No Holds Baared
Revered Professor Retires
by Martha Felt Barton (80')
As many of you have probably heard by now, Steve Baar has retired from Westminster College. I, for one, was initially shocked and saddened. For the 30 years I have been involved with Westminster College, Steve has always been there setting the standard for talent and dedication in his many varying roles. But as I’ve had time to reflect on it, one thought comes to mind: I feel used by Dr. Baar and each of you should too.
Why, you ask? Let me explain. Steve was reared by first-rate, conscientious parents who wanted him to make something of himself. Early on, to keep Steve on the right path, they put the kibosh on the one thing he was truly passionate about. You see, Steve wanted nothing more than to be king of the lounge-act circuit. His parents, it turns out, had different ideas. Suffice it to say, Steve’s parents won the first
round of that battle, and instead of heading for the dim, smoked-filled lounges of LA or New York, he went to college and graduate school. Much to Mr. and Mrs. Baar’s delight, Steve got his PhD and landed a job in the English department at Westminster College in 1971.
On the surface, it seemed straightforward enough. By all appearances Steve accepted this new, albeit less rousing, direction and poured all his energy into his higher educational pursuits. I contend, however, that underneath it all, Baar was still following his comedic passion. He just substituted the venue—Westminster College instead of the nightclub scene. He used the Westminster campus and community for his own lounge-act material. It was trickier, however. It required that he keep up the pretext of a gifted and inspired professor and administrator.
Don’t let his accomplishments fool you. Yes, Dr. Baar worked hard to rise through the ranks of the college, but it was just a facade so he could gather and hone his material and talent among many audiences with varying levels of sophistication.
In the beginning, it was innocent First Years on whom he tried out his material. Steve was a fantastic professor. I speak first hand. Dr. Baar entertained and cajoled us the whole time we were learning how to write in Freshman Composition. He set the bar high and demanded excellence. No one wanted to let him down. Sure he was witty and often downright funny, but I believe his material was still in its infancy; after all we were just freshmen, only 19. Our comedic tastes were simple.
As Steve gained confidence in his material and craft, he needed a greater challenge. His promotion to the newly created position of Dean of Arts and Sciences provided it. This new audience, the Arts and Sciences faculty, was erudite and sophisticated. Still, that was no trouble for Steve, who succeeded as Dean of Arts and Sciences. When tense situations arose, as can happen from time to time in faculty meetings, Steve placated and mollified faculty colleagues with his straightforward intelligence, humor, and wit,
In 1988, as he truly became emboldened, Steve needed an even greater comedic challenge. He was promoted to the position of Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the faculty. His audience was broadened to include all faculty, the administration, donors, and the Board of Trustees. This audience had been rumored to be skeptical and even, at times, downright cynical. Steve felt right at home. Trustees loved his easy, self-effacing manner. Donors were like putty in his hands. As he told them about Westminster’s educational philosophies and the ways in which the faculty and staff were working hard to transform students’ lives, he captivated them and brought them into the Westminster fold.
Feeling that something was amiss, Steve went full circle and decided to rejoin the faculty in 2003. He said he wanted to get back to his roots and to the tangibles of teaching. No doubt that was true, but I say there was an even bigger motivator: he was losing his touch with the younger crowd. His material on that end of the spectrum was getting stale. So he marched back into the classroom. He opted not for the more sophisticated Shakespeare or James Joyce classes, but he went straight for Freshman Comp. He stayed only until he could get the belly laughs again. Once he accomplished that, it was over. He was through. He’d done everything he could with the gig at Westminster. It was time to find a new scene with an even tougher, more dispassionate audience.
So you see, Dr. Steve Baar had us all believing that he was an extraordinary educator, leader, visionary, facilitator, and friend. We thought he wanted the best for every single one of us, whether he was our professor, colleague, mentor, advisor, or confidant. And yes, I believe he did. But he had to work extremely hard just to cover up his real motivation. He simply wanted to make Westminster more enjoyable and interesting. He wanted to make us laugh and not take ourselves too seriously. When with us, he wanted us to put our cares aside for a time and realize that life wasn’t as mundane or wearisome as we might have thought.
I feel used, and you should too.
Martha Felt Barton graduated from Westminster College in 1980 with a BA in English and History. She has taught as an adjunct professor in the Gore School of Business, leads the MPC Master Track Program, and serves on the college’s Board of Trustees. She did not get the grade she wanted but rather the grade she deserved in Freshman Comp.