Obituaries

Rodney Barker, longtime Newton official and immigration lawyer, dies at 84

Rodney Barker
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Rodney Barker

For nearly a decade, Rodney Barker and his fledgling family moved back and forth between his home country of England and the United States, searching for the perfect place to call home until they settled in Newton Highlands in 1968.

Grateful for the opportunities afforded to him here, Mr. Barker became deeply involved in his adopted community. He helped launch the Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council, volunteered at Newton Highlands Congregational Church, and served for a total of more than two decades on the city’s Board of Alderman and School Committee.

As a member of the Hyde School’s PTA, he led two successful campaigns to keep the school’s doors open, employing strategies that included the catchy motto “Save Our Hyde.”

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“It was always fun to hear Rodney debate,” said Lisle Baker, who served with him on the Board of Aldermen. “He had a wonderful sense of public outrage at misguided policies and politicians. He wasn’t an angry person, but he was passionate. He cared.”

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Mr. Barker, who also was a longtime immigration lawyer, died Oct. 2 from complications of inclusion-body myositis, a rare degenerative muscular disease. He was 84.

As chairman of Newton’s Zoning and Planning Committee, he left a lasting mark on the city’s look and feel while advocating for preserving historic buildings. And a particularly important pet project was pushing through a “pooper scooper” ordinance. While some officials and family members joked that the dog-curbing law should be named after its author, his lifetime of work was memorialized instead in 2012 when Rodney Barker Square was dedicated.

“You have given so much of your heart and soul to this little community called Newton Highlands,” Janice Bourque, a former Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council president, said at the ceremony. “Thank you for your years of deep commitment to us.”

While Mr. Barker focused much of his work on local issues, he had a lifelong fascination with other countries and cultures, and helped thousands come to America during his career as an immigration lawyer. He worked with clients from all corners of the world, including Tibet. His efforts helped shape national immigration policy toward that country, which earned him an audience with the Dalai Lama, who thanked Mr. Barker for his work before declaring him “a decisive man.”

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The son of Geoffrey Mylne Barker and the former Joyce Hickman, Mr. Barker was born in London but lived in the suburb of Gerrards Cross as a child to escape the German bombing of the capital during World War II. He would later recall seeing the fires in London from his suburban bedroom window. His father, a lawyer, ventured into the city every morning for work, unsure whether his firm had been leveled during the previous night’s attack.

Mr. Barker studied history and law at Cambridge University and graduated with a master’s degree. He briefly worked in his father’s small London firm, which was housed in a somewhat dilapidated building. On cold days, typists were known to unfreeze stiff typewriter keys using candles.

While in London, Mr. Barker met Elizabeth Hines, an American student from Oberlin College who was studying abroad, and is known as Betsy. They met at a mutual friend’s party in a closet while playing the British hide-and-seek game sardines, in which a hiding place becomes progressively more crowded.

Months later, they bumped into each other in Paris on Easter weekend. They visited the palace of Versailles, and introduced themselves on a long walk down a pebble road at sunset. “When I went back to America and finished my senior year, I found it was so difficult to concentrate on my studies because he kept pestering me to marry him,” Betsy said. “He sent me letters all the time.”

They married in London in 1958 and bounced between England and her home state of Ohio before moving to Newton Highlands, where they raised three children.

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Mr. Barker received a master’s in teaching from Oberlin College, taught at Beaver Country Day School, and then served as Thayer Academy’s history department chairman.

After becoming a naturalized citizen in 1973, he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. In 1977, he opened a law firm specializing in immigration law and helped thousands resettle in the United States, including many who were fleeing repression. Mr. Barker chaired the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and served as secretary of the board for the Tibetan United States Resettlement Project.

He also contributed to crafting part of the Immigration Act of 1990. Working closely with then-US Representative Barney Frank, Mr. Barker advocated for increased immigration for Tibetans. The law allowed 1,000 Tibetan refugees to emigrate to the United States per year for three years.

Mr. Barker’s son-in-law and law partner, John Loscocco of Natick, said that welcoming Tibetans to US cities “was instrumental to preserving the country’s culture right when China was trying to crush it.”

In a statement, Frank said he frequently sought Barker’s counsel on immigration issues, “where his expertise was unsurpassed.”

“He was for me a very important source of information, advice, encouragement, and friendship — combining a zeal for reform with an understanding of how to achieve it,” Frank said.

Mr. Barker also helped forge a sister-city relationship between Newton Highlands and San Juan del Sur in southwest Nicaragua, an initiative prompted by his frustration with the Reagan administration’s funding of right-wing rebels in that country. “Rodney wanted to contribute to Nicaragua in a way to create something positive, a counterbalance,” said his daughter, Mary Penelope Loscocco. “It was a very political act in that way.”

While Mr. Barker was fascinated with all types of countries and culture, he never lost his connection to England. A lifelong student of British history, he kept tabs on his homeland by frequently tuning into BBC broadcasts, and he led an annual class in the proper way to prepare English marmalade.

Mr. Barker also spent hours in his greenhouse, which included a spectrum of rare plants such as monkey puzzle trees, which are popular in England. His favorite flower was the primrose, and he was a leader of the New England chapter of the American Primrose Society.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Barker leaves two sons, Gregory of Longmont, Colo., and Chris of Seattle; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service was held Saturday in Newton Highlands Congregational Church.

“It was a wonderful tribute to America that he was so warmly embraced in the community,” Betsy said. “That had been his life’s wish. He was happy here in a way I had never known him to be.”

In his final years, as he struggled with a degenerative muscular disease, Mr. Barker fought one last municipal battle: to make Newton more accessible for disabled citizens.

“He managed to stay amazingly positive about life,” said Gregory, who added that “despite his condition, he would go out every day, chat with people, grab a coffee. I’ve really grown to admire that persistence.”

Jasper Craven can be reached at jclarkcraven@gmail.com.