Laurence Luther Barber was born in 1916, the son of a Congregational minister. As an adult, he has led an extraordinarily multi-faceted life, shifting with ease among concerns as apparently unrelated as Quaker beliefs, local government, and underdeveloped nations. Focusing initially on aspects of New England town government, Laurie earned a B.A., an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard where almost simultaneously he became an Instructor in Government and a married Quaker. As he explains it, “When I was in graduate school, I started going around to a variety of the more esoteric little cults: spiritualists and Seventh Day Adventists, etc. A couple of the fellows I worked with at Harvard were Quakers and urged me to go to Young Friends in Cambridge. So one evening I did and met a young lady, and we’re working toward our 57th wedding anniversary!”
A lectureship at B.U. ended with military service in WW II for which he let himself be drafted because “I hadn’t done anything to try to forestall it, so I didn’t think I could claim CO status.” After the war Laurie and Lucia moved to Hartford where they joined Hartford meeting and he soon became Chairman of Trinity College’s Department of Government.
A Fulbright year in Luxembourg in 1952, where Laurie attended the Academy of International Law in the Hague - the couple summered on a houseboat in Leyden - got Laurie interested in international technical assistance, and induced him to join the United Nations.
Notes Laurie wrily, “When Lucia and I got engaged, I told her I was a died-in-the-wool New Englander, and that I didn’t think I could ever accept a job west of the Hudson River or south of Long Island Sound.” Yet between 1954 and 1972, working for the United Nations, Laurie and Lucia functioned as a team to promote technical and economic development in Brazil, Turkey, Libya, Ethiopia, the United Arab Republic, Somalia, Ceylon, and Trinidad and Tobago. Lucy and Luther, their two children, grew up and were educated in this rich international mix. Indeed, it was in Somalia that Lucy, a linguist, recruited to work for USAID, met and determined to marry one of her recruiters.
The fact that Laurie and Lucia had maintained their membership in Hartford meeting stood them in good stead. As Laurie tells it, “I was called one day out of the office and there were Lucy and this young man, hand in hand. They wanted to get married. We were just about to leave for Sri Lanka and yet we wanted to be there for the wedding. So they had to get married fast. How to do it? There was an Italian priest who - if you got him drunk enough - would marry anybody. But that didn’t seem right. They went to a Mennonite missionary, and he asked them if they were Christians. Lucy said, I am a Quaker. Jerry said, I used to be a Mormon. Neither of those qualified. He then asked if they had to get married, that is, if she was pregnant. Lucy replied No, that’s why I want to get married. He said, “Well, if you were pregnant, I might consider it my Christian duty to marry you. Otherwise, no.” So I went to the ambassador and said, “Well, how about your marrying them?” He said, “Look, Mr. Barber, it’s a misapprehension that ambassadors can marry people. Captains of ships at sea can, but I think the nearest American warship is off the coast of Vietnam, and I don’t think they would come across the Indian Ocean in order to marry your daughter.” He said, ”There’s an Anglican missionary in Aden who comes over now and then -- oh, no, they’re fighting with the British and they won’t give him a visa.”
We heard that some of the Peace Corps kids had gone up to Addis Ababa to a synagogue where there was a rabbi who would marry them, but unfortunately, the Somalis weren’t on speaking terms with the Ethiopians. We considered Nairobi; no. Finally, we said, “Look, we’ll ask Hartford meeting to bless the thing, to give us their support. And we’ll have the civil wedding under the Italian heritage in Somalia. So in the morning we gathered with the city mayor with a Somali sash across his belly button, who married them in Somali, Italian, and English and in the afternoon we had the one and only Quaker wedding in Somalia!”
The Barbers stayed members of Hartford meeting until moving to Salt Lake City in the mid-70’s where Laurie was clerk of a new meeting, wrote “Know the Quakers,” a series of question and answers focusing on the major issues of Quakerism, served on the committee to set up a preliminary to a Faith and Practice for a Mountain Meeting, and, in tandem with Lucia, who as UNICEF director had office space, developed a service called Peaceful Concerns, later revived on the Cape.
In 1979 the Quakers setting up a Friends intergenerational housing project in North Easton, MA. were having problems and needed someone with a management background. Laurie and Lucia became co-directors. Unfortunately, their salvage attempt was unsuccessful. The Barbers moved the following year to West Yarmouth and Sandwich Monthly Meeting.
On the Cape Laurie focused his abundant energies on issues concerning both Quakers and town government. He became assistant clerk and then treasurer of Yarmouth Meeting, spent a year as clerk of Sandwich Monthly Meeting, was a member and then clerk of the Archives Committee of New England Yearly Meeting, and was a member of the board of Moses Brown School for many years.
Laurie has also served as chairperson and member of 7 different Yarmouth town committees, ultimately earning a commendation from the Selectmen. Scrubbing gravestones in Yarmouth Quaker cemetery led to the publication in 1988 (with sponsorship by the Yarmouth Historical Society) of “When South Yarmouth was Quaker Village.” Now he is working on the history of West Yarmouth.
In the last few years, Laurie lost his wife, Lucia, and left Cape Cod to be closer to his daughter in southern New Hampshire. The meeting misses them both at worship and at monthly business meetings.