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December 1998

Can Harriet Barker truly retire? Stay tuned

When Harriet Barker was born in Manhattan not long before World War II, she was just another Harriet--so much so that her parents were forced to call her something else.

"My mother was Harriet, my grandmother was Harriet, my father was Harry, and I went through the first year of my life being called Baby Harriet," she recounts, "till a friend said, 'Call her Ditto, call her anything, but don't call her Baby Harriet.' "

Thus, Ditto became Harriet's nickname, and Ditto she remained until she arrived in Boulder with her husband in the summer of 1957 and decided to reclaim her original first name. A few weeks later, she met Walt Roberts, who would later hire her as only the third official employee of UCAR and NCAR. Thirty years later, this secretary who couldn't type had become UCAR vice president for corporate affairs, a Harriet who can't be mistaken for any other.

The many lives of Harriet Barker: (left) on the phone at the just-built Physical Science Research Facility in the early 1960s, (middle) as a new UCAR vice president in the 1980s, and (above) visiting with HAO's Maura Hagan at an October reception sponsored by the UCAR Board of Trustees in honor of Harriet.

If it's hard for us to believe Harriet is actually retiring this month, it's equally hard for her. "Over the past year, as this change has come about--which I initiated, in essence, and intellectually have been totally comfortable with--viscerally, it's been tough." The shock will be eased by Harriet's new role as vice president emerita, a position bestowed on her by the UCAR Board of Trustees in their July meeting. She'll continue assisting with special projects for at least the next year, interspersed with personal travel to France and elsewhere.

The (very) early years

The Harriet/Horatio Alger tale begins when Harriet's then-husband, Alex Hunter (now Boulder's district attorney), began his sophomore year at the University of Colorado. He enrolled in an honors astronomy class taught by a certain Walt Roberts. Since Alex couldn't attend the first night's class, Harriet went in his stead, and that night Walt invited her to audit the entire course.

"He held the classes at his and Janet's house. They always had a fire going when it got cool, and cookies and cider and hot cocoa for us. Walter had each person in the class adopt the persona of a famous astronomer and debate then-current social issues as best we could infer that astronomer would have debated them, had she or he been there. I was Ptolemy."

"Harriet, I think of you like a national park: I don't see you very often, but it's a comfort knowing you're there."

--Richard Chinman, IITA director

Harriet's introduction to Walt through the course encouraged her, in 1960, to apply for the position of secretary to the new UCAR president and NCAR director, "even though I had literally never set finger to a typewriter." Walt hired Harriet on the condition she take a typing course, which she did from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m. each weekday morning before work. "I was a rotten typist then and still am, but Walter was said to have exclaimed, 'I don't give a damn if she can't type. She's bright and I want her.' "

During those first several years of UCAR- and NCAR-genesis, Harriet and Walt found themselves working in several CU quarters, from a "temporary" World War II-era barracks located on the current site of the Gamow Towers, next to Folsom Stadium, to the first building in the research park at 30th and Marine Streets, when that area was at the edge of town ("It was really considered an outpost.").

By 1966, having been promoted from Walt's secretary to conference manager, Harriet was a single mother with an itch to travel. Just before the Mesa Lab was dedicated that fall, Harriet jumped at an opportunity to spend a year in Athens, Greece. She left UCAR with her seven-year-old son, Kip (Alexander III), to care for three Canadian children, ages eight, nine, and ten--"Mary Poppins abroad," she calls it.

After she came back to Boulder, Harriet was an editor on a research project studying UFOs (which was pronounced, acronym-style, "you-foes"). "Congress decided to award this grant to CU to conduct a study that would settle the UFO question: Were we being visited on a regular basis by intelligent beings from other galaxies?" The conclusion, "a big, fat report printed overnight, with all 500 copies delivered to Congress by plane because the report was a hot item," was that there was no evidence for systematic UFO visits. "Several of the anecdotal and historical incidents had been proven to be false--silly faking of photos--but there were also lots that couldn't be explained. I still get calls about it every two or three years and still am a not-so-secret believer in life elsewhere."

A couple of other brief jobs, and a new marriage to Lawson Crowe, CU professor and former chancellor, followed. One stint, as office manager for a scientific start-up, ended in a mass layoff. "It was the first time I'd been out of work since I was about 12. I was plunged into this awful depression, and I started with several temp agencies. One of them sent me up to NCAR in 1971 to work for Jeanne Adams in SCD." The thought of applying for another job at NCAR hadn't even crossed her mind till then.

