Barbara J. Kaster

Barbara J. Kaster died on May 9, 2020 in Destin, Florida.     

(President Clayton Rose sent the following message to the Bowdoin community on May 11, 2020)

To faculty and staff,

I write to share the sad news that Barbara Kaster—Bowdoin’s Harrison King McCann Professor of Communication in the Department of English Emerita—died Saturday, May 9, in Destin, Florida, at the age of eighty-five. The cause of death was congestive heart failure and emphysema.

Barbara was a dynamic teacher and documentary filmmaker who energized the fields of film studies and communications at Bowdoin, while making significant and broader contributions to the College, from curriculum restructuring to long-term planning.

Barbara J. Kaster was born June 27, 1934, in El Paso, Texas. She earned her BA at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso), an EdM at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1966, and a PhD at the University of Texas at Austin in 1970. She was a public-school teacher in El Paso from 1957 to 1966. Before joining the Bowdoin faculty in 1973, she was associate professor of theater and communication at Florida Atlantic University (1970–1973), and had taught at the University of Texas (1968–1970), Indiana University (1967–1968), and the University of South Florida (1966–1967).

When Barbara was offered a job at Bowdoin, it was to teach public speaking, communication, and argumentation. Barbara insisted that her acceptance of the job was contingent on her being able to teach classes in film as well. She had already made a short documentary, “Making Policy, Not Coffee,” which featured Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan, among others, and focused on the changing roles of women at the l972 Democratic and Republican national conventions. She was also working on a deeper look at one of the feminists in that film, black attorney Florynce Kennedy, a project that became her 1974 film “Flo!” Within months of her arrival at Bowdoin, she had restructured the debate program, renaming it the Bowdoin Forum and inviting national speakers to debate with students.

She wanted to teach not only film history and theory, but to show students how to make their own films. Her course “History, Theory, and Criticism of Film” was immediately popular at Bowdoin, attracting up to a hundred students in its first year before hitting an enrollment peak of two hundred a few years later. Barbara was energetic, but that was too many students, even for her. “Even a hundred and fifty is just at the point of madness,” she said, as she limited enrollment to juniors and seniors.

The Bowdoin Film Society grew out of that class, as did the Student Film Awards Ceremony, an annual event that Barbara approached with the zeal of the annual awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, right down to a polar bear version of an Oscar. Barbara was well known for her lively classes (her class “Group Performance of Literature” included an adaptation of a P. G. Wodehouse short story). New England sportscaster Dale Arnold ’79 credits Barbara with helping him develop a course of study that would allow him to pursue his own goals in the field of broadcasting.

In January 1975, Barbara became one of the first women to be granted tenure at Bowdoin. Later that fall she was named the Harrison King McCann Professor of Oral Communication, a title that she lobbied to have changed to reflect a connection to the English department.

She continued to work on her own projects, including many articles on film and a screenplay called “The HeLaCells” about a Nobel Prize nominee whose cancer research is about to be revealed as fraudulent. She also made films of her own. Her video documentary “Poggio Civitate” was about the Bowdoin-Bryn Mawr archaeological excavations at an Etruscan site in Murlo, Italy. In 1979 she produced “Green Seas, White Ice,” a film about the Arctic expeditions of Donald B. MacMillan of Bowdoin’s Class of 1898.

In making that film, Barbara combed through 100,000 feet of film shot by MacMillan and his wife, Miriam, while they were on Arctic expeditions on the schooner “Bowdoin.” She edited the footage to 1,700 feet. Her enthusiasm for the project—she said of it, “This is a film I’ve wanted to do ever since I came to Bowdoin”—was infectious. Dale Arnold narrated the film, and Barbara herself took “Green Seas, White Ice” on the road, visiting Bowdoin clubs throughout Northeast to show the fifty-five-minute film and speak about the making of it. Her film on the history of the College, prepared for the bicentennial celebration of the granting of the College charter in 1794, was another labor of love.

Throughout her time at Bowdoin, Barbara made contributions that extended well beyond the English department. She played a vital role in the faculty’s move to reform the curriculum in the early 1980s, and she advocated for requirements that would expose students to more non-English speaking cultures and an increased emphasis on writing seminars for freshmen. “The failure to write clearly is a sign of the failure to think clearly,” Barbara said at the time.

Among Barbara’s proudest accomplishments was her dedication to and active participation on the committee that oversaw the creation of the Bowdoin Memorial to honor the lives of Bowdoin alumni who died while serving in the military in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. She was a member of the Strategic Planning Task Force in 1991, and she served on the standing committees of the governing boards and numerous faculty committees. She was also instrumental in bringing Elderhostel, the international education program, to the campus. She chaired a committee for the Town of Brunswick that was charged with finding a use for the old high school building. In Florida, Barbara was an active communicant of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Santa Rosa Beach.

In 1983, Barbara received the Alumni Award for Faculty and Staff in recognition of her success in making film study “a vibrant part of the curriculum,” and for the many ways that she helped to make Bowdoin a more welcoming place for women—students, alumni, faculty, and staff alike—in the classroom, in athletic programs, and in the life of the College. She was known (and respected) for her willingness to speak frankly about issues. In 1993, the year she retired, she was elected an honorary member of the Bowdoin College Alumni Association.

Barbara is survived by her spouse, Carole Duncan. When the couple married in June 2013, they had been together for forty-five years. She is also survived by her daughter, Kimberly C. Herard of Stewart, Mississippi, and son-in-law, Thomas; a grandson, Lee B. Herard, and his wife, Leah; and two great-granddaughters, Hannah and Julia Herard. A brother, James (Jim) Kaster, preceded her in death.

Memorial information is pending and will be shared with the Bowdoin community when it becomes available.

When Barbara gave the Convocation Address at the opening of the College in 1992, she spoke eloquently of feeling like an outsider at her first Bowdoin convocation in 1973, surrounded by men, some in regalia from Oxford, others wearing the robes of Harvard, while she was wearing her burnt-orange hood from the University of Texas at Austin. There were only four women on the faculty then, and Barbara said she didn’t see how she could ever fit in. But she threw herself into teaching and into building community, creating a place for herself and opening the doors of opportunity for others. What Barbara said at the 1992 convocation was that, over those nineteen years, she had come to realize that her Texas twang was an authentic voice of Bowdoin. “My acceptance by Bowdoin says more about Bowdoin than about me,” she said. That voice will be sorely missed.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of sitting with Barbara at a dinner. Two things were clear from that conversation—she was a force of nature who reveled in blazing trails and she loved the College. I know you join me in offering condolences and the gratitude of the Bowdoin community to Carole and to all the members of Barbara’s family.

Sincerely,

Clayton

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