Barbara Zirkin, a Stevenson University dean and online education pioneer, dies of lung cancer.
Barbara Zirkin, a Stevenson University dean and online education pioneer, dies of lung cancer. (Handout)

Barbara Zirkin, a lifelong educator, a former associate dean of Stevenson University and an early developer of online learning programs, died June 20 from lung cancer in a hospice near her Baltimore County home.

Mrs. Zirkin was 75.

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“Barbara was never about herself, ever,” said Barry Ronald Zirkin, her husband of 54 years. “Her focus was never about her, but about the things she was doing or the people she was doing them with. The words ‘I’ and ‘me’ were almost alien to her.”

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The former Barbara Gottlieb was born in Columbia, S.C., in 1943, the daughter of Robert Gottlieb, an engineer, and Mildred Gottlieb, a homemaker. The family was Jewish and Mr. Zirkin said his future father-in-law moved his wife and two children frequently to escape the anti-Semitism hampering his career.

“Barbara was mostly protected from it, but she realized what was happening,” said Mr. Zirkin, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The couple met while attending the former Harpur College (now Binghamton University) in southern New York.

“Barbara always seemed to be outside the door of whatever class I had just finished,” Mr. Zirkin recalled. He was smitten by the vibrant and independent young woman who always said exactly what she thought, though he later learned that she was interested romantically not in him, but in his roommate.

“She was told by her girlfriends not to bother with me because she would never be able to separate me from my basketball.” he said.

Though Barbara Gottlieb never did learn to appreciate the intricacies of the star offense, the couple were married in 1965, the year after she graduated from New York’s Hunter College. Their eldest son, William, was born in 1969; now, he is an emergency care physician in Towson. Their youngest son, Bobby, was born in 1971; a Democrat who represents Baltimore County in the state Senate.

The young family moved to Baltimore in 1973 when Barry Zirkin was offered a one-year contract at Hopkins. At the time, he was fielding an overture to be an assistant professor at Brown University in Rhode Island. Nonetheless, Mrs. Zirkin didn’t hesitate when her husband admitted that he wanted to accept the high-risk, challenging job in Maryland.

“It was a choice between absolute security and quicksand,” Mr. Zirkin said. “When I brought the quicksand back to Barbara, she said, ‘You need to find out who you are.’”

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An avid, lifelong reader, Mrs. Zirkin earned a master’s degree in English from The University of Rochester in the late 1960s, a second master’s degree in education from Hopkins in the mid-1970s and a doctorate in education from Hopkins in 1984.

She taught high school for a few years in New York and Maryland but quit after becoming frustrated by the educational bureaucracy. After earning her graduate degrees, she began focusing on the administrative positions that became her calling.

“Barbara liked being able to make a difference,” her husband said. “She cared about the students, she cared about the faculty, and she liked being able to figure out how to do things better. She was creative and she was organized.”

In 1994, Mrs. Zirkin accepted a part-time job at Hopkins developing an online learning program.

“Barbara introduced online learning to the Bloomberg School of Public Health,” Mr. Zirkin said, “though no one knows she did it because she refused to take credit for it.”

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Because online education was so new, there were no rules and Mrs. Zirkin finally had the freedom to innovate.

“She had ideas about stuff,” Mr. Zirkin said. “Not just why the existing things were no good — that’s the easy part, but what could be done instead. When you have a lot of ideas, some of them are bound to be bad. Barbara wasn’t afraid of that.”

Her expertise later proved invaluable when her husband started a part-time, fully online Master of Arts degree program in public health biology at the Bloomberg school.

“The only reason I knew how do it was because I spent five decades years sitting on the other side of the kitchen table from Barbara taking notes,” he said.

She later held increasingly senior administrative posts at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute before becoming associate dean of Stevenson in 2009. She retired last summer.

In Mrs. Zirkin’s spare time, she read the New York Times cover to cover every day — occasionally surprising her husband with a bit of sports trivia. Her tuneful soprano was a staple of the choir at Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, and she delighted in her sons and four grandchildren.

“She was always out doing something she cared about, such as delivering food to the poor,” Mr. Zirkin said. “And she had a fabulous sense of humor, though it was usually directed at herself.”

A funeral service was held June 23; Mrs. Zirkin is interred at Beth El Memorial Park in Randallstown.

In addition to her husband and two sons, who all are Baltimore County residents, Mrs. Zirkin is survived by a brother, Jim Gottlieb of Fairfax, Va.

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