It wasn't long before Harriet went from technical editing of computer manuals back to NCAR administration. In a tale from those informal days that sounds apocryphal but isn't, John Firor (then NCAR's director), phoned her on a Friday afternoon to interview her for the position as his secretary, starting the next Monday. "I asked him what the salary was, and I recall he said, 'Well, I don't know, but I'm sure it's more than what you're making now.' "

Through bad and good

NCAR was going through a troubled time in the early 1970s. After an exhaustive review of every position, the Joint Evaluation Committee found that "the quality of science was decreasing and the scientific staff in need of revitalization," recalls Harriet.

She knew things had turned the corner during the 1973 filming of Sleeper on the mesa. While testing the ropes that would suspend Woody Allen from the A tower, the film crew practiced dropping a stuntman past a window at the far end of one hall. "I was walking down the hall behind [former NCAR scientist] Doug Lilly and another person, and this body plummets past the window. Doug turns to the other person and says, 'Well, I guess he flunked his review.' I remember going back to [John Firor's] office and saying, 'I think we're over the hump on this one. I just heard Doug Lilly make a joke about it all.' "

Gradually through the 1970s and 1980s, Harriet worked her way up the NCAR ladder, nimbly dodging the shards from shattered glass ceilings. In 1978, she became director of Budget and Planning, an unusual enough job for a woman at the time to merit a feature story in the Boulder Sunday Camera. "Not long after that, someone in Personnel called me up and said, 'Darn it, Harriet, we keep getting these calls from people saying they don't know how to type, but they want to do what you did.' And I don't think it was possible by that time. Had there not been somebody like Walt Roberts, I don't think it would have been possible [at all]."

"Harriet's dedication and stamina have made her a legend in her own time. She has flown countless miles and gone to hundreds of meetings on UCAR's behalf. Her records will never be broken. She is our Cal Ripken."

--Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The next milestone came in 1987, when Harriet became vice president for corporate affairs, a post she held until Jack Fellows's arrival last year. In that role, Harriet oversaw trustee and member activities, university relations, new educational efforts, and communications with media and the public. For years, she was the only woman at the table at meetings of the UCAR Board of Trustees--not to mention the only person with only a year's college education. "To make it as a female with a high school diploma, in this particular set, beats the heck out of a lot of other possible careers for sure, but there have been some tough times." One of the reasons for her credibility, she says, is that "I have been assiduous about never pretending to know something that I actually don't know."

Harriet is quick with an anecdote (they seem to spring from an inexhaustible supply), but she is equally quick to voice her passionately held beliefs about the institution. For instance, she considers it "essentially our moral responsibility to take the work we've done and make it available," whether through educational initiatives and public outreach or by the existence of an applied science division like RAP, a social-science group like ESIG, or the UCAR Foundation. "For the most part, the institution's leaders have seen the sense and the morality, if you will, of having these kinds of programs. The trustees have too. ESIG has been an apparently easy target for budget cuts, but the trustees and directors to a person have said, 'No. This is the responsibility of a national center.' I like to tease Mickey [Glantz, former ESIG director] about the orange carpet threads under his fingernails as he was dragged around what used to be the orange carpet at the Mesa Lab, hanging on for dear life as a social scientist in a robust physical-science environment."

Perhaps the most important UCAR principle to Harriet, and one she shared with her mentor, is that everyone here counts. "Walt paid such attention to everybody. He went out of his way, without its being artificial, to make sure that he knew everybody's first name, their spouse's name, their kids' names. He'd go down in the machine shop and see how everybody was doing, and he'd check in with the guys in the copy center, and it was real.

"If I've helped to maintain that tradition--if I've made a difference with respect to how everybody is treated as an important part of what we're about at this institution--I'd be really pleased about that." •BH

"Let me define 'three' for you"

Some things Harriet's proud of:

  • Organizing and publishing the 1991 bookRemembering Walt Roberts. Copies are still available from Gloria Kelly (Office of Development and Government Affairs), ext. 2102, gloriak@ucar.edu.

  • Helping UCAR's move to the electronic world via the Web

  • Making NCAR a household word, at least locally! [One of Bob Serafin's first charges to the Media Relations office as NCAR president]

  • Being smart enough to hire Susan Warner and Mike Moran

  • Serving as the first affirmative action officer for UCAR

  • Viewing UCAR as more than NCAR. "There is a UOP constituency out there and, I'll be willing to bet you, 75% of them are primarily loyal to UOP and its programs. What they care about is Unidata or COMET. It's as unique a set of things as NCAR has always been."

