Patricia Barr turned her personal struggles into a national cause as an advocate for breast cancer research and treatment. A lawyer, Barr focused on family law issues such as child support and domestic violence protection. While serving on the Vermont State Board of Education, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and given five years to live. Barr then threw herself into activism, becoming a founding director of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, chair of the Ethics Subcommittee on the Breast Cancer Task Force, an advisor to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the founder and president of the Vermont Breast Cancer Network. Alongside law and breast cancer activism, Barr worked for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, serving as chair of Peace Now from 1998 to 2003.
I always have hope and I think of it as an optimistic hope … that I might live to an old age. … Yet … I do not believe that I will live to see old age. … so… I am just hopeful … and if what I hope for doesn’t happen, then I hope I have made the best of my time. So perhaps I can reduce my hope to the hope that I am living well, that I do more good than bad, that I bring joy to those who love me.
Patricia A. Barr wrote these words at the age of fifty-two, fifteen years after her diagnosis of terminal breast cancer. An “out-liar,” as she called herself, Barr was an activist in multiple worlds: breast cancer, feminism, Judaism, education and the Israeli peace movement.
Early life in Vermont: from childhood to law school
Born on August 26, 1950, Barr was the oldest of three children born to Marie and Stephen Barr, both of whom immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary. Her father (b. 1919) owned an electrical contracting business in which his wife, Marie, was active. Barr had two younger siblings: Terri (b. 1953) and Michael (b. 1955).
Pat Barr graduated from Bennington College in 1971. Never one to do as everyone else did, Barr then became a self-taught lawyer, clerking for other lawyers in Vermont, taking the bar examinations and achieving the highest score without the benefit of a single law school class. In 1979 she married a fellow lawyer, Rolf Sternberg (b. 1945, Troy, NY) whose parents had emigrated from Germany in 1939. The couple had two children, Shira (b. 1982) and Tava (b. 1986). Together, Barr and Sternberg opened a law practice, now known as Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Lawrence, Silver and Saltonstall, PC, in Bennington, Vermont.
Cancer diagnosis and activist work
Barr began her career in public service in 1984 when then Governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, asked her to serve on the Vermont State Board of Education. During her term on the board (1984–1989), Barr was diagnosed with breast cancer and given five years to live. In response, Barr became a leader in the crusade against breast cancer, successfully advocating for government research dollars and public education. She founded and became one of the original Directors of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, now the United States’ largest breast cancer advocacy group. She also chaired the Ethics Subcommittee of the National Action Plan on Breast Cancer Task Force on Biological Resources and, from 1999–2002, served on the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetic Testing, a federal committee that advised U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. In addition, Barr founded and served as President of the Vermont Breast Cancer Network, guiding its advocacy strategy and action plans.
Barr was also deeply involved in the Jewish community on both national and international levels. She was a tireless advocate for Israel-Palestinian peace, serving from 1998–2000 as chair of Americans for Peace Now and as co-chair from 2002 until her death. In addition, Barr served on the board and executive committee of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and as president of her synagogue, Temple Beth El of Bennington, Vermont. In 2000, Barr became the first recipient of the Kol Ha-Isha award from Kolot: The Center For Jewish Women’s And Gender Studies, in recognition of her efforts to “use her voice on behalf of Jewish women and men.”
A legacy of advocacy and care
Barr advocated on behalf of women and families, chairing the Vermont Bar Association’s Family Law Committee and serving as a member of the 1988–1990 Task Force on Gender Bias in the Legal System. She was a family law practitioner who led efforts to assure fair child support and spousal maintenance and remedies for domestic violence victims well before Vermont had a Family Court. Towards the end of her life she became engaged in the issues of patient and doctor care and was a co-founder of the Institute for Medical Humanism.
Following Barr’s death on June 19, 2003, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy recalled Pat’s breast cancer activism and commented, “Enough work for a lifetime … but Pat didn’t stop there. She became an unwavering voice on the Middle East, bringing reason, understanding, and hope to Israelis and Palestinians.” He concluded, “Pat always asked, but never for herself.”