Dr. George T. Barthalmus, who taught thousands of students as a longtime professor of zoology and biology at NC State and was a passionate advocate for research opportunities for undergraduate students, died last night.
Friends, colleagues and former students said no one embodied the ideal of NC State and its mission as a land-grant university to serve students from throughout the state better than Barthalmus.
As a teacher, he encouraged and supported students to do their best work. As an adminstrator, both at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and as the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, he worked with colleagues to create opportunities for students to get engaged with research.
“He was the epitome of everything from teacher to friend to mentor,” said Dr. Anita Flick ’86, director of the Health Professions Advising Center at CALS and a former student of Barthalmus. “He bled this university about as much as anybody could.”
Flick said Barthalmus, who came to NC State in 1970 as an assistant professor of zoology, had the ability to convey complex information in introductory biology and zoology classes in a way that was clear and relevant to students.
“He gave me an opportunity as a student to grow and develop my own ideas, while also teaching me at the same time,” Flick said. “This is an unmentionable loss to this university.”
In a letter to CALS faculty and staff, Dean Johnny Wynne described Barthalmus as “an extraordinary teacher, scientist and colleague. He will be missed.”
Barthalmus became a full professor in 1984 and was named an NC State Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor in 1993. He won three University Outstanding Teaching Awards and the CALS Outstanding Academic Adviser Award.
In 1998, Barthalmus became associate dean and director of academic programs at CALS. Barthalmus retired in 2001, but later came back to the university as interim director of the University Honors Program and then director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. He served for five years on the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for the state of North Carolina.
Dr. Roger Callanan, assistant dean of undergraduate academic programs, said Barthalmus was an extraordinary advisor and friend to students. Barthalmus taught an estimated 16,000 students during his years at NC State.
“He lived his life so full,” Callanan said. “Every day he had a smile. Every day he had a project. He was one of those people who moved a mile a minute. You couldn’t help but be excited and dedicated in his presence. He just emanated that. He really represented the best of NC State.”
Barthalmus often talked about the importance of NC State remaining true to its mission as a land-grant university, particularly when it came to reaching out to students in rural areas who might not have the same high school academic record as students from urban areas with more resources.
“It would be a shame to see a North Carolina student interested in poultry science have to go to (the University of) Arkansas because he couldn’t get into NC State with an SAT score of 1,000,” Barthalmus said in a 2001 profile in NC State magazine. “I’m afraid – if we have fewer and fewer rural students – that curricula such as poultry science, food science, agronomy, soil science and crop science will fade away. These courses make NC State a land-grant university.”
Karl Smith ’85, a Raleigh dentist, said Barthalmus was one of the best teachers he had at NC State. He recalled Barthalmus showing up for class with his motorcycle helmet, a big head of hair and his everpresent smile.
“I had him for vertebrate biology,” Smith said. “That can be really monotonous. You’re basically studying the innards of animals. But he would bring the animals to life that he was describing, and tell you why you were learning a particular thing. He would bring his courses to life.”
Lisa Brone ’88, a physician in Boulder, Colorado, took an introductory zoology class with Barthalmus when she was a freshman at NC State. “He was very animated in the classroom,” she said. “He really enjoyed teaching. He wanted to keep the students awake. Tried to make learning interesting and fun. He was a great teacher.”
Dr. Catherine Gordon ’86, director of the Bone Health Program at Children’s Hospital Boston and a medical professor at Harvard University, said Barthalmus opened her eyes as an undergraduate at NC State to the possibility of becoming a scientist and physician. She said Barthalmus continued to help after she left NC State.
“My important career achievements have his signature on them; looking back, almost every one is accompanied by a strong letter of support from Dr. B,” she said in an email.
Dr. W. Kent Guion ’87, associate provost for multicultural affairs at Georgia Health Sciences University, spent three-and-a-half years working in Barthalmus’s lab. He said Barthalmus was never negative, and that being in the lab with him did not seem like work.
“I remember once spending an extra hour or so with Dr. B hunting down a snake that had managed to get out of its cage,” Guion said in an email. “It probably only would have taken 20 minutes to recapture but we spent most of the time laughing about the headlines that might appear in the newspaper if we were unsuccessful.”
Howard Cummings ’75, an assistant district attorney in Wake County, got to know Barthalmus after Cummings left NC State. Cummings went fishing with Barthalmus on the Little Alligator River and goose hunting with him in Maryland.
“He always kept everybody entertained,” Cummings said. “He loved to laugh.”
Cummings said Barthalmus once helped his nephew, who was struggling to figure out what to do about graduate school. “George was more than willing to sit down and talk with him as a mentor,” Cumming said. “He really wanted students to excel.”
University administrators who worked with Barthalmus said he was a powerful advocate for students and undergraduate research.
“George thought the university was here to help everybody,” said Dr. John Ambrose, dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education Programs. “Anybody that came to him, he was willing to work with them. He reached out to any student who was interested in doing research.”
Dr. Ken Esbenshade, associate dean and director of academic programs at CALS, said Barthalmus had been helped by a mentor when he was a student and always looked for opportunities to serve in that role for students at NC State.
“He was student-centered in everything he did,” Esbenshade said.
Dr. Judy Day, who worked with Barthalmus as assistant director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said Barthalmus helped students realize their potential. She said students would leave excited about new opportunities after meeting with Barthalmus.
“He believed in the abilities of students, the excitement of getting students engaged in learning,” Day said.
Day recalled the last email she received from Barthalmus, earlier this week. He was trying to see if there was any money in the budget for a student project.
“He was trying to get money for them to do research,” she said. “That was his passion.”
Barthalmus also wrote murder-mystery novels set on college campuses. The proceeds from his books supported the George T. and Marina T. Barthalmus Life Sciences Scholarship Endowment. Again, Barthalmus was trying to find a way to help students.
“George was a huge proponent of students,” Day said. “The entire university is going to miss his driving force.”