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A Southern Legend Retires

Barber was “a leading advocate for inclusivity and equality” on campus and beyond

How often do we use the phrase “end of an era” to describe a turning point? The phrase might be overused in many cases, but when it comes to the retirement of James Barber, ’64, MS ’79, it rings true.

Barber, who gave 58 years of dedicated service to the university, crafted a legacy of change at Southern and used his career to advance inclusivity and access at the institution. He also transformed the lives of innumerable students, many of whom have said they would not have graduated if it weren’t for Barber’s support and guidance.

“As a coach, an alumnus and a long-serving administrator at Southern, you have influenced and impacted students and alumni nationwide, many of whom would not have graduated without your support and guidance,” wrote SCSU President Joe Bertolino, in presenting Barber with the 2022 President’s Medal of Distinction.

“And as a committed community activist you have inspired and mentored generations of city youth, while being a leading advocate for inclusivity and equality,” Bertolino said.

A record-setting hurdler as a student athlete in the early 1960s, Barber went on to become a successful Owls coach for almost 25 years, training numerous track champions and many All-Americans. His expertise also saw him coach both the men’s and women’s USA track teams at national and international championships.

In 1971, Barber launched Southern’s first Summer Educational Opportunity Program (SEOP), which over time successfully opened the door to a college degree for scores of minority students. He also led the university’s affirmative action office, served as director of student supportive services for more than 20 years, and, in his last professional role at Southern, helped to advance the university’s mission as director of community engagement.

A committed community activist, he founded New Haven’s track and field outreach program for young people, working with more than 4,000 children and youth over the years. And he has served as president and a long-time board member of the New Haven Scholarship Fund, which has assisted generations of local high school students to pay for a college education.

On the international athletic scene, he was head coach of the USA Team for the IAAF World Cup Meet, the USA Team at the World Indoor Championships, and at the U.S. Olympic Festivals. He helped found the United States Track Coaches Association and was named USTCA’s Indoor Regional Coach of the Year in 2002. He received the 2000 Service Award for Colleges and Universities from the U.S. Women’s Track Coaches Association and was inducted into Southern’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.

In 2016, Barber was recognized by the SCSU Alumni Association with its Distinguished Alumnus Award, and received the President’s Medal of Distinction six years later.

Upon being presented with the President’s Medal at the 2022 undergraduate commencement ceremony, Barber said, “This is indeed an honor, and an unexpected one. I bleed blue. I have bled blue for a long time, and I will always, always bleed blue. I was told never forget where you came from, and I have tried to live like that most of my life. But at some point I realized that everyone did not come from the same place. So regarding what I would say to students – never forget where you came from — I realized what I should have been saying to them is have a vision about where you want to go, and what you want this nation to be like.  I will never forget where I’ve come from. But I will always encourage all of you…to have that vision of what you want this world to be, and then get about the business of making it happen.” 

It’s the end of an era for the Southern community, as we bid Mr. Barber farewell and send him our best thoughts for a long and happy retirement. For Mr. Barber, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter. We wish him well.

Mr. Barber speaks at Undergraduate Commencement 2022, upon receiving the President’s Medal of Distinction
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