article-clemson-rose

Orange Rose

Since 1999, Marcia Barker has called the two-story white house situated off Cherry Road, atop a grassy hill, “home.” Shortly after she and husband, Jim, moved into the space, she affixed a sign to the front door that said as much. The small plaque has a simple message, but it makes an intentional distinction: This is the “President’s Home.”

In the Barkers’ 14 years of living and entertaining here, tens of thousands of guests have crossed the threshold — each one enjoying an introduction to Marcia’s hospitality and her love of all things Clemson. Whether it’s a donor event, Woman’s Club gathering, faculty reception or alumni celebration, an invitation to the President’s Home is always an invitation to time well spent with Marcia, as she entertains alongside her high school sweetheart, life partner and best friend.

The flowers are fresh, and guests are welcomed with a warm smile and open arms. And if Marcia can help it, the roses are always orange.

“When we lived in Clemson as students, Jim’s architecture faculty embraced all their students,” she recalls, seated in her well-appointed front living room and explaining that, as a young couple in the late 1960s, they were invited to picnics, dinners at faculty homes and all variety of outings.

“So, when Jim started his first faculty appointment, we just opened the door, because that’s the way we had been treated,” Marcia says. Now, nearly five decades after they began their Clemson journey together, Marcia is readying herself and her husband to exit the presidency and begin the process of reflecting on their time spent here. “I realized early on how fast this would go, and that it would pass,” Marcia says quietly and thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to embrace every single moment.”

Marcia and Jim met in Kingsport, Tenn. They were high school sweethearts, dating for five years before they were married in 1969, him at 21, her at 20. Her father signed for her to wed the young Clemson architecture student, and she left Winthrop College lacking one year of school so she could move to Clemson. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in elementary education at Georgia State University in 1972.

Their marriage marked the beginning of a partnership that would carry them through life and academia, starting out in “married student housing” at Clemson, a modest group of buildings known as the “pre-fabs.” The small metal buildings on Jersey Lane have long since been replaced by the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts. But every time the Barkers attend a performance, Marcia says they smile a little at the memory of their Clemson beginnings.

“We just thought it was the most wonderful house in the world,” she says laughing. “It would probably fit in the foyer of the President’s Home. That’s where we learned about the Clemson Family, too.”

They moved straight into the pre-fabs after their August 1969 wedding and prepared for Jim to finish his bachelor’s degree. “You know how hot it is here in Clemson,” she recalls of that first summer. “There was no air conditioning, and those little metal houses were warm.”

Shortly after they’d unpacked, one of Barker’s architecture professors, Hal Cooledge, appeared at their door with a window air conditioning unit in hand. He told them he just happened to have an extra one lying around. Marcia may never know if that was true, but she says this, smiling: “It cooled that whole little place, and probably saved our marriage.”

Nearly 45 years later, she’s seen more kindness extended to her family by the Clemson Family than she could ever have imagined.

“It’s been overwhelming and very amazing,” she says. “We can just feel their genuine care and concern.”

Barker was appointed dean of the College of Architecture in 1986, and the couple left Mississippi State University to return to Clemson for the second and last time. Marcia had one lament about the move back, after years of making the trip to Clemson to visit friends:

“We were so excited to start this adventure here,” she recalls. “I said, ‘There’s only one bad thing about coming back to Clemson.’”

It was a comment that she remembers surprising her husband: “When we would come back to visit, we would drive into town, and I would get that excited feeling in my stomach when I would get to Bowman Field. And I said, ‘I will miss that.’”

She found out that the feeling never actually went away, whether she was driving to work as a teacher at Fort Hill Presbyterian or passing by Bowman on one of her early-morning walks around campus, something she enjoys with a small group of friends as often as she is able:

“I still get that feeling, because there’s always something different going on there. It’s the heartbeat of the campus.”

Through the years, the Barkers worked together to serve the students and faculty and to advance Jim’s career, raising two sons, Jacob and Britt, along the way. They celebrated a wedding and two grandchildren in that time — son Jacob married Rita Bolt Barker and they have since had two daughters, Madeline and Eliza.

On her own, Marcia has served the community with diligence and selflessness, volunteering her time and her talents to many, many organizations — America Reads, Friends of Lee Gallery, Fort Hill Presbyterian Church, Clemson Child Development Center and University organizations among them. As first lady, she is honorary president of the Clemson University Woman’s Club, and each year she hosts their open house. As a caring friend, she can be counted on for her homemade breakfast casserole during times of loss (a death) and moments of celebration (a new baby!). She is often responsible for flowers when a special event is happening at her church.

