Publication Date

April 1, 2005

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Paul F. Barrett, long-time member and former chair of the Department of Humanities at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, died on October 15, 2004, following a lengthy battle with prostate cancer. He was 60 years of age. Paul leaves behind his wife, Annette Love Barrett and a stepson, Johnathan Powell.

Paul Barrett received his early education in Chicago's Catholic schools, and earned his BA (1966) and MA degrees in history at Loyola University and the PhD (1976) at the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago. Barrett's graduate school classmate Blanche Glassman Hirsch recalls that Barrett "was exceedingly and unfailingly generous—with his time, research, or anything else."

Barrett focused his dissertation and first book on the politics of street construction, public transit, and automobile popularization in Chicago between the 1890s and 1930.The Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago (1983) is dominated by two questions: Why had Chicago’s politicians lavished so much money on streets and traffic control? And why had those same politicians held transit officials to a five-cent fare and forced them to provide money-losing service to the city’s periphery? Barrett wrote in simple, moving passages that conveyed the passions of the city’s ordinary residents as well as its leading business and political figures. One of the book’s reviewers, Gail Farr Casterline, noted Barrett’s “splendid range of sources” and complimented his “grasp of public transportation as a phenomenon whose impact on the city, its people, and the public psyche extended far beyond its function of giving rides.”

Paul Barrett was highly principled in matters that historians care about deeply, especially the fullest description of events, thorough documentation, and control of manuscript content throughout the editorial process. In retrospect, stories of his commitment to those principles seem amusing. In the early 1980s, when Barrett was negotiating the final details of his Automobile and Public Transit with Temple University Press, the senior editor asked that he reduce the length of text and footnotes. Barrett regularly produced chapters some 80–100 double-spaced pages, and another 40–50 single-spaced pages of footnotes. Barrett threatened to withdraw the manuscript from the press rather than accept another round of cutting footnotes. Not even an impending denial of tenure at IIT altered his view of the matter. Eventually, the editor suggested a compromise. The press would place a note at the top of his still-copious footnotes to the effect that Barrett maintained a typescript version of those notes and would make them available upon request.

Throughout his career, Paul Barrett remained committed to the scholarly habits of his youth. In a period during which social and cultural history were in the ascendance, he remained focused on development of a narrative and analysis that foregrounded ideas, interests, local residents, and diverse political actors. Between the late 1990s and 2003, he prepared drafts of chapters on airline regulation during the period of the late 1930s to the early 1970s. Barrett produced more than 20 drafts of one of those chapters—and once again, each of those drafts was lengthy, and each rested on his thorough documentation. His editors at Ohio State University Press sought a diminution of text and the still-abundant footnotes. Barrett told them that he might as well substitute a cartoon for the chapter. In the end, however, he yielded to the entreaties of editors and co-authors.

Barrett, as a faculty member and department chair at IIT, an engineering university by definition, insisted that the training of engineers should include a solid grounding in the humanities. He believed that studying humanities, said one IIT colleague, "makes [students] think about the fact that when they go to work… there are lives that are affected by what they do." In the scramble for credit-hour production that characterizes all or most contemporary universities, Barrett argued in favor of time for literature, philosophy, and history. As part of that commitment, he postponed his own research on cities and airports to conduct a study of humanities education in the nation's engineering colleges.

After learning that his cancer would not respond to treatment, Barrett turned increasingly to his religious faith, and took an active role at St. Fidelis Church in his home neighborhood on Chicago's near northwest side. On grounds that retirement parties were for persons who were retiring, not dying, he did not want money spent "on him." He asked colleagues and friends to send a donation to St. Fidelis, 1406 N. Washtenaw Ave., Chicago, IL 60622.

Despite a personal "style" that was usually diffident and mostly playful (editors excepted), Paul was an original thinker, a committed scholar, and a force for what he characterized as old-fashioned scholarship. Barrett was also a dedicated and stimulating instructor. Students, reports colleague Tom Misa, "loved his history of Chicago class." Prior to the most recent period of residential change in Chicago, adds Misa, Barrett "could hear someone talking and immediately tell them the name of their home Catholic parish." He had hoped to live long enough to vote for John Kerry and John Edwards. His quick wit and intellectual power will be missed by students and colleagues at IIT; I myself will miss Paul's warmth, intelligence, and our many collaborations.

Florida Atlantic University

(A version of this obituary notice has been published in the February 2005 issue of the OAH Newsletter)

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