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Sir Donald Barron

Sir Donald Barron died on 30 December 2015, aged 94. Here, Ron Cooke reflects on his extraordinary life and achievements.

Sir Donald Barron

Donald was, without question, one of York’s most distinguished citizens of any generation. How fortunate for York that for over 50 years, he used his exemplary professional skills for the benefit of the city! And he enjoyed York to the full, almost always with his wife Gillian at his side in the most happy and enduring of partnerships.

As a Scottish, Yorkshire Accountant, surely the best kind, we would have expected him to be cannily frugal. There is good evidence, as the annual photos in the records of his walking group reveal. One taken 25 years ago, and another taken last year, show him wearing the exactly the same turquoise sweater. Even he was surprised: but, as he gleefully pointed out, the sweater was of course made of the finest Scottish cashmere!

Everyone’s confidence in his financial skills led him to be much sought after as treasurer or leader of many local organisations: The Minster Finance Committee, The York Civic Trust, The Merchant Adventurers, the University of York, and the 1982 Flood Relief Committee to name but five, and he left his mark on each of them. For example, at the Civic Trust, he managed the finances for the purchase and restoration of Fairfax House, one of the finest Georgian town houses in England. At the same time, he worked with many societies, including the Sheldon Trust, the Rowntree Players and, for many decades, The York Musical Society, while also being a Deputy Lieutenant of North Yorkshire.

But most importantly, throughout his life, Donald was totally committed to the importance of excellence in education. He was a member of that remarkable York Academic Trust which, against all the odds and not a little opposition, secured for York a new University in the 1960s. He personally fought hard to establish both a vision and a successful application and, as the Trust’s Treasurer, he probably had no trouble running a budget of 27 shillings and 6 old pence a week. As the University’s annual income is now over £300m, so he saw that as a pretty good investment.

During the 1960s and 1970s he played a major national role in the University Grants Committee, and he returned to the University first as Treasurer from 1966-1972, and then as Chairman of Council from 1987 to 1990. He was part of the vital struggle in those days to create both excellence and financial stability. Amongst the many successful initiatives achieved on his watch was the establishment, in collaboration of course with Rowntrees, of the UK’s leading social science departments and research groups. He was awarded an Honorary Degree in 1986. Donald was always very proud of his many roles in the formation of a major national institution, and the University is greatly in his debt.

And we shall remember his many successful campaigns and physical legacies in the city, for example, as we walk the fine Millennium Bridge, cycle the Sustrans routes, or relax at Hartrigg Oaks or in the North Street gardens or in Rowntree Park and the adjacent caravan park.

We shall remember him, too, for his recognition and encouragement of talent, and the ways in which he ensured so many Rowntree staff played important roles in the community. He was, for example, behind the initiative that led Trevor Copley to create St Leonard’s Hospice.

But Donald was successful because of the ways in which he combined his professional skills with his many personal virtues. We shall not forget his mischievous twinkle, his vision, his unbounded curiosity, his encyclopaedic memory and attention to detail, his indefatigable determination, and his quiet philanthropy.

We shall remember his courtesy, compassion, caring and concern; his enthusiasm for people and his unlimited little acts of kindness to others from all stations in life; his energy and joy of living every day to the full with Gillian and his family (from Scottish country dancing, to the church, concerts, golf and weekly tennis).

Donald was an extraordinary man who has left York a remarkable and unforgettable legacy.

Thank you, Donald. York will remember you.

Ron Cooke
February, 2016