On Feb. 3, Webster University’s home campus lost a piece of its community.
That was the day Bill Barrett, an almost thirty-year professor and advisor at Webster, died from pancreatic cancer. Since his passing, Webster faculty, students and others in the community have been finding ways to cope with and mourn the loss.
On Feb. 8, students and faculty within the School of Communications met to discuss how to move on without Barrett. What began as a way to provide academic resources to students in the photo department became an event of sharing stories and memories of Barrett.
“Bill was a bit of an anarchist and a little bit mischievous. He liked to see a little sand in the gears of things and to challenge ideas and raise questions. But he always did it in a gentle way,” School of Communications Dean Eric Rothenbuhler said. “Bill was always thinking about other people, I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with anybody who was as consistently thoughtful and generous.”
The memorial is ongoing, though. The door outside of Barrett’s office provided a book for students to write notes and memories of Barrett. His family – as well as Barrett himself – want students to be able to share memories of Barrett for everyone to cherish going forward. The space serves as a place for gifts and flowers to be placed, decorating a now-empty space so many people have memories in.
“Before I went [to class] I bought some roses, I’m like ‘I gotta do something today,’” Adjunct photography professor Krista Frohling said. “It just feels wrong to walk in the building when he’s not there. And so I bought a dozen red roses and left them by his office door. I came back by afterwards and there was a table with a candle.”
School of Communications associate dean Aaron AuBuchon said he put the candle outside of Barrett’s office.
“I had some sense that maybe a votive candle would be appropriate to put that out there and a photo. Then spontaneously, students just started to drop flowers,” AuBuchon said. “And I think that that’s important for them to be able to do . . . to have a place that people can go, and I got a memorial book, and people are taking turns signing it.”
Webster photography student Taylour Moenster has fond memories in Barrett’s office. Over the years of working with him as a student, advisee and mentee, Moenster spent lots of time with Barrett there.
“It’s definitely an organized mess,” he said. “There’s even things from like the ‘80s in there. And so it’s a sign that he’s been there for so long, in a way, that you can’t try to keep in terms of cleanliness, but it’s all organized in his own way.”
The one-on-one time with Barrett is what Moenster remembers the most, whether he was helping with gallery openings or talking about his future in photography. Through being Moenster’s professor and adviser, Barrett became his mentor as well, something Moenster had never experienced as an artist. Moenster transferred to Webster from another school in 2019 and his family had pushed him to pursue more “logistical” careers.
“He was kind of the first person that I had known that at least was able to have a job in this field, and I’ve been able to meet a lot more [professional artists] through him. He gave me the confidence that I needed to continue with school and just to know where to lead myself,” Moenster said.
Academically, Barrett’s death meant losing both a long-time professor and the adviser for photography majors. Although Barrett and other School of Communications faculty planned for the loss – with Barrett even calling faculty while he was in hospice, according to Moenster – the transition still will take some getting used to, according to Moenster.
The new photography advisor, Kyle McCool, has her office near the Parking Garage. This creates “a little bit of a disconnect,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s going to be tough for her to take in everybody he had, but she’s shown a lot of confidence. Like, the first thing she emailed me was very quick to be like ‘Here’s how many credits you have. Here’s what you need to graduate’ . . . She’s very proactive in terms of trying to get things organized for people,” he said.
The transition puts work on faculty too, who have had to pick up the pieces of remaining students, shows and classes Barrett oversaw.
“A group of us [faculty] have pitched in with the gallery, with the photo program, with taking care of those students where we’re all pitching in to keep things going the way Bill would want them to go as much as possible,” Rothenbuhler said. “[McCool] is checking all their transcripts, meeting with them, making sure everyone’s on track for graduation and so on. Then all the rest of us are doing everything we can to surround [the students] and make sure that they know we’re available and they have all the help they need.”
A lot of what those interviewed miss about Barrett, though, are small moments with him.
AuBuchon describes when Barrett was department chair, and the original difficulty with a decision over a pornographic senior overview proposal for a film student at the time. He explains how everyone in the department was gathered to talk about the project, one which “nobody wanted to touch” in terms of advising.
“We all went around the table, we kind of laughed about, you know, the thing,” he said. “And finally, Bill was like ‘Alright,’ and he sighed. He kind of looked at the floor and he said ‘Okay, what can we do to help this pornographer?’”
The line was meant humorously, but AuBuchon – reflecting on the moment years later – remembers it as a moment showing Barrett’s care for other people.
“And Bill’s first thought was that ‘A human being? How can I help?’” he said. “And I think that is indicative [of who he was]. Even if it [didn’t] run parallel to his moral convictions, his first place to go was almost always ‘How do we help? How do we help a person? How do we help them get through?’”
Frohling also retold a story about Barrett. When she was a student working on her senior exhibition, the room was tense with the seniors trying to decide on a name for it. Barrett was helping them workshop the name, writing and erasing ideas on the whiteboard with his hand and a dry erase marker. He itched his eye with the marker covered hand, and in turn helped them name their exhibition.
“He turned around and had essentially given himself a black eye with a marker. And we all just started laughing . . . And then Bill started laughing,” Frohling said. “He’s like ‘I don’t know what’s so funny.’ And finally, we showed him we’re like, ‘You got something in your eye’ and he goes, ‘Oh, I’ve got something in my eye.’ And then we all were like, ‘That’s the name of the show! Something in my eye.’”
The 2008 senior exhibition was thus named “Something In My Eye”.
Moenster says his main takeaway from working with Barrett for the past few years is his selflessness. He says that Barrett’s constant help and care for others was something he’ll take with him for the rest of his life. And in smaller ways, Moenster tries to keep his memory alive as well. Barrett kept a food blog with recipes which he shared with students.
“Every time there was a gallery opening, Bill would make a big giant bowl of ginger hummus. And so for the first time, I made hummus and it was that specific recipe today, and so just kind of doing that helps show that it’s another way that even though he’s gone, there’s still stuff with him that remains,” he said.
But it’s the little things that will be missed too.
“It’s been rough. I mean, it just feels like there’s a gaping hole,” Frohling said. “Every Friday before the May gallery shows, he would take the photo faculty out to lunch with the exhibiting artists and . . . that’s probably not going to happen, you know, all of these little things that he did.”
Barrett’s memory is being kept alive through continuing work on the May Gallery – which he created and ran – and shows, like this Friday’s Faculty Show.
According to Rothenbuhler, the show will now be named the Bill Barrett Annual Faculty Show.
“He’s got photographs at the Vatican, took pictures of Mother Teresa. You know, he was a humble guy and a modest guy, and a very, very talented guy,” AuBuchon said. “And one of the things that he said to me ‘I’ve tried to teach people how to live and I’m maybe now going to teach them how to die.’”