Joseph Decatur Barksdale, who went from the cotton fields of Mississippi where his family was sharecropping to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where he oversaw the information technology department, died March 15 at his home in Laurel from complications from a fall. He was 79.
"He loved poetry and he loved Shakespeare," said his daughter Maryn Rosenberg of Laurel. But he also loved to tell stories of growing up in the South, "chasing butterflies, learning to write his letters with a stick in the dirt, listening to his grandfather play the fiddle, or running barefoot in the cotton fields," she said.
Mr. Barksdale was born June 21, 1934 in Summit, Miss., to Spurgeon Mock Barksdale and Sally June Wroten, but when his parents died he and his older sister, Betty, went to live with their grandparents.
Always an excellent student, he was able to take classes at a junior college in Summit while still in high school because his father had worked there. He went on to medical school at Tulane University but quit and joined the Army in 1956. "He said he was fine until it came to the cadavers," said Mrs. Rosenberg. "He said they weren't for him."
While in the Army, he served as a special agent in the Counterintelligence Corps in Washington, D.C., where he was once called upon to guard President Dwight Eisenhower. Though he told many stories about growing up in the South, Mrs. Rosenberg said, he never shared any about his work in intelligence.
He earned a degree in mathematics from American University in 1958 while still in the Army and went to work for IBM when he was discharged. From there, he went to work for NASA, where he would stay for 42 years. Before being tapped to head the IT department, he processed information gathered from weather satellites. But a favorite part of his job, his daughter said, was playing the role of Santa at the Goddard holiday family parties.
In 1977, he met and married LaDean Dando Butcher and in addition to their blended family of nine children, they were foster parents to more than 25 children. "It would be hard to imagine Joe without a baby bouncing on his knee or sleeping on his shoulder," said Mrs. Rosenberg. "That was something he really enjoyed. He loved having the babies around and he was very, very good with them."
He also loved music, literature and poetry, said Mrs. Rosenberg, who remembers memorizing poems for her father as a child. "He said if he had it to do over again, he might have been a professor of English literature."
In addition to his wife of 36 years and his daughter, he is also survived by children Alicia Barksdale, Christa Barksdale, W. Brandt Butcher, J. Dando Butcher, John Barksdale, Amanda Altman, Melanie Barksdale and Ashlyn Barksdale and eight grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held Friday, April 4th, at 4 p.m. at Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 10755 Old Scaggsville Road, North Laurel. A reception will follow. Donations can be made to Gilchrist Hospice Care in his memory.
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