barbara harbison, a smiling african american senior female, leans against a table in a large library

Barbara Harbison swears this will be the year she retires — again.

A resident of Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, MD, since 2014, Barbara’s definition of retirement isn’t quite textbook. She serves in resident-run leadership roles, including as chair of her apartment building’s resident council and with the Keese School of Continuing Education Scholarship Fund. Run by residents, Keese offers dozens of lectures and classes each year and class fees are awarded in scholarships to dining associates.

Barbara’s also served as the Chair of the Gaithersburg Community Advisory, which gives grants to nonprofits providing citizen services. And her regular routines include workouts at the wellness center, attending on-campus movie screenings and concerts and playing Rummikub.

If that’s not enough, Barbara is also a member of the Asbury Atlantic Board, which oversees quality assurance and quality control measures for all Asbury locations.

“That’s what’s so great about this community,” says Barbara. “You can be as busy as you want or as quiet as you want, but there’s always something interesting to do. Whatever you think Asbury is going to be, think about doing more.”

Born in Morganton, North Carolina, Barbara grew up in Philadelphia, where she attended the prestigious High School for Girls. She went on to Morgan State College in Baltimore, majoring in mathematics and unknowingly setting herself on a path to be a player in some of the major accomplishments of the 20th century.

A “Hidden Figure” in the Space Race

The space race was in its early years when Barbara went to work for GE Aerospace as a mathematical technician after graduating from college. That role gave her the chance to learn computer programming and system design, management skills, and put her math expertise into action.

“I began as a ‘hidden figure,’” says Barbara, referring to NASA’s Black female mathematicians portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures. Among Barbara’s notable accomplishments at GE was successfully calculating the amount of heat and speed that a spacecraft could withstand as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere – a critical calculation for space travel.

After four years with GE, Barbara’s next stop was New York City where she worked as a program director at Flower-Fifth Avenue Hospital, a teaching and research hospital affiliated with New York Medical College. Her mathematics work there included calculating the efficacy of the birth control pill.

Climbing the corporate ladder

Returning to GE and other technology companies, Barbara’s rise up the corporate ladder included moves to Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as she managed multi-million-dollar technology projects for Nabisco, Levi Strauss, and the Federal Government.

After a final contract for the State Department, Barbara retired to her home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and dove into volunteering. She served on the advisory board of the Gaithersburg Senior Center, worked on a Montgomery County transportation project for seniors and the disabled, tutored second graders at a local school, and earned a degree in Theological Education for Ministry from the University of the South.

As for the retirement Barbara says will happen at the end of the year, that remains to be seen: “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she jokes. “Maybe I’ll buy a rocking chair and get a cat.”

Not likely.

 

 

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