I once asked my father what he did for a living, and after a pause, he said:
"I solve problems."
My father was a problem solver, but at heart, Don Barrie was a construction man. In fact, he used to say sometimes that he was probably the ONLY construction stiff ever to graduate from CalTech. He was also a teacher, a scholar, and an intellectual. He valued knowledge for its own sake, but for him, it was always more important to pass on what he had learned to others. He taught graduate courses at Cal and Stanford. He wrote books and published papers. He lectured all over the world, in places such as the Mideast, South Africa, and China. And yet, what I think he valued most was the day-to-day process of doing his job and of mentoring the next generation of construction managers.
I’d like to tell a short story that for me captures the value he placed on teaching others. When I was about 6 or 7, I once asked my father why a basketball bounces. Now many of us, when faced with a question such as this one, particularly from a young child, would say something like, "A basketball bounces because it has air in it." Or perhaps we’d say, "Well, a basketball bounces because it’s made of rubber." Instead, my father sat me down and gave me a lecture on the displacement of energy. He talked of how the bouncing of the ball represents the conversion of gravitational energy to kinetic energy and heat. (Everybody remember their physics?) Now I’m sure I didn’t understand much of this at the time, but now, many years later, his explanation illustrates for me the commitment he had to teaching others about his world. He was never one to offer simplistic answers.
My father’s greatest passion, by far, was his work. About 6 months ago, my father’s sister Ruth gave me a picture, taken in 1956, of my dad as a younger man of about 32. It’s just a snapshot in black in white, but for me it captures perfectly the passion he had for being a construction man. In the picture, he’s wearing a metal hard hat and holding onto a hoist, casually surveying the project he was supervising. He looks perfectly content, like he’d rather be there than anywhere else in the world. And the amazing thing to me is that he’s about 50 stories up, standing on top of a giant, half-built chimney, perhaps 1 foot from its edge. And if you’re ever down in Chalmette, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, all you have to do is look up, because the chimney is still there.
If it weren’t for that chimney, I probably wouldn’t be here, because my dad was transferred to the New Orleans area to supervise the building of that chimney, and this is how he met and married my mom, who was a secretary at Kaiser.
It’s surprising to me, really, that the chimney still stands. After all, it hasn’t been used for over two decades. And while it’s a bit of an eyesore, it’s also a lasting monument, at least in our family, to my father’s career. Don Barrie was at heart a builder, a construction man, and a teacher. He loved to build things. And he built a lot of things: dams, tunnels, bridges, and power plants...and even entire towns. But more importantly, he loved to show others how to build things. That, ladies and gentlemen, was Don Barrie’s passion.
Thank you very much...