  • Preparing major documents over the years, from cooperative agreements to (most recently) the HIAPER high-altitude aircraft proposal to NSF. "I've been allowed to combine a broad understanding of the institution with some sense of style, both linguistic and visual; a passion for good English, meaning straightforward and simple; and a disgusting familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style. I have learned a ton about science through all of these exercises." Favorite save: The HIAPER proposal featured an image of the proposed aircraft against a blue background "so it looks as if it's flying. The nose wheel was down, and no one had noticed it until very near the end of the publication process."

  • Helping get GPS/MET (now COSMIC) started

  • Pushing, with the help of a lot of other folk, for our current broadened role in education

Short takes on some past UCAR presidents and NCAR directors

  • Walt Roberts: "Simple, direct, and straightforward. And yet he was assuredly one of the most complicated human beings I've ever known. He loved hobnobbing with the hot shots, but I never saw him change his demeanor toward anybody, no matter who he was talking with. He was always Walt Roberts."

  • John Firor: "The steady hand, the competent, calm, consistent voice of reason, with a sly sense of humor, in all matters."

  • Francis Bretherton: "Francis was the knight on a white horse hired to tackle the tough job of restoring morale and direction after the difficult JEC [Joint Evaluating Committee] process."

  • Bob White: "Very hard-working, very smart, exceedingly well connected, had a big vision of UCAR. Bob worked like a son of a gun. Man, he was tough, smart, and visionary."

What hasn't changed?

  • "The attainment of quality. It's never been questioned that what goes on needs to be good. That goes right up to this latest round of reviews, which have been unequivocally positive."

  • "The commitment--the work ethic, in our old-fashioned language. One of the things that is highly regarded in this institution from day one has been the willingness to work however much it takes to get the job done. I used to take inordinate pride in sending e-mail messages to people at four in the morning because it was so terrifying [for the recipients], and I loved it. Never mind the fact that my body works best at four or four-thirty in the morning. I had in the back of my mind this reputation to maintain. There is something in the institution that allowed me to do this, because this work ethic was so strong to the exclusion of everything else. The family detritus along the way for many people, including myself, I think, betrays that. But it has its wonderful aspects as well.

  • "The way that the commitment to quality and excellence is expressed--the 'peer-reviewed, single-authored-paper' shtick. Taken to its limits, it means, 'Those are the only people worth talking about or with.' You can see a tendency for credentials to be regarded highly, without regard to whether they're meaningful or not."

  • "This sounds a little bit Pollyanna-ish, but I think the genuine niceness of the place hasn't changed. Everybody, almost without fail, is nice. It's a nice place to work, it's a friendly place. Now in the starting days, it was a *small,* nice place to work and there were some incredible parties at Walt's house and Gordon Newkirk's house that we could talk about."

Harriet's favorite one-liners and the occasions upon which they were uttered

"What does the 'e' in NCAR stand for?"

An inquiry to our switchboard operator, shortly after NCAR and UCAR had been established, which was forwarded to me for answering.

"What time do the museums in Leningrad open?"

Walt Roberts, calling out from his office prior to a trip to Russia.

"Let me define 'three' for you."

A former UCAR president, who shall remain unnamed, explaining to the UCAR trustees why the plan to buy three airplanes for NCAR was really a plan to buy only two.

"Ah, but you're a good one!"

Francis Bretherton to me, when I stopped him after about 20 minutes of excited explanation of his latest permutation on the algorithm for GAUs (general accounting units) by pointing out that I wasn't understanding anything he was saying and reminding him that I was a bureaucrat, not a scientist.

"Oh, my dear, I'm not competing."

Jerry Hart, UCAR's first counsel and good friend of Walt Roberts, as he left a board meeting early to go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow and I expressed enthusiasm and good wishes for his trip.

"If you want to say anything about this, say it now."

NCAR deputy director Ed Wolff, stepladder under his arm and on his way to take down an exhibit of trapunto hangings--one of them of a very voluptuous female--in the gallery of the Mesa Lab. The UCAR trustees were meeting that day. We were at the end of the long, tough [Joint Evaluation Committee] process and Ed was properly concerned about the effect such a display might have on the Board of Trustees. But he could tell by the expression on my face that I thought it was a nerdy thing to do. [The voluptuous trapunto later went on exhibit at CU under the heading "Banned at NCAR!"]

"Thank you, but I have other plans."

A former coworker, every single time I said "Have a nice weekend."

"Don't like it."

My son, at around age four, upon seeing a bright yellow palm-tree-festooned shirt that Janet and Walter [Roberts] brought to him as a present from the Bahamas.

"My God, Harriet, put your hand down!"

Jack Kelly, former UCAR counsel, when I got excited during a discussion at a Board of Trustees meeting and voted on the issue.

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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