Farewell Tom K. 1934-97
Tom K. Barton, who taught at CC from 1963 to 1997, passed away this summerBy SUSAN ASHLEY
ooking back on his history major, an alumnus recently commented, "Most of all, Tom K. made history fun." That's high praise, and it reflects T.K.'s unique approach to teaching.
Tom K. Barton taught the standard courses in his specialty, early American History: American Colonies, the American Revolution, the Jacksonian era. In addition, long before it became fashionable, he established an Afro-American history course and introduced studies of American cities and of American country life.
These courses took a new look at the American experience. But that's not, probably, the main reason why students found them so engaging. Tom K. wanted students to encounter history. Under his direction, students found, weighed and interpreted documents. Tom K. asked students to read the latest monographs, and he made sure they did it with his "nasty little quizzes."
Taking a course with Tom K. meant learning to write better. He conducted a private war against barbarisms, notably the passive voice. He also asked students to read and critique each other's work, often in marathon sessions at his house that he sweetened with homemade blintzes. He did his part, attacking shoddy thinking with pointed and occasionally acerbic comments, and praising crisp, cogent argument in the same direct way. He supported his students, seeing them through with personal attention.
Students delighted in his general irreverence and his down-to-earth ways. If he wasn't in his office, he could often be found at the pinball machines in Rastall Center. He didn't conform to the ivy-and-tweed image of the professor. Not by a long shot. He didn't dress the part or play the role or easily tolerate those who did. In department and faculty meetings, he took aim at elitism and academic pretense. Not many pompous remarks escaped without Tom K.'s snort of disapproval.
Yet for all his informality, Tom K. was eminently professorial. He cared deeply about students and teaching, and he took an unusually broad view of the enterprise. I remember him standing up in a faculty meeting during an especially narrow and silly debate over requirements. With customary eloquence, he reminded us that we wanted above all to help students not to complete their educations but to continue them.
He urged his advisees to try new subjects and to build connections across courses and disciplines. When we gave a departmental oral comprehensive exam together, I'd watch him survey the student transcripts. With a "Now, this could be interesting," he would probe the possible links between Soviet politics, the New Deal and European fascism. But he'd also ask the student to list the U.S. presidents in order. That's when I thought to myself it's a good thing I don't have to answer that question. In his life outside the classroom, Tom K. showed the breadth of his own interests. He played leading roles in a number of campus and community theatre productions and directed others. Every three of four years, he and Bill Hochman reenacted the Lincoln-Douglas debates to full houses. "I was perhaps an adequate Lincoln," says Bill. "But Tom K. WAS Stephen A. Douglas." Everyone who knew Tom K. can tell stories, the best of which capture the inimitable personal style that made him a legend. Those stories show that he paid all of his students the compliment of expecting the most. Beyond these things, the stories reveal what I think we all valued most in Tom K. - his unusual decency and common sense, his wisdom and his big heart.
He is survived by his wife, CC English Professor Ruth Barton; two children, Belle Barton Rosing and Tiff Elliott Barton; grandchildren Katherine Belle Rosing and Benjamin Gregory Rosing; and two brothers Jack P. and Don. His ashes are buried at Spring Creek Cemetery in Texas.
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