Chattanoogan: Herb Barks Jr. Pens Book About His Years At Baylor
Friday, June 12, 2015 - by John Shearer
Herb Barks Jr. has observed in diverse ways several decades of Baylor School’s history.
He was born in the early 1930s as a son of the headmaster, grew up on the campus before attending and graduating from Baylor in 1951, and later served as headmaster/president from the early 1970s to 1988.
Over the years, he has also honed some diverse communication skills, from oral storytelling as a summer camp leader, to delivering sermons as a Presbyterian minister, to speaking to students as headmaster, to writing books.
But despite all those experiences and gifts that seem as if they would have naturally lent themselves to writing a book about Baylor, he lacked one other trait – interest.
However, with a little prodding from current headmaster Scott Wilson, who studied and worked under him, Dr.
Barks has penned “Walking the Hill: Memories, Dreams and Stories of Baylor.”
“Scott Wilson had been after me to write it for a very long time,” Dr. Barks recalled during a recent telephone interview. “I had never wanted to write it.”
But once he started writing, it became a joy, he said.
The book, which is scheduled for publication this summer by Waldenhouse Publishers, is a collection of brief and personally written passages about aspects of Baylor that are as diverse as the time periods in which they took place. Included are his thoughts and remembrances of the school’s scenic location, the military days, the time of integration, the admission of girls, and some of the faculty and staff members.
He also talks uniquely from the perspective of a headmaster about such challenging issues as dealing with student alcohol use.
He was also able to find a number of pictures in old Baylor yearbooks to go along with the anecdotes.
“The book is not a history,” he said, adding that one thought or memory would simply give way to another. “I allowed people to arrive on stage as they did and events to arrive as they did, and when the book was finished, it was finished.”
The book may not be complete in information, but it is more so in insight. Through both his up-close observations and somewhat unique style of prose, he is able to give the reader a feeling of being there. This includes his apparently never publicly outlined conversation with the school’s board of trustees that led to his being named headmaster in 1970.
When he began leading Baylor, he said, he wanted the school to become a place where the students found enjoyment and looked forward to learning and activities.
One of the ways he did this, he said, was to talk to experts in different fields. For example, when looking at expanding Baylor’s fine arts program, he ended up getting an audience with a dancer and choreographer with whom he was not very familiar. Her name was Martha Graham.
Dr. Barks writes that the famed dancer and instructor’s troupe ended up putting on a performance at Baylor on its way to Atlanta one time.
He also talks a little in the book about his late father, Herb Barks Sr., who served as headmaster from 1929-64. He had actually come to Baylor with a reputation as a good high school basketball coach in Pensacola, Fla., after playing at Auburn. However, neither Dr. Barks nor his brother, Coleman, played basketball, Dr. Barks said with a laugh.
Dr. Barks also said he was different from his respected father in that the elder Mr. Barks was quieter and more aloof and did not interact with the students as directly.
“He was more of a headmaster in the classic way,” Dr. Barks said in the interview.
Besides the views of a headmaster, which are typical of any school history, Dr. Barks also offers his memories of the regular staff, including the maintenance, kitchen and horse stable employees, whom he also considered important.
Dr. Barks in the book also gives new details for younger audiences into such forgotten features of the school as an old study hall and barbershop in the current Hunter Hall, as well as some of the faculty members of yesteryear. The latter includes some honest and humorous anecdotes about a little chronicled Col. R.B. Gayle, who was the military commandant from 1944-46 and was apparently not overly appreciated by the students.
But Dr. Barks also talks about many faculty members who were deeply admired, including cross-country coach Jon Chew and basketball coach Jimmy Duke, who sadly died in the middle of their careers.
Dr. Barks said having a diverse faculty – from the World War II combat veteran Maj. Luke Worsham, to the classroom raconteur Jim Hitt, to the encouraging Coach Duke – made Baylor special when he was there. Sometimes a student might need a teacher or coach to challenge them, while at other times a more sympathetic ear was in order.
“I saw what it was that made it work,” Dr. Barks said. “Teachers gave themselves away and kids were open to that.”
While he does talk about the positive changes when Baylor began admitting black students in 1973 and girls again in 1985, he does write that such aspects of old as the military curriculum had positive features, too. For example, he said the training likely made the students feel uncomfortable, but it developed camaraderie.
“We shared in the suffering and pride,” he said.
He also said Baylor has done a good job of letting students find their own space at the school.
One space frequented has been the hill. Because students over the years have gone up and down the hill during military marching, walking to and from classes, and participating in sports, he used that term as the title.
It could also be a metaphor for the challenges and up-and-down experiences any teenager will find going to school.
Dr. Barks – who moved back to Chattanooga in 2006 after serving as headmaster at Hammond School in Columbia, S.C. -- has walked the hill and seen the school from numerous inward perspectives over his more than eight decades of life.
But outwardly, it has always been the same to him – a special place.
“You can’t live there without finding some kind of sense of place,” he said.
(The book is scheduled to be released later this summer. Baylor School plans to announce on its website, Baylorschool.org, how the book can be ordered and purchased as soon as those plans are finalized and the book is ready for distribution).