To the fidgeting students in her extraordinary classroom - whose arms bulged with muscles, scars, and tattoos - Boston University professor Elizabeth ''Ma'' Barker recited poetry. To her improbable group of scholars, who did their homework in prison cells, Barker brought big-name lecturers like Nobel Prize-winning biochemist George Wald, radio host Christopher Lydon, and radical historian Howard Zinn.
Since Barker started Boston University's prison education program at MCI-Norfolk in 1972, no formal follow-up has been done on what has become of the 187 inmates who earned bachelor's and master's degrees.
But news of Barker's death last month at the age of 89 has stirred the program's scattered alumni to resurface. In paying tribute to her memory at a memorial service and in telephone calls afterward, they also opened a window into what some of the former prisoner-scholars are doing now.
Richard Marinick, once part of a South Boston armored-car robbery ring, is now a tunnel worker on the Big Dig and an aspiring novelist. Robert Heard, who served 13 years for manslaughter, runs a job training program for Pine Street Inn. Joe Loya, a former bank robber, is now married and associate editor of Pacific News Service in San Francisco.
''She turned thugs into poetry-reciting, thinking human beings,'' said one of Barker's former students who went on to earn his law degree after being released in 1978. Now a Boston defense lawyer, he asked that his name not be used. ''I always thought I had plenty of time to find her and go thank her. I was always waiting for that one big case that would allow me to have serious money so that I could go to BU and say to them, `Take $10,000, and do something with it in her name.'''
Of course, not everyone who called the four walls of MCI-Norfolk their alma mater became a success. After his release, Bob Heffernan, a favorite student, died of a cocaine overdose.
But ''Ma'' Barker, affectionately nicknamed after the fugitive and folk hero who led a band of outlaws during the Great Depression, created a community of academics and convicts that few who were members will ever forget.
''It changed the way we can imagine ourselves,'' Loya said by telephone from California.
''We came in shackles and we left free men,'' said Heard, a former Black Panther who wound up in prison for manslaughter after fatally shooting a man in a Dorchester dance club.
Heard recalled how Barker believed that the only degree fit for ''civilized men'' was a liberal arts diploma, something he had considered an aristocratic luxury until he decided to while away some prison hours by taking a drama class from her.
Although he was first skeptical of the elderly white woman who guzzled coffee, spouted poetry, and chain-smoked Chesterfields, Heard eventually became one of her most beloved students. He ultimately coordinated the education program from inside the prison - meeting with BU president John Silber - and ended up bunking for a time at Barker's home in Brookline after he was released.
''In prison you are almost invisible,'' Heard recalled from his Harrision Avenue office, where he runs a job training program for the homeless that he designed himself. ''You can approach a checkpoint and the guard will ask, `Do you have anything in your pockets?' It matters not what you respond. If you say no, he's going to search your pockets. If you say yes, he's going to search your pockets. But to people like Silber and Elizabeth, we were students and what we said mattered.''
Built in 1927, MCI-Norfolk's cluster of dormitories around a grass quad was modeled to look more like a college campus than a medium-security penitentiary. It's known as the only place where inmates could fry a burger in their own kitchen. Spots at MCI-Norfolk had long been coveted, but in 1972 prisoners began to ask for transfers there for another reason: the prison's famous quiz bowl team, and Ma Barker's college classes.
For many of the aging alumni of MCI-Norfolk, the glory days of their enlightenment began in the late '60s, with an inmate named Arthur Devlin, who spent his years on death row memorizing questions and answers from television quiz shows. Devlin started a quiz team that became so successful it vanquished Ivy League challengers and earned a spot on Walter Cronkite's news show. (The only quiz team member to decline the TV appearance was a skittish Mafia gunman.)
Devlin's story impressed Barker, who led a group of BU students to go up against the Norfolk prisoners.
After the duel of wits, Barker was so taken with the prisoner-scholars that she offered to teach them a college course. With the help of Carlo Geromini, a teacher based at the prison, Barker drafted a group of professors into starting a permanent college degree program in the prison.
Today, the program operates in MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Framingham, and Bay State Correctional Center. Over the years, it has offered 425 classes to thousands of inmates, according to program coordinator Robert Cadigan.
On the confidential list of nearly 200 inmates who have fulfilled the requirements to earn degrees are at least three lawyers, one head librarian, a few youth counselors, and a television actor, recounts Geromini.
For Marinick, a former cocaine addict who once ran with a South Boston gang, Barker's program was the difference between being the ''caveman'' he was in 1984 and the tunnel worker and aspiring-writer he is today.
''My thesis was entitled `Imagination and the Way to Write for Children,''' said Marinick, who was sentenced to 18-20 years for robbing armored cars and firing a pump shotgun at Malden police as he tried to escape arrest. Of his master's thesis, a 119-page compilation of children's stories that earned him asumma cum laude distinction, Marinick said: ''It forced me to look at myself, and it forced me to examine society as a whole, not necessarily as the enemy.''
By the time Loya, the former bank robber who was raised in the barrios of Los Angeles, got to the classrooms of Norfolk, Barker had already become ''a myth,'' a frail wisp of a grandmother who only occasionally stopped in for poetry readings. Still, Loya's voice soars when he speaks with reverence about the program she founded, recalling his favorite class: oceanography.
''You had to remember all these things about life in the sea, and different soils and the earth. It's very tedious,'' said Loya. ''But what it gave me was one of the metaphors that I have used since I came out. It allowed me to think of my depth, the landscape of my soul, with more complexity.''
Loya recalls getting so frustrated by his first writing assignment that he wanted to hit his teacher in the face. The class forced him to learn self-control.
At a recent Quaker-style memorial service for Barker held in BU's Marsh Chapel, Lydon praised Barker's near-religious belief in the power of education. Another colleague read a statement from Silber. One of Barker's granddaughters played the violin.
Not all her former students could make it on such short notice. Marinick was in Florida, showing his brother the rough draft of a new novel. Another former student was in jail that afternoon, not as an inmate, but as a lawyer interviewing his client.
But seated together in the pews were two white-haired men who whispered and reminisced about the glory days. Quiz bowl captain Devlin, 76, sat next to his old quiz bowl coach, Geromini, 72. One pardoned and the other retired, they discussed the need to send copies of Barker's obituary to the dozens of former students remaining ''inside.''
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company