Bird makes most of second act, ready for third

June 27, 2014

Barbara Bird remembers her first sight of Penn State, and it felt a bit like a scene from a movie.


She was flying into Happy Valley for a job interview and looked out the airplane window. “You could just see this little patch of lights glimmering down there,” Bird said. “It looked small and quaint. It looked nice.”


Bird, taking a big step in her second career after 20 years as a nurse, was visiting central Pennsylvania for an interview for a full-time teaching position after completing her graduate work at Northwestern University.


Penn State was not the first choice for her academic career, but it turned out to be the right choice for her, hundreds of students through the years and a program that crafted a productive and respected role at the University.


“I think we’ve been successful together,” Bird said. “We have this lovely jewel of a program that can give students a tremendous amount of personal attention, and I’m so proud to have been a part of its growth.”


After 17 years at Penn State, Bird decided to retire, effective June 30. During her tenure, the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies was one of four created in the College of Communications. Bird quickly emerged as a leader within the department and the college. Along with her teaching and committee work, she has served at different times as acting head of the department and as director of international programs for the college.


Dean Doug Anderson arrived on campus two years after Bird and leaned on her early in his career.


“I knew back in 1999 that it was terribly unfair to expect a tenure-track assistant professor to assume service and administrative responsibilities, but, let’s face it, anyone who had been a charge nurse in the operating room of a major hospital could handle the task,” Anderson said. “Obviously, Barbara has made an enormous contribution to the college and its film-video students over the past 17 years.” 


And, as she envisions retirement, Bird does not foresee herself slowing down or stopping. She’s just moving on to different challenges and opportunities. She plans on spending more time with her three grown children and five grandchildren in Chicago. She also has a few projects in mind. She’s clearly looking forward -- although she did entertain a few sentimental moments.


“There were times during the final semester when I thought about the last time I’d be doing this or that, and I’ll certainly miss the fall -- there’s such a great energy on campus at that time of year,” Bird said. “But, it’s just time to do something different.” 


Bird is not one to shy away from an opportunity -- often parlaying her passion into productivity. Her career in higher education was one such opportunity. It seemed like a drastic change to some, but not Bird.


“It made perfect sense to me,” she said of the transition from nursing. “It didn’t seem the least bit odd, especially with the background my dad gave me.”


Influenced by her father (with whom she made films that were much more than simple family narratives when she was a child) and filmmakers like Michael Moore, Bird found her voice in documentaries. Many of her film credits, as well as those on which she advised students or collaborated with community groups, were “cause” efforts -- things done to benefit and support others. She invariably encouraged her students as they did the same.


“I told my students that my work came from being ticked off,” Bird said. “It’s fabulous to be able to find a place to express that. I love to rock the boat. Plus, made up stories are not as interesting to me as real issues.”


Bird’s credits include: “No. 4 Street of Our Lady” (2009), which looks at the 60-year silence of some Holocaust survivors; “Album” (2002), which explores a family’s struggles with addiction and dysfunction; and “Handmaidens” (1995), which looks at abuse and lack of power in the workplace.


The most recent film in that trio allowed Bird to help tell the personal story of another person’s family while collaborating with fellow faculty members. Her skills were vital in helping convey the story for a film that earned numerous accolades, including a Silver Telly Award and was honored at an Academy Award-qualifying festival.


Her thesis documentary, “Handmaidens,” was about nurses -- a personal story that also earned several awards. Bird’s varied portfolio also ranges from a film made for a suicide survivor group to a 15-minute documentary titled “Ghosts of Carnegie.” The latter was made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Building, which serves as the on-campus home for the College.


She approached every project with the same focus on storytelling and level of professionalism. And, while she brings a passion to all her work she also brings important perspective -- an approach that works well on a busy campus and with varied audiences. That statesperson-like approach, albeit a bit vocal at times in her preferred rock-the-boat style, was important in the growth of the film program.


“We are supported and I think valued,” Bird said. “I’ve always felt included.”


During her final spring semester, a pair of 2001 film-video graduates (Tony Layser and Dave Leopold) with whom Bird had worked closely, were among the visitors to campus to share their expertise. “When something comes full circle like that it’s really rewarding,” Bird said. “That’s just one of the things that made working here so special.” 

Last Updated January 10, 2015