Photo of Barbara French
Barbara French

Obituary of Barbara French

June 22, 2022

Barbara Maxine French (née Orr), July 24, 1941 – June 22, 2022

Barbara was raised in Villa Park, IL, by Dale and Florence Orr. She described herself as a tomboy, shadowing her father in the garage and tearing down frozen rivers on ice skates. She excelled at school, especially in the areas of languages and sciences. She had a lovely clear soprano, and sang in solo competitions during high school. She sang with a full voice at all times. Even in a large congregation, her voice was fully audible.

She was admitted to Radcliffe College with a Latin scholarship, but she left early in her studies to marry Laurence Channing, a fellow Harvard student and artist, in 1960. She had three children with Laurence: David Channing, Katharine Channing, and Edward Channing. Having children was one of her greatest pleasures. She marveled at the entire process of pregnancy and childbirth. During this time the Channing family lived in Cambridge, MA, and New Haven, CT.

In 1970, Barbara married Bruce Lawrence, a recently ordained Episcopal priest studying Islam at Yale University. In January of 1971, she gave birth to twins, Rachel Lawrence and Anna Lawrence. During this pregnancy, she had to go on bed rest for several months, during which she crocheted chunky wool baby blankets, knitted sweaters, and did crossword puzzles. She loved to recount how she balanced a coffee cup on top of the twin baby bump.

The family of seven moved to Durham, NC in 1971. Three years later, the family moved to India, where they lived for two years. Barbara loved living in India and enjoyed learning Urdu and a bit of Arabic and Sanskrit. After their return to Durham, Barbara enrolled in college and earned her BA at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She continued with her work on the graduate level in behavioral psychology at UNC, focusing on child development. While she did studies on the mother-offspring bond in ducks, the family hosted a little pod of fuzzy yellow heads in the bathtub and basement. Barbara became enthralled with computers and statistics, in the early days of computing, which meant punch cards and room-sized machines. She was over 40 when she earned her Ph.D. and found her first full-time job as an assistant professor of Psychology at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY.

Although Barbara enjoyed teaching, she left Hartwick and went into administration after exploring the field of higher education assessment. She moved to Pocatello, ID in 1989 to work for Idaho State University, and she learned to appreciate many aspects of the West, particularly the extensive hiking trails around her mountain home.

In 1998, Barbara returned to New York State to work at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn as a dean in the medical school, still in the field of assessment. Her work was varied, but she was especially proud of diagnosing the differential in pay between men and women at the university. She was always concerned about being undervalued because of her sex and felt that she earned respect through her rigorous analyses. And she loved to work. When she retired, they had to hire two people to replace her.

New York City was a great place for her to live. In the city, she fulfilled her love of art and music; she regularly went to museums and concert halls. Barbara especially loved baroque chamber music, and it was through that interest that she found a match online with a kind gentleman in St. Paul, Ron French. In her late 60s, she fell in love and in 2009, she married this lovely Minnesotan and had some of her happiest years with him, though they were too short. Throughout her marriage, she and her husband were great supporters of the Bach Vespers program at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan. She donated endless hours and energy, alongside her philanthropic support of this music program that has produced first-rate performances of Bach.

Barbara loved to travel and learn languages in preparation. She liked to cook, feeling liberated from her midwestern childhood of canned vegetables and square bland meals. Barbara had always loved being outdoors, swimming in oceans and lakes, canoeing, camping, and sailing, all things she did with her kids as well.

Barbara was all about the life of the mind. She would say she was no fan of small talk, and it was true that she usually skipped over niceties. She never suffered fools gladly or kept her opinions to herself. At dinner, when the family argued over any concept or fact (pre-internet), they consulted the reference books always near the table. But in fact, Barbara usually had what sounded like the definitive answer, and sometimes it was. Her mind was encyclopedic, the full set from A-Z: art, history, math, myth, music, and science.

When she died, her mind was less connected, but thankfully the gap between who she was, what she once knew, and her recent haze was never a source of anxiety or anger. She was placid, sweet, and grateful in her final months. She died peacefully at home surrounded by her loving home health caregiver and three daughters.

She is survived by her brother William Orr and five children: David Channing, Katharine Channing, Edward Channing, Rachel Lawrence, and Anna Lawrence. As well, she left behind six much-loved grandchildren: Julia Channing, Madeline Channing, William Channing, Warren Channing, Emma Bella Bass-Lawrence, and Jonah Bass-Lawrence.

A funeral mass will be held at St. Vincent Ferrar Church on Friday, July 8th at 2:30 pm, 869 Lexington Ave. (at 65th), in New York City. Please contact anna.lawrence5@gmail.com for further information.

If you would like to give something in remembrance, in lieu of flowers, please consider donating to one of Barbara’s favorite causes: Doctors Without Borders, Gotham Early Music Scene, or New York Landmarks Conservancy.

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