You can’t get past the door at Quincy House without getting to know Paul Barksdale. That’s not because the Harvard security guard will stop you, but because the residents likely will, singing his praises.
Barksdale is a fixture of the House and a welcoming friend to the 500-plus students who call the residence hall home during their sophomore, junior, and senior years at the University. It’s a home made warmer by the light of the man who knows everybody’s name.
From 4 p.m. to midnight, Barksdale mans the guard desk at the side of the building on Plympton Street, handing out care packages or parcels too big to fit in a small mailbox. He assists students with forgotten keys, lends them the House vacuum cleaner, or helps them locate a lost item. But, perhaps above all, he is a friend.
Students can’t get through the door without Barksdale getting to know them. Since he started in 2003, he has made a point of memorizing the name, face, and concentration of every incoming sophomore.
“He knew my name right off the bat,” recalled senior Janet He. “He is so friendly and outgoing. If I am having a bad day, he will still come and ask me how I am doing. … He brings so much happiness to my life at Quincy House.”
Barksdale occasionally plays matchmaker if he senses there might be an unexpressed interest between two shy undergraduates, and regularly attends the House’s formals, dances, and variety shows.
Prior to coming to Harvard, Barksdale worked with local homeless shelters, and HIV/AIDS and substance abuse programs, helping to counsel and support those trying to get back on their feet, or cope with a difficult disease. The skills he developed through those experiences, he said, translate to his interactions with students, who so often just need the supportive ear of a friend.
“Whether someone is marginalized or a wonderful achiever, there is a sense of presence that you want to give a person, that sense of dignity and respect that everyone needs.
“So often you are powerless to change people’s lives, … but by just being this presence to someone, you can affirm them. I can’t change if an exam didn’t go well, but I can listen.”
In his spare time, Barksdale is an avid walker and loves to read. His current reading list tends toward the spiritual and includes the religious scholars Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman.
His passion for books is something he shares with his students. On a recent afternoon, he and junior Matt Cavedon compared notes on the memoir of former Quincy House resident and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “If I can find my copy at home, I will bring it in for you,” Barksdale told Cavedon with a smile.
“It must feel good to have that thesis done,” Barksdale quipped to another passing student, senior Ari Hoffman, who recently finished his English literature thesis. A die-hard Yankees fan, Hoffman said some of his happiest memories at Quincy House involve watching baseball games with Barksdale, an ardent Red Sox Fan.
“Paul has been a real highlight of my time at Quincy House and my college undergraduate career,” said Hoffman, who added that when his Yankees won the World Series Barksdale offered kind congratulations. “It was above and beyond the call of duty.”
When trying to describe what the job means to him, Barksdale gets emotional.
He recounted a 2004 conversation with graduating senior David Lippin. Noticing Lippin outside the House early one morning during senior week with a contemplative look on his face, Barksdale stopped to say hello.
“He said, ‘Paul, I can’t tell you what an honor it has been to be here, to be part of this.’
“Those were his words, but if you saw his countenance, his face when he was saying this, it tells you about the magic of Harvard,” recalled Barksdale. “Harvard cannot be ensconced in a brand name. Harvard is much bigger than that. It’s this dynamic, living, creative organism that every student and professor is part of. It’s magical, and I think the most important thing is to be grateful to be part of it in any way. That’s what I feel. I feel like it’s an honor to work here, in whatever small role I play.”