Barr, beloved health educator at UNC, dies at 84

December 21, 2009

Harriet Barr

Harriet Barr

Harriet Hylton Barr, alumna of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and longtime health educator at the School, died Dec. 14 in Durham, N.C. She was 84. A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Dec. 22, at 2 p.m. at Durham’s Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Surviving are her husband, Frank H. Barr of Durham, and daughters Barbara Anne Barr of New York City, and Elizabeth Nell (Betsy) Barr of Williamstown, W.Va.

Born June 15, 1925, in Johnson City, Tenn., Barr received her Master of Public Health in health education from UNC in 1948. Her husband, whom she met at the School, received a master’s degree in environmental sciences and engineering in 1947.

As a health education student, Barr, far right, worked with classmates on the School's Good Health Campaign to improve the health of North Carolinians.

As a health education student, Barr, far right, worked with classmates on the School’s Good Health Campaign to improve the health of North Carolinians.

Barr taught health education classes at UNC from 1967 to 1994, first as an instructor and ultimately as clinical associate professor. She also served as assistant dean for alumni affairs from 1983 to 1994, during which time she organized and energized the School’s alumni association. Her dedication to the health of the people of North Carolina, her vitality as a leader and her personal charm endeared her to several generations of public health students, faculty and practitioners.

UNC President Emeritus William Friday, JD, had known Barr since his wife, Ida, was a fellow graduate student of Barr’s.

“Harriet was one of those quiet, yet critical servants of the people of this state,” Friday said. “Her work in higher education in making us conscious of good health practices was of the highest order. Her good humor and her utter dedication made her an invaluable member of the University in the last half-century.”

Barr assumed leadership positions in the national Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) and was a charter member of the N.C. chapter when it was established in 1965. She received the national organization’s Distinguished Fellow Award in 2002, for significant and lasting contributions to the profession of health education.

She was a vital force in the nonprofit organization, N.C. Citizens for Public Health, from planning its first conference in 1976 to serving as its president from 1995 to 1998. The organization aims to promote public health for the benefit of the citizens of N.C. by increasing citizen involvement and identifying and clarifying the role of public health agencies in the state.

“Harriet’s role in NCCPH was central in keeping the UNC public health school connected to the people of North Carolina,” said Brenda Motsinger, MS, director of special projects in the public health school’s dean’s office. “She insisted that local communities have access to the School’s research and that the School remain aware of the needs of the people.”

Barr influenced a generation of UNC health education students through courses she taught in school and community health, principles of public health, and methods and materials in health education. She also served as academic and field adviser to both bachelor’s and master’s students.

“Harriet made sure that her students learned about professional organizations and inspired in them a commitment to advance the profession by their active support and participation,” said Emily Tyler, MPH, Barr’s friend and colleague for more than 40 years.

The UNC School of Public Health Alumni Association recognized Barr in 1980 with its Distinguished Service Award, and in 1989, she received the President’s Award from the School’s Public Health Foundation. The distinguished service award later was renamed, in her honor, The Harriet Hylton Barr Distinguished Alumnus Award. Presented annually, the Barr Award recognizes leadership, experimentation, collaboration and innovation within the profession of public health; impact within the practice arena; and outstanding service beyond the requirements of the recipient’s employment.

“There is no doubt that Harriet’s work as an academician, scholar, practitioner, advocate and active volunteer in a wide array of professional and voluntary organizations contributed much to bringing health education to where it is today,” Tyler said. “Harriet made a difference, and she leaves a legacy for those who follow.”

Those unable to attend the Dec. 22 service are invited to attend a special remembrance that will be held as part of the UNC public health school’s Foard Memorial Lecture on April 15, 2010. The distinguished alumnus/alumna award named in Barr’s honor is presented annually at that event. More information about location and time will be available at or by calling (919) 966-0198.

In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church or UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Foundation – Harriet Barr Memorial Fund. Further information about these memorial opportunities is listed below.
Remembrances of Harriet Hylton Barr

Checks may be written to Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church (Note: Harriet Barr memorial) and mailed to 927 W. Trinity Ave., Durham, N.C. 27701. More information is available online or by calling (919) 682-3865.

Checks may be written to UNC-Chapel Hill School of Public Health Foundation – Harriet Barr Memorial Fund and mailed to Office of External Affairs, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Campus Box 7400, 135 Dauer Drive, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-7400. To make a gift online, please visit

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or

Remembrances of Harriet Hylton Barr:

Listed below are selected remembrances offered by members of the School community. If you would like to comment, please send an email with your name, School affiliation and short tribute to Selected comments will be posted as time and space allow.

  • Harriet was perfect for her job working with alumni. She knew everyone, was friends with everyone, and could phrase her requests for volunteer work in such a way that you couldn’t say no. If Harriett asked you, you did it, and she always made you feel glad you did. (John Paul, PhD, 1983 UNC public health alumnus and clinical associate professor of health policy and management, who worked with Barr and the alumni association for eight years.)
  • I tried to do my job the way she would have done it. Each year, when we worked to decide who would win the Barr Award, folks would talk about the award’s history and the person it honored. It’s important to remember that Harriet was about the ‘practice’ of public health. (Janice Periquet, the UNC public health school’s director of alumni relations from 2003 to 2007, remembers meeting with alumni and hearing tales about Barr’s devotion to the alumni program and the School, including her tireless fundraising, her advocacy for an undergraduate public health program, and her idea to establish the Greenberg Alumni Endowment Award to honor an outstanding faculty member with a significant cash prize each year.)