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Tai Chi Master Went with the Flow

David Slack Barrett ’79

David Slack Barrett 1979 photo

A beloved tai chi instructor, David could often be spotted on Reed’s great lawn, guiding students through the slow, hypnotic movements of Yang style tai chi. “Some of my favorite memories of Reed are doing tai chi wordlessly in the spring among the falling cherry blossoms,” Eliot Sitt ’07 remembered. “Dave was both boisterous and serene—very animated with a sense of humor explaining the motions, more meditative during the run-throughs.”

Dave began teaching at Reed in 1981 and was an adjunct professor with the exercise science department of Pacific University. In addition, he taught at a variety of senior centers, including a regular tai chi class at the Hillsboro Senior Center.

“Dave taught at so many levels,” said Prof. Alan Shusterman [chemistry 1989–], who began taking tai chi with Dave in 2003. “He addressed our physical and mental health, trained us in an ancient martial arts tradition, and shared Chinese culture and history. He was opening so many doors, telling me which Chinese music to listen to, which restaurants to eat at, and which scholars did the best job of translating Chinese into English. Dave never said to me, ‘Try meditation,’ but after studying tai chi, meditation seemed like an obvious step for me to take.”

Eliot, who is a licensed acupuncturist and tai chi instructor with a practice in Milwaukie, Oregon, and also teaches tai chi, studied with Dave all four of his years at Reed.

“It was one of the more significant of my Reed classes, since it inspired me to pursue a career in Chinese medicine,” Eliot said. “When I first decided to try teaching Tai Chi in my hometown of Roseburg in Southern Oregon after graduating, Dave was very supportive and encouraging. I traveled up to go to a few more of Dave’s classes for a refresher and for some teaching tips, and I don’t know if I could have done it without his blessings and support. I also began learning the tai chi sword form from him during my first year of Chinese medicine school, and I still have a sword he gave me in exchange for substitute teaching a few classes at Reed.”

The eldest of three children born to Joyce and Richard Barrett, Dave grew up in Washington, D.C., Manhattan, and Long Island. He moved to Portland to study at Reed College in 1975, majoring in theatre, and wrote his thesis, “Boom! Boom! Out Go the Lights!: The Vital Necessities of Renewing Oral Traditions,” with Prof. Craig Clinton [theatre 1978­–2010] advising. Having fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest, David remained in Oregon the rest of his life. He began his study of tai chi at the Washington Park Rose Garden in 1977, and in 1980 he received a grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to spend a year studying in Hong Kong. Upon his return in 1981, he began teaching tai chi at Reed College. He was the director of the Yang Cheng Fu Tai Chi Center in Forest Grove and was certified as an instructor by the International Yang Family Style Tai Chi Chuan Association, having trained directly with senior members of the Yang Family in China.

“Dave taught tai chi like you might expect a Reedie to do it, by including all the information he could and teaching with passion,” remembers Toria Ellis ’19. “He didn’t overwhelm us with information, but he made sure we knew more than just the motions. Every time I came to class, I would learn something new about tai chi other than the motions. He really wanted to teach tai chi they way you would teach another more ‘academic’ subject, and did his best within the 50 minutes he had each class.”

Dave was married for 25 years to Monica Barrett, and the couple had two children, Moses and Ella. In 2009, he returned to Portland to be with his soul mate, Molly, whom he married in 2014. Until the end, he remained a nurturing family man, whose dearest wish was that the people he loved be happy.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2017

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