TALLAHASSEE — The third-grader from Lafayette, Ind., had no interest in race cars or G.I. Joe sets for his upcoming birthday. Eric Barron wanted, and received, just one thing: a kit to test the hardness of rocks.
That kit launched him on a path through academia that now has him circling back to the place where his studies in geology and climatology began: Florida State University.
Here, he earned his bachelor's degree. And here, amid high expectations, he is poised to take the helm as FSU's 14th president.
In the early '70s, Barron was just an eager science geek who spent long hours in the campus library ("my safe haven"), taking study breaks at a doughnut shop near campus.
"At 2 a.m., you could leave the library and go over there for a fresh doughnut and a cup of coffee," said Barron, 58. "And you could strike up some great conversations."
He will need lots of coffee in the weeks to come as he gets to know the staff, faculty, trustees, donors and students who expect Barron to boost FSU's national research reputation — and its endowment, now at $446.8 million. Trustees chairman Jim Smith wants to see Barron raise an additional $1 billion.
Barron's former co-workers and research peers say he's up to the task.
"We all kind of knew he'd be a college president somewhere, because he has always had that big-picture view," said Penn State professor Timothy Bralower, who met Barron in 1981.
Barron can channel his broad vision into a laser-focused determination when the circumstances call for it. Just ask anyone who has faced off against him on the racquetball court.
"You don't want to play racquetball against him," Bralower laughed. "He played against the president at Penn State, which I thought was pretty bold. But you know, I've only seen Eric rattled a couple of times. He does well under pressure."
Budding rock star
Barron's mother was a pianist and award-winning drummer. She taught piano lessons to help put his father through graduate school at Purdue University.
Barron's father worked as a "troubleshooter" who dealt with failing parts at Reynolds Metals Company.
The second of four children, Barron knew by third grade that he wanted to be a geologist. His parents helped make it happen.
"I started to collect rocks, and my parents encouraged me," Barron recalled. "I would ask, 'How does this work' or 'What is this?' My father would say, 'We don't know the answer, but we will find a book to tell you.' "
He enrolled in FSU for undergraduate studies because he knew the university allowed third- and fourth-year students to enroll in graduate classes.
He said he stumbled a bit in his sophomore year — didn't study enough, "played too much."
But during his last two years at FSU, Barron hunkered down and indulged his growing interest in oceanography. He went on research cruises with graduate students and professors.
"I remember going scuba diving at 2 a.m. with a flashlight and a current meter to measure water flows at the bottom of the Escambia Bay," Barron said. "That cemented my decision to go into ocean sciences."
He graduated with a geology degree in 1973 and moved to the University of Miami. There, he got his master's and Ph.D. in oceanography and wrote the groundbreaking dissertation that established his reputation among fellow scientists.
Barron, not even 30 then, did something that hadn't been done: He used modern-day climate modeling to determine what the atmosphere and ocean looked like millions of years ago. He found that there was no ice above the poles. Vegetation bloomed and alligators roamed above the Arctic Circle. His research earned him the Smith Prize at UM for "most creative dissertation" and helped him land prestigious posts including his most recent: director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
"Today if you come to a meeting on climate modeling, all you see is Eric's students, Eric's students' students, and now Eric's students' students' students," said Bralower. "He's the grandfather, really."
Big and cozy
Over and over again, as a professor and then as an administrator at Penn State, Barron heard the same refrain from parents of prospective students.
"They would tell me they knew this was one of the finest programs in the country, but they were going to send their child to a smaller liberal arts school and pay more because it meant the professors would know their child," Barron recalled.
So he set out to turn Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences into its own liberal arts school. As dean of the college starting in 2002, he oversaw renovations and changes that remain part of his legacy, according to Penn State professors.
He put in a cozy living room and study area. He added work space and a computer area. He hired chemistry graduate students as tutors to help freshmen and sophomores get through Penn State's "killer" chemistry prerequisite. He brought in a multicultural adviser.
A freshman seminar course brought students to the college's revamped student center during their first days on campus, not in their final semesters.
"All of a sudden, you become family. And it started when they were freshmen," Barron said.
That student center became a model for the rest of Penn State's academic colleges.
"It was truly transformative. It changed the entire student experience," Bralower said. "It is still, to this day, Eric's legacy here."
"I imagine he'll do the same thing at Florida State. The main beneficiaries will be the students."
Sharon Mosher, dean at the University of Texas Jackson School, said one of the first things Barron did when he arrived in 2006 was assess student services.
He asked, should the school be offering geography tutors? Should we be recruiting differently?
So when Mosher introduced Barron months later to an audience, "I told them his favorite word is 'students.' Because that is really the truth about him."
And if any FSU students out there want to play racquetball, Barron says he's always ready for a challenging game.
"Oh, it's great exercise," he said. "And it teaches you great skill."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.