a college symposium on violence by printing a large photo of a four-letter word next to a wire photo of a police officer beating a demonstrator. “Which is really obscene?” the caption asked.
In the storm that ensued, Barton helped set up Cutler to keep student publications at arm’s length from administrators and trustees, who had angrily interrogated the student editor.
“She devoted a great deal of time and attention to making sure the student publications worked,” said Political Science Professor David Hendrickson ‘76, who edited the Leviathan when he was a student and now administers the journalism program. “She jealously guarded the independence of the Cutler board against the administration. That was always a big thing with her.”
As she supported student journalists, Barton also lobbied vigorously for a formal academic program in journalism. In 1995, when the faculty approved a thematic minor in journalism, she noted archly in a CC community newspaper that the decision “represents an easing of a long-standing opposition to journalism on this campus.”
The most important thing about journalism in relation to the liberal arts, she wrote, is this: “journalists ask questions. . . . More important than being able to find answers is being able to ask questions: significant, appropriate, carefully defined and articulated questions.”
At Barton’s instigation, the English department offered literary journalism courses, and brought in block visitors, such as the journalist Russell Martin ’74. “The thing that was so impressive about her was her dedication to the students and the program,” Hendrickson said. “She really gave her heart and soul to journalism.”
To commemorate her dedication to student journalism, the Ruth Barton Award was established in 1996. It is given to a member of the faculty, staff or administration who contributes significantly to student journalism, or to a student who has shown excellence in journalism study and contributions to student publications.
Her zeal to set up the writing and journalism programs was matched by her devotion to causes she considered important.
“You could always count on her for very direct, straightforward assessment of a situation. She was very just,” said Associate Dean of the College Re Evitt, whom Barton mentored when she was new professor in the English department. “She had backbone, yet she honored different points of view.”
In 1996, for example, Barton got wind of a document that recommended that trees be cut down on Armstrong Quad to give a clear line of sight to Pikes Peak. “If necessary, I will chain myself to a tree to save it, and I have a lot of people that will join me,” Barton told the Catalyst, which published a photo of her hugging a linden tree and smiling slyly.
“That was my mother,” said Tiff Barton. “She was a fighter.”
Ruth Pendergrass was born in Sweetwater, Texas, in 1934 and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She worked for two years at the Fort Worth, Texas, Press, then married Tom K. Barton. The two moved to Detroit, where Ruth was a claims representative for the U.S. Social Security Administration. She earned a master’s and doctorate in English from the University of Wisconsin. She became adjunct assistant professor of English, a non-tenure post, in 1974. In 2003, she became professor emerita, and in her retirement she was active in the League of Women Voters.
Her daughter, Belle B. Rosing, died in 2003. Her son, Tiff, lives in Colorado Springs.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Colorado College Journalism Program.