Former Clemson President and First Lady James F. and Marcia Barker put an active spin on post-presidential life.
This wasn’t the plan. Jim and Marcia Barker never envisioned a life filled with all the magical opportunities that have come with serving as Clemson University’s fourteenth president. “We got married while I was still in college. One year into our marriage, we knew we both wanted to teach. Our plan was she’d teach at the elementary level and I’d teach at the university level, and we’d have our summers off together,” Jim recalls with a smile. “We’d do something all summer long. Well, we never pulled that off! We’re very fortunate.”
Instead, after obtaining architecture degrees from both Clemson and Washington University in St. Louis, Jim merged onto the fast-track of academia, eventually returning to Clemson as the dean of architecture in 1986. The Kingsport, Tennessee, native was elected president in 1999. “The idea that I came from a family where nobody had gone to college, and I was going to serve as university president? It was inconceivable,” Jim admits. “My mother couldn’t get her arms around it.” Marcia nods, “She was so, so proud.”
Jim left office in 2013, after pushing Clemson to its highest national ranking to date (No. 21), increasing graduation and retention rates, meeting record funding levels, creating CU-ICAR (International Center for Automotive Research), and tapping Dabo Swinney to coach the Tigers on the gridiron. Today, the couple’s life still revolves around campus activities and community groups, but admittedly, without near the pressure or stress.
After living in the President’s House near Bryan Mall for almost fifteen years, the Barkers haven’t moved far. They used his architectural skills to renovate a home a mile and a half away on Lake Hartwell that they’d purchased midway through his tenure. “Clemson was our home; we felt lucky we didn’t have to leave town, as some presidents do. Sometimes presidents have to escape,” Jim shares with a chuckle. “That’s why the transition went so smoothly. My advice for anyone at a retirement crossroads is to come to grips with where your home has been, where you want it to be, and how does it fit you? We were able to stay at home.”
Although Clemson is home, family frequently pulls the active grandparents to Greenville. “We’re going to the Little League State Championship in just a few hours,” Marcia shares. “We jumped right into life with the kids and grandkids when Jim left office. It was right when our grandkids got involved in lots of activities and invited us to be a part of it. Softball, baseball, and dance. That made the transition to retirement easy. And we’re still involved with lots of community activities and our church, Fort Hill Presbyterian.” Jim adds, “It never occurred to me I was busy and then less busy. It seemed like the natural flow of things.”
That flow has continued on campus during “retirement,” which sounds more like a concept than a fact for the Barkers. The Professor Emeritus of Architecture is involved with the design of two new CU buildings, and each fall, teaches Architecture of Leadership. The 75-year-old explains the curriculum: “It’s how leadership is built and relates to architecture. What’s the foundation? What’s the equivalent of a column? We use case studies from my time in the president’s office. My department chair suggested I teach that. If I didn’t, what would happen to the knowledge I’d gained, if it wasn’t transmitted to students? It sounded like a good idea.”
The high school sweethearts still love to interact with students, inviting them over to their home at semester’s end. After hosting more than 100,000 in the President’s House, Marcia doesn’t panic having a couple of dozen co-eds to their current house. “I don’t panic,” she laughs. “It just happens. I had great help at the President’s House every semester. But Jim and I know exactly what to do to prepare, we just start earlier!”
Marcia takes in the Reflection Pond, Death Valley, and Old Main two times a week as she walks with friends and Jim returns to sketch various buildings and paint watercolors. They also enjoy watching the softball and soccer teams in action. Crew is another favorite, after the women’s rowing team got Jim up on water skis behind their shell. “They pulled me back and forth across the lake three to four times,” he recalls. “I always say, ‘Never underestimate the power of a Clemson woman.’ It was great.”
Those long-ago dreams of leisurely travel are now coming true. Fall is for football and class, spring is for adventure. Right after leaving office, they rented an RV and toured national parks out west. “It was just us,” Marsha reveals. “We’d never done anything like that. It was quite an adventure.” Jim’s eyes light up. “We started with the Grand Canyon and then went to Monument Valley. We woke up to a sunrise that I’ve never seen anything close to.”
Summers include a multigenerational family beach trip and they’ve done the Mediterranean three times now. A favorite getaway included stops in small hill towns in Spain, including Alhambra, Grenada. “I think folks just need to go for it,” encourages Jim. “You can over-plan something. Most of the time, the things you remember have nothing to do with what you thought they would be. Just go for it.”
Both are always grateful to return home to Clemson. The President Emeritus reflects upon his first visit to campus in the late ’60s. “I can’t explain it,” he says. “As soon as I walked across Bowman Field, it felt like home. It felt exactly right to be home. There’s something about campus, how it feels and how people respond. I thought, ‘This is exactly where I need to be.'” Marcia looks on, admiring her husband and all they’ve accomplished together. “Jim’s stepdad once told me we have had a charmed life. And we have.” A Tiger’s roar, echoing o’er the mountain height.