Webster's New World Dictionary includes, as one of its definitions of the word, extraordinary, the following : "...going far beyond the ordinary degree...exceptional; remarkable." This is just one word that springs to mind when describing Sousa principal, Dr. Richard Barry, but not the only one. Deeply compassionate, dedicated, fun, articulate, highly intelligent, are also words that aptly characterize him, but perhaps no single word better describes him than "humanitarian." Now, after close to 20 years in the PW School District with 14 of them as Sousa principal, Dr. Barry has decided to retire at the end of the 2000-2001 school year. And many are noting this announcement sadly, knowing that finding a man this extraordinary is a rarity.
Dr. Barry in his office, surrounded by his collection of clowns.
Dr. Barry came to the PW School District in 1982 as the director of secondary education, coordinating curriculum, assisting principals, and introducing a new approach to the teaching of writing. For five years, he conducted workshops for teachers of every grade level, from K to 12, finding it wonderfully fulfilling and meaningful. When he was about to leave the district to accept a position as an assistant superintendent elsewhere, he was approached about being an elementary school principal. The words of a conference speaker about being able to prevent problems at the elementary level, convinced him that as an elementary school principal, he could have a positive impact that was lifelong.
As the principal of Sousa Elementary School, "I took such great delight in the children...and I will always miss them" he remarked, and there is not a doubt that this is true. A cornerstone of his educational philosophy is based on his belief that "kids must feel secure, valued, and loved, to thrive." Thus, on a daily basis, for the past 14 years, he has taken grand and smaller steps to ensure students have this kind of experience at Sousa. And his impact has been great. In Dr. Barry, "I found not only a capable administrator, but also a caring, fatherly man who always, always, had time for each child," wrote former Sousa HSA president Lisa Lay. "I always left a meeting with Dr. Barry feeling content that the good Ship John Philip Sousa was well skippered and on an even keel." Parents Susie and Larry DeLuca wrote, "Dr. Barry has a gift of being able to relate to the children in a way that lets them know that they are important, which was demonstrated daily in the halls when the students would be excited to see him and tell him what they had accomplished...Dr. Barry impressed us the most with how much he knew and truly cared about each and every child who went through his school. Hour after hour, year after year, he helped make each child feel special and to develop their own unique talents."
It is for the purpose of fostering self-confidence and emotional well-being that Dr. Barry also emphasized and encouraged student performances. Whether they took the form of plays or concerts, he believes they are great "equalizers," that is, even students who are struggling academically can feel proud of themselves, valued, applauded. "Having a degree of success boosts their self-confidence," he states, with great conviction. "Dr. Barry knows what is right and he does it. Children are always his number one priority. He emphasizes generosity and being kind to others, and you always know your kids are safe and nurtured when they are in his building," wrote parent Laurie Krotman, one of many admirers.
It is not surprising that Dr. Barry's educational philosophy which emphasizes a child's emotional well-being rests solidly on his professional training; he has a B.A. from NYU (Washington Square College)and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. Barry also has two Master's degrees, and an Ed.D., an educational doctorate, from Columbia University. But his educational philosophy also reflects opinions shaped by his own, often horrific life experiences. He charitably calls the tragedies in his life "Dickensian;" others would consider them devastating. At age 13, Dick Barry lost both of his parents in a fatal car accident. He became the foster child of an alcoholic, physically abusive man; he was also separated from his younger siblings, who were placed with another family. So began a series of foster homes and institutions for the young man. From always being at the top of his class and skipping two grades, he became a truant and ultimately dropped out of school. A stint in the U.S. Navy helped him to turn his life around. In his mid-20s, he went back to school and received his G.E.D., and continued on through college and graduate school, always receiving prestigious fellowships and scholarships. His GED certificate is kept in a place of prominence in his office, even today. "I used to give the commencement address at the alternative high school, to show them it's never too late," said this fine role model.
Tragedy was to strike again, when Dr. Barry was married, and lost his twin 3-year-olds in a fire. What is clear is that Dr. Barry is no stranger to adversity, but rather than destroy him, it has given him an enhanced sense of purpose. If anything, it has only made him more compassionate, and more devoted to young people and their welfare. He is never without a sense of the preciousness, and the fragility of life.
Reflecting on his years at Sousa, he mentioned that among his special memories are Family Nights, an event that he initiated. Families were invited to perform, and he joined faculty members for a finale. Another favorite is the Parents as Reading Partners program, wherein each family sets a goal of the numbers of hours/minutes they will read, and the school established an overall goal. Each year, when the goal was reached, Dr. Barry vowed to do something amusing or entertaining. One year, for instance, the students were treated to their principal smoothly rollerblading down the halls; another time, he went all the way up to the roof to wave goodbye to the students at the end of the school day. This year, he has an Houdini trick in mind.
"I'll miss the wonderful spirit of collaborative problem-solving" with the faculty and staff, Dr. Barry notes. And as for what the future holds, Dr. Barry says he is looking forward to "a life of the mind," eager to dive into the stacks of literary works awaiting his hungry eyes. Already a talented writer, he plans to pursue writing on a full-time basis.
"He's one of a kind and will be sorely missed by everyone whose life he touched," wrote parent Laurie Krotman. Adds HSA Co-President Howard Schwartz, "Dr. Barry is the spirit and warmth behind Sousa. It is easy to see the mutual love between the students and himself. Children have gained confidence, a sense of community, and a love of learning from the atmosphere he created." The DeLucas call him "a true American hero." As PW bids adieu to this extraordinary man, the entire community extends its heartfelt gratitude and best wishes for much success and happiness in the next chapter of his life. How extraordinarily lucky PW has been to have this humanitarian/educator.