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Alex Barry ’20 remembered as creative, caring, ambitious

Friends, family, professor recall Barry’s kindness, humor

Alexander Barry ’20, a passionate writer and caring friend with a love for music, movies and literature passed away from Ewing Sarcoma Jan. 12.

Barry grew up in Calabasas, California and graduated from Calabasas High School before traveling east to study creative writing at Brown. He graduated with honors and a dual degree in Literary Arts and English Literature, also having won the Mark Baumer Prize for Language Art.

Friends, family and Barry’s professor and thesis advisor remember him as kind, creative and ambitious, with an intense love for Los Angeles and an incredible sense of humor.

“In all the time I knew him he was the most enthusiastic, caring friend that I have ever had,” said Zachary Goldstein ’19, Barry’s roommate for three semesters. “Every interaction I had with Alex I left feeling so much love.”

He “made time for everyone and cared about everyone around him so much,” Jake Saferstein ’19 said. Saferstein met Barry while they were both rushing the fraternity Beta Rho Pi in their first year at Brown. He was immediately drawn to Barry and his “amazing sense of style” (Barry would often wear bright floral shirts and shorts.)

Barry was “so massively himself,” said Doug Shea ’19, who also met him through Beta Rho Pi their freshman year. Shea described Barry as kind, a “prolific writer” and someone who possessed “perfect” comedic timing. Upon talking with him, “it was so clear that (he was) somebody (who was) just so incredibly smart,” Shea said. “That always blew me away.”

“He was always reading and writing,” Shea added. Barry kept his friends updated on his writing throughout college and let them know when his stories started to get published, Shea said. His short story “Fence” was published in the Catamaran Literary Reader and his story “Saguaro” led him to be chosen as one of the “Top 25 to Watch” by Glimmer Train, a literary journal.

Barry’s interest in writing was apparent from an early age, his mother Nancy Finkelstein told The Herald. She recalled a challenge she gave him to write a story each day for a hundred days when he was in fifth grade. She promised him $100 if he was successful. “He didn’t really care about the money, but it was a challenge,” Finkelstein said.

Barry would come home after school each day and write one-to-two-page stories. He later turned the stories into tiny books and sold them to raise funds to buy braille books for kids as his mitzvah service project, Finkelstein said. He never spent the $100, she added.

The 100-day writing challenge was just one example of Barry’s combined drive and creativity. A rapper in addition to a writer, Barry adopted “A.M.B.ition” as his stage name while rapping, and a pen name in some poems, with the first three letters representing his initials, Finkelstein said. “He just had this tremendous will,” she added.

Barry was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma prior to what would have been his senior year, leading him to take medical leave and return the following fall. That same fall, he decided to take on writing a thesis. When he fell ill again during his last semester at Brown in spring 2020, he continued writing and taking classes while receiving chemotherapy and during a pandemic, according to Finkelstein.

“When he first approached me, he didn’t even know if he could finish the thesis,” Rick Moody, Bonderman Professor for the Practice of Literary Arts and Barry’s thesis advisor, said. Ultimately, Barry completed his thesis in a process that Moody says was the “single most impressive mentor experience” he has had at Brown.

For Barry, “there was no ambiguity … no undecidedness, no uncertainty about why (he should) make a thesis,” Moody added. He possessed an “absolute certainty about the power of writing and a real desire to do the job and complete a thesis.”

He “believed in the work,” Moody said. “Alex proved the reason we write.”

A frequent focus of Barry’s writing was the West, particularly California, Moody said. He wrote about California with “a really special insight” and a “miraculous observational quality,” Moody added. 

“He loved LA and loved sharing LA with people,” Goldstein said. “He was so excited to share his hometown of Calabasas. It was more than the physical aspect; he loved the people.”

Barry also wrote about being Jewish with an “intense warmth,” Moody said.

He “was very proudly Jewish” and “very proudly Irish,” Shea said. On a trip to Ireland, Barry visited the Long Room at the Trinity College Dublin library, later writing a poem about the experience. “Seeing (the) ancient Irish literature was so transformative and wonderful” for him, Shea added.

Music was another love of Barry’s, one that became the basis of many of his friendships. Austin Berke met Barry in middle school, where they had a couple of classes together. They quickly bonded over music — Barry wanted to rap, and Berke produced music as a hobby. Soon enough, they were uploading songs on Soundcloud. “(We) just had fun with it,” Berke said.

It was through their music and classes in high school that Berke realized Barry was a “creative genius” who poured himself into everything he did. They stayed in touch throughout college, Berke said, as Barry “always made an effort to make time for his friends.”

The focus and attention Barry gave to friendships was something Goldstein also cherished about him. “He always took the initiative to reach out,” he said. "He treated each interaction and friendship as the most important thing he was doing in the moment.”

Even during treatment, Barry took time to reach out to his friends and make sure they were not too worried about him, Saferstein said. He “made time for everyone and cared about everyone around him so much.”

Barry was “the type of person that you go to college and you meet and you would never meet anyone like him,” Shea said. “I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know him and be really good friends with him.”

“It is a tremendous loss for all of us,” he added, remarking on all of the writing and art that Barry likely would have gone on to produce after his time at Brown. But Barry “is survived by so much of (his art and writing). It is a beautiful way to remember him.”


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