Barry Michael Casper remembered as Carleton professor, political activist

Barry Michael Casper, known as "Mike," died on January 27, 2007, in Northfield, Minnesota, from complications related to dementia.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on January 21, 1939, and raised outside Washington, D.C., Casper earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University. A job as a physics professor at Carleton College brought Casper to Northfield in 1966. A tireless political activist, Casper was a leading figure in the peace movement for decades.

Among his many projects, he helped to mobilize the scientific community in opposition to an anti-ballistic missile system, served as executive director of the Minnesota Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, and, with the help of his wife, Nancy, ran the Nuclear War Graphics Project. While at Carleton, Casper developed a lifelong partnership with faculty colleague Paul Wellstone, the late Minnesota senator. The two became intimately involved with the 1970s struggles of western Minnesota farmers to oppose a high voltage power line.

In 1978, Casper ran for lieutenant governor in the DFL primary with Alice Tripp, whose campaign for governor grew out of the anti-powerline movement. Casper and Wellstone later chronicled the story of the powerline struggle in the book Powerline: The First Battle of America’s Energy War (University of Massachusetts Press, 1981).

Whether co-authoring articles, leading political protests, or running marathons in under three hours, Casper and Wellstone were inseparable. Casper was a key strategist in Wellstone’s 1990 U.S. Senate campaign and went to Washington as Wellstone’s policy advisor—an experience that informed what would be Casper’s final book, Lost in Washington: Finding the Way Back to Democracy in America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

Casper was instrumental in helping Wellstone to one of his greatest Congressional victories, spearheading the unlikely defeat of a Bush-endorsed energy bill that put corporate interests ahead of environmental sustainability.

Early in his career, Casper co-authored Revolutions in Physics, a popular college textbook that remains in use today. But Casper’s interest in public policy led him outside the confines of his scientific discipline. He co-created a program at Carleton College called Science, Technology, and Public Policy, and as part of that program, Casper supervised annual technology policy projects in which he and a group of students studied a problem and then developed policy solutions.

Over two decades, Casper and his students tackled issues ranging from alternative energy to HIV/AIDS policy. Despite being almost constantly at work, Casper still managed to be a dedicated family-man and avid athlete. He never missed a son’s track meet, ran countless miles of his own, and was an expert tennis player.

Casper is survived by his wife, Nancy; sons Daniel (Linda), Benjamin (Marisela), and Michael (Beth) Casper, and Jay and Aaron (Cecy) Syverson; daughter Kaarin Madigan; and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by parents Barry and Florence Casper and brother Jonathan Casper.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, February 18, 2007, at Carleton College’s Skinner Memorial Chapel. A reception will follow in the Severance Great Hall. In lieu of flowers, please direct memorial gifts to the Mike Casper Memorial Fund at Carleton College, Gift Accounting Office, One North College Street, Northfield, Minnesota, 55057.