Nicholas Barnes, third-year College student, 1993–2014

University Communications

UpdateA memorial service is scheduled for Nicholas Barnes at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 14, in his hometown of Pittsburgh. It will be held at the Chatham Village Club, at 655 Pennridