First Lady of ASU

Two years and 20 days without a first lady, ASU will welcome Barbara Barnhart, the soon-to-be Mrs. Rallo, as the feminine face of the university

By Leah Cooper, Editor-in-Chief
On May 1, 2009

She always thought she would marry a Texan. Though she loved her adventures in Europe, Barbara Barnhart's home is in San Angelo.

"I had been single a long time and they [family] always thought I'd bring home a Frenchman," Barnhart said. "I wanted an American who knew the European way of life because it's so different over there. They take time to be outdoors and to sit at cafés and smell the roses, to not take things for granted, to experience life and nature and food."

She never imagined a year earlier she would one day be Mrs. Joseph C. Rallo, so when this full-blood Italian from New York asked to be her husband in Florence last September, she was gifted beyond her wildest dreams.

When they met

Barnhart set up a meeting with Rallo within a few months of his arrival at ASU to discuss ideas about the host family program she coordinates.

She has always been a shy person, but they talked endlessly that day.

"It was so easy to talk to him," Barnhart said. "We were comfortable just right off the bat. He was so intelligent. He's experienced so much, and yet I was not intimidated by that. He was just completely fascinating."

For the next few months, she saw him at dinners and Chamber of Commerce events.

"He was on TV all the time," she said with a laugh. "They [ASU] were having groundbreaking ceremonies. And I guess, subconsciously, my interest was piqued, but I wasn't about to chase after the latest single person at the time."

After months of running into each other at activities in the community, the feeling between them was mutual.

"He was interested. I was interested," Barnhart said. "We had a little meeting and we really knew it was special at the beginning. And neither one of us was expecting it."

Barbara before Joe

Barnhart didn't date too seriously when she was a student at ASU in the 70s. She had a close group of friends and spent most of her time with the girls in the modeling corps, the university's hospitality committee.

Though she was studious, Barnhart also told her parents she was studying with a friend, then ride around town with her girlfriends.

"We dropped the books then off we'd go," Barnhart said.

In a low valley in her life, however, she was inspired to explore her true purpose in life.

"The big turning point in my life was a broken heart, a big broken heart," Barnhart said softly.

Through her sadness, she realized she needed to start over. So she decided to take a lesson on water coloring.

"I had been so busy trying to please this person that I wasn't doing things for Barbara," she said with a smile. "Five minutes in that first water color lesson I knew I was supposed to paint. I was supposed to be a water colorist."

Her passion

"I think we all have a purpose here on Earth," Barnhart said. "Once you find that purpose, you need to do good things with it, and you need to follow it. Doors start opening, adventures start happening. I became this whole different person."

Soon the desire to travel to Europe began to eat her up inside. Though it took her a couple of years to get the courage, Barnhart went to France to practice her art.

"I now go to France every year, at least once a year," Barnhart said.

She usually stays about five months at a time, painting at cafés in the villages of southern France.

"It'll slow down in a bit," Barnhart said, "but I'll still go every year to paint."

Wherever she goes in the cities, she talks to the waiters and taxi drivers with an eagerness to learn about their lives.

"France is wonderful because I go over there as a painter with this funny desire to meet a million people," Barnhart said. "And I would never have talked to you at the next table in a café ten years ago. But now I just reach out. That changed my life. When you have a setback or something bad happens to you, usually you grow stronger. A door opens when one closes."

A French doorway

Barnhart was sketching at a market one day in France, and a woman about her age looked over her shoulder and started talking. She ,too, was an artist.

"When she pointed to where her paintings were in a little shop, I said 'We saw your paintings last year and we loved 'em. I can't believe that I'm meeting you,'" Barnhart said.

As she was getting ready to leave, Barnhart realized she did not get the woman's address.

"I spent ten minutes looking in this crowded market place for her," Barnhart said. "I went up to her when I found her and I said, 'I'm embarrassed to ask you this, but can I have your name and address just because.'"

At that point Myriam told Barnhart she was giving an art class to a group of students about French doorways.

"Well that was what I wanted to paint," Barnhart said. "She invited the whole group of us to come because we were all artists. That formed a relationship... now she's my 'sister.'"

Barnhart now guides personalized, small-group tours as an independent travel agent. The group stays at Myriam's bed and breakfast.

"She is a chef, a concert violinist and an artist," Barnhart said. "We have these wonderful dinners and then she'll play the violin. She gives us art lessons. It's unbelievable. And it all just happened because I had gone back and gotten her address, and she opened up to me, and here we are."

Barnhart said she talks with Myriam weekly and sees her with every visit to France.

"That art has opened all those doors and made me this person who wants to go and meet every stranger that I see," Barnhart said with a laugh. "I don't drive Dr. Rallo crazy, but he knows that we're not going to get out of a place as quickly as he might have because I'm going to see someone who I want to talk to. If we have a waiter who has an accent... then I want to know what country he's from."

The engagement

"He [Joe] wanted us to see Florence at sunset up on Piazalla Michelangelo," Barnhart said. "At the top of the city, there's this fabulous view of all the domes and all the beautiful buildings. So we were going to do that. Well I got carried away at the market and was buying scarves. We had spent so much time there that we didn't have time to make it back before sunset."

No big deal, Rallo said. They could just catch the next night.

Still he proposed over dinner that night at a small restaurant in the city.

"So the next night we went up to see the sunset, and it was beautiful, and he asked me again," Barnhart said. "I still said yes."

But he wanted her to pick out the ring.

"He knows I'm an artist, and he wanted me to have a say-so in the design of the ring. He knew I loved tanzanite," she said, blushing. "I had just mentioned it one time. He remembers everything I say."

Mr. and Mrs.

Barnhart said she plans to continue her art. She said she will also continue with the host family program and wants to use the president's home as a place for university activities.

"It's a special thing to come to the president's home, and he wants to open it up," Barnhart said. "I love welcoming people in here and being at these parties, so we'll do a lot of that."

As ASU's first lady, Barnhart hopes to make San Angelo more of a university town by helping people see how precious it is to the community.

"I want San Angelo to see, to truly realize what a jewel we have at ASU," Barnhart said. "And I think it's been here forever... It's always been a fine university in my eyes, but it's never in the forefront. I want the city to have a love and a respect for the university."

Barnhart and Rallo plan to marry on June 20 at a small Methodist chapel in San Angelo and then host a large party that night at their home.

Myriam has invited them to France for a honeymoon at her bed and breakfast in September.

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