Thomas Barker, first dean of VCU College of Health Professions, dies at 90

A leader at VCU for nearly 30 years, Barker spent his life serving others in education, health care and the military, bringing people together to improve the lives of students and patients.

Thomas Barker, Ph.D., standing to be recognized by attendees of an event.
Thomas Barker, Ph.D., the first dean of the then-VCU School of Allied Health Professions, stands to be recognized at the ribbon-cutting for the VCU College of Health Professions building in 2019. Barker, who brought together programs from several VCU units into one school for health professions and built them up over his nearly 30 years of service at VCU, died last Friday at age 90. (University Relations file)

Thomas C. Barker, Ph.D., who played a key role in positioning VCU’s health professions programs among the best in the country as the founding dean of what is now the College of Health Professions, died May 28. He was 90.

“Dr. Barker spent decades advocating for the education of health care professionals from across numerous disciplines as the first dean in the school’s history,” said Susan Parish, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions. “He recognized health care as a dynamic industry in a fast-changing environment and laid the foundation on which our college stands today.”

Barker came to Richmond in 1967 as director of the School of Hospital and Health Administration and a professor of hospital administration at the Medical College of Virginia. When MCV merged with Richmond Professional Institute to become Virginia Commonwealth University, Barker joined the university as the first dean of the VCU School of Allied Health Professions in 1969.

Under Barker’s leadership, the VCU School of Allied Health Professions was formed from seven existing departments across the MCV campus. He sought to bring the departments and programs together to create a model for integrated care in all parts of health care.

“Dr. Barker valued the complete picture of health care and each individual’s role in health care, down to how it impacted the individual patient. His vision to prepare students for their careers in the earliest days of our university has given generations of health professionals — at VCU and across the country — the skills they need to prepare for the rest of their lives,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

Barker oversaw the creation of two more departments — Nurse Anesthesia in 1969 and Gerontology in 1976 — to establish the nine departments that make up the VCU College of Health Professions today. During his tenure, he also saw the establishment of the Virginia Center on Aging in 1978. The college’s programs have been recognized nationally, with five programs currently ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s top 50. Parish said this is a credit to Barker’s legacy.

“Dr. Barker was an innovative leader in the world of allied health,” Parish said. “In an industry where the fields graduates enter may look different in a matter of years, his forward-thinking nature and recognition of the importance of collaboration across health care have paved the way for the success of decades of graduates from our College of Health Professions.”

Michael Rao, Ph.D. (left), Thomas Barker, Ph.D. (center), and Cecil Drain, Ph.D. (right).
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (left) greets former deans Thomas Barker, Ph.D., (center) and Cecil Drain, Ph.D., (right) of the then-VCU School of Allied Health Professions at an event in October 2016. Barker, who died this week, led the school with a pioneering vision as its first dean and shaped it into what is now VCU's College of Health Professions. (University Relations file)

In addition to leading the school to new heights, Barker worked toward the advancement of schools of allied health professions nationally, serving in 1976 as president of the Association of Schools Advancing Health Professions and earning induction in 1982 into the association’s fellows program, reserved for those who had contributed significantly to the field of allied health.

He retired from VCU in 1996 after 29 years at the College of Health Professions’ helm.

Debra Ropelewski, senior associate dean for finance and administration at VCU College of Health Professions, was hired by Barker in 1985 and remained in close contact with him after his retirement.

“I don't think I have ever worked for someone who was as selfless as he was. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for such a gentleman, who was just kind to everyone. He always did what he thought was in someone’s best interest and not his best interest, and he was always thinking about other people’s feelings,” Ropelewski said. “Dr. Barker always said the most important thing was to hire great people and then let them do their job. I think he always felt like his role was mentoring the faculty and staff and letting them reach their full potential. He was also the type of person who always had your back.”

Mentorship was an important part of Barker’s life, Ropelewski said. An award for outstanding mentorship, the Thomas C. Barker Outstanding Preceptor Award, in the college’s Department of Health Administration, is named in his honor.

Ropelewski said Barker valued his colleagues and always showed interest in their families.

“One thing he would never have dreamed of is letting any of us do any type of nighttime commitment without our significant other with us. He just felt like it was really important that after work hours, whatever we did included our spouses and families.”

Barker’s time as an educator was part of a long career of service to others: He served in the U.S. Navy, where he was promoted to lieutenant commander, and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve after serving on active duty, retiring as a captain in 1991 after serving in the military for 44 years.

Barker attended University of Iowa in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, earning a bachelor’s in marketing before being commissioned into the Navy. When he returned to the university after his active-duty service, he completed a master’s in marketing research.

While there, he began working part time in accounting at the local Sisters of Mercy hospital, which piqued his interest in hospital administration and spurred him to pursue his Ph.D. in health administration at Iowa before joining the faculty as an assistant professor. He spent time teaching there, followed by a few years engaging in hands-on hospital administration work as a project director at the Michigan Health and Social Security Research Institute in Detroit before coming to Richmond in 1967.

In Richmond, he was a member of several community organizations from historical societies to the Rotary Club of Richmond, where he served as the club’s president, among other leadership roles.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (right), Thomas Barker, Ph.D. (left), and his wife Patricia (center).
VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. (right) greets former dean Thomas Barker, Ph.D., (left) and his wife Patricia at an event in October 2016. (University Relations file)

In 2019, Barker saw the culmination of many of his efforts come to fruition, attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new College of Health Professions building where all the college’s programs now reside under one roof for the first time since its inception. He reflected on the collaborative spirit of the college’s departments, and the benefit it would have for students, in an interview in late 2020 with the College of Health Professions about his career.

“When you get out of here and go to work, you’re going to be working with different people [across different disciplines],” said Barker about the advice he would give to students in that new building. “And you would be wise if you knew as much about them as you can. You need to know who these people are and what they do, and the best way of doing it is when you're a student.”

He spoke, too, about how he hoped those he worked with would remember him.

“I hope they will think I gave people as much rope as they could handle. I hope I inspired them,” Barker said. “I hope I was pretty good in my selection of the good people. I was very proud of my people, and I learned to respect their judgment. I hope I embedded in my people the realization that [in health care] things next year will not necessarily be like they were this year or certainly 10 years from now.”

Barker was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Beorkrem Barker, and his second wife, Patricia Moore Barker; his brother, Gerald Barker; and three children, Thomas Barker Jr., Cheryl Grube and David Barker. He is survived by his sister Sandra Walser; three children, Donald Moore, Carole Moore Fields and Laura Barker; and several grandchildren.

The family will receive friends at Bon Air United Methodist Church, 1645 Buford Road, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 5, before the funeral service at 11 a.m. Barker’s burial will be in Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.

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