Barbra Barnes, first Flinn Scholars Program director, passes away at 90

May 18, 2022

By Matt Ellsworth

Barbra Barnes, a Midwesterner who fell in love with Arizona and taught 200 Flinn Scholars to do the same, passed away at age 90 on May 8—Mother’s Day—at her Phoenix home.

Barnes came from Illinois to Arizona in 1984 and joined the Flinn Foundation, where she directed the Flinn Scholars Program for its first decade. Many of the scholarship program’s signature elements—support for study abroad, matches with faculty mentors, an annual retreat, a recognition event celebrating incoming and graduating Scholars—began during her tenure.

“There’s a unique spirit in the Flinn Scholars: globally engaged and distinctively Arizonan, intellectually rigorous and fun-loving, opinionated and empathetic. And that was Barbra,” said Tammy McLeod, Flinn Foundation president and CEO. “She challenged and inspired a generation of Scholars and helped set our program on its course.”

Barnes’s first charge at the Foundation was to promote an unknown full-ride merit scholarship to high-school seniors with their hearts set on studying at elite out-of-state universities. She often recounted how she and John Murphy, the Foundation’s executive director, mailed application materials throughout Arizona, hopeful but unsure what might result. When the 1986 Flinn Scholarship application deadline arrived, the mailbags did too, filled with hundreds of applications.

In the years that followed, the Flinn Scholarship emerged as one of the nation’s best-known merit awards offered by a private foundation and helped to enhance the reputations of the Honors colleges and programs at Arizona’s three public universities. By 1990, Flinn Scholars held meaningful leadership and research positions throughout their universities and were earning admission to the nation’s most competitive medical, law, and doctoral programs. In 1993, a Flinn Scholar earned the Rhodes Scholarship for the first time, and more such recognitions followed. As proud as Barnes was of such accomplishments, she was equally pleased when Flinn Scholars achieved more personal ambitions, and routinely grilled Scholars who came to talk with her to ensure that they were pursuing areas of study, careers, avocations, and relationships that would make them happy and make a difference for the greater good.

One of the Foundation’s aims in creating the Flinn Scholarship was to cultivate Arizona’s future leaders, and Barnes believed that Flinn Scholars should come to know Arizona intimately. That education began for Scholars with horseback riding and stargazing at a retreat held each August at the Orme School, a rural Arizona boarding school where Flinn Foundation benefactor Robert S. Flinn had once served as physician-on-call. In the days before websites and email, sign-up sheets would be taped to a picnic table on the retreat’s final day for Scholars to register for weekend trips and cultural experiences: hiking and birdwatching in Chiricahua National Monument and tidepooling in Puerto Peñasco; performances at Centennial Hall in Tucson and at Symphony Hall in Phoenix; sculpting and painting in Cornville with artist John Waddell.

Scholars studying abroad would send postcards about their adventures to Barnes and Murphy at the Foundation, where the notes would be pinned up in Barnes’s office for Flinn Scholarship Finalists to read as they nervously awaited their interviews. The postcards were only the beginning: Barnes continued corresponding with the Scholars she had mentored long after she had retired—in letters, through email, and eventually via Facebook. She remained interested in the Scholars Program’s newest cohorts, too, seldom missing the May event to welcome the incoming Scholars and learn about the next destinations for graduates. In 2021, Barnes’s children invited Flinn Scholars to share reflections with her on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Dozens of notes arrived, with consistent themes: her role in building the Scholars community, her sharp counsel, her infectious love of nature, art, and music. Several recalled meeting her for the first time. Karyn Fox, from the Class of 1990, wrote:

“I’ll never forget the first time we met: you came to the NAU art gallery to meet with a group of anxious high-school seniors about the Flinn program. Your warmth, energy, one-on-one engagement and that sparkle in your eyes set us all at ease. These are characteristics I came to know and cherish throughout my time with you as a Flinn, and in years to follow. Thank you for making our world a better place, for your patience, giving us space to make mistakes, for cultivating a true fellowship among us, and being such a good and, well, fun, role model for us all during those formative college years.”

Barnes’s memorial service will be held Thursday, May 26, at 9:30 a.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix (masks required indoors), located at 4027 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Nature Conservancy or plant a native tree.

Arizona Republic Obituary: Barbra Harvey Esden Barnes