Those who know her well say Jim has always been her No. 1 priority. Marcia explains her support of him the same way she characterizes her engagement with students, faculty, staff and donors: “When you care about someone or something, you really want to do what you can to make that person successful and happy. That’s the way the people at Clemson are.”

The Barkers moved into the President’s Home in 1999, and since 2000 they have hosted an impressive 93,708 guests at 789 events there.

In all that time, Doris Johnson has been the executive housekeeper. And in all that time of sharing a house and a calendar with Marcia, Johnson says, “I have never seen her upset.”

Johnson works hand in hand with Marcia’s executive assistant, Linda Wofford, to support the events and entertaining that take place at the President’s Home. Johnson and Wofford have been a team since they both worked for University dining services in the 1990s. They agree that Marcia’s cool, calm and collected public persona doesn’t change behind closed doors. What folks don’t see as often, they say, is her sense of humor.

Case in point: Years ago, the Barkers were entertaining a group of college deans with an outdoor, white tablecloth dinner reception. As Johnson and Wofford were just finishing setting the tables and the Barkers were inside getting dressed, the backyard sprinklers went off. Everything was soaked.

The two staffers looked at each other and realized that someone was going to have to tell the Barkers. So, Wofford stood at the foot of the stairs and called up to them, saying, “We have a problem.”

The Barkers emerged. They saw the soaked table settings. Their response? “They laughed,” Wofford recalls, smiling. The four of them worked as a team to wipe down the glassware and china and replace the soaked tablecloths. Minutes before guests walked through the door, Marcia was helping her team dry off the wet grass with bath towels.

“If anybody had seen us, they would have thought we were crazy,” Johnson says. It remains one of her most treasured memories from her years at the President’s Home.

There’s seldom a face that Marcia Barker forgets. Rare is the occasion that doesn’t merit a hand-written note in her perfect script. She’s in a constant state of outreach — be it congratulations or condolences. It’s not out of obligation. It is, friends say, because she really cares.

“She will know as much about you as you know about her,” says Hazel Sparks, a longtime friend of Marcia’s and her former teacher’s assistant at Fort Hill Preschool. Marcia taught and served as director of the preschool for 10 years, prior to becoming first lady. Sparks, a Clemson institution in her own right, connects the dots between Marcia’s teaching days and her role as first lady.

“She could focus on one child’s need and still be aware of everything else going on in the classroom,” Sparks says. “In a social situation, she can focus on the person she’s talking to, but she still knows what’s going on around her.”

And chances are, if you had a nice conversation, she’ll write a thoughtful note to say so. There’s no telling how many notes Marcia has penned through the years. But if you ask her, it’s one too few.

“I write a lot, but that’s one thing that’s really hard for me. I always feel like there’s one more I need to write that I don’t get time for,” she says. “I do think it’s important, and people have been so incredibly great to write us — just some heartfelt thanks and gratitude. We will definitely treasure those.”

It’s been years since they’ve gone back and looked in the wooden box that holds the thousands of letters they’ve received through the years, dating back to when President Barker was inaugurated. In retirement, they have plans to revisit those letters and those memories, one at a time.

A favorite memory Marcia shares occasionally is a valentine’s party that several male students talked them into hosting at their home. The undergrads convinced the Barkers to let them cook dinner in their kitchen and have their blindfolded dates chauffeured to the President’s Home to share the meal.

The young women took turns gasping at the surprise before being invited to sit down to dinner. Afterward, the group of about eight ladies gathered in the den with Marcia, and the next thing they knew, one of the young men had slid behind the grand piano. He started playing. The rest of the men, including President Barker, then filed in through the French doors and surrounded the piano, proceeding to perform a choreographed rendition of the song, “L-O-V-E.” (Think, “L, is for the way you look tonight.”) The song ended with Jim on bended knee in front of Marcia, an orange rose in hand.

At the end of the night, they were in a state of shock, Marcia recalls. “We just looked at each other when they walked out the door and said, ‘What just happened?’”

It’s clear that memories like that will live on long after the last of the Barkers’ belongings are moved out of the President’s Home and into a home off campus. Marcia hasn’t spent too much time being reflective about her tenure as Clemson’s first lady, in part because she’s still so busy, but also, she says, because it makes her emotional.

“Jim always says it’s been a great honor in his life to serve Clemson as president,” she offers. “When he says that, I always in my mind say, ‘It’s really been an honor for me to serve alongside him.’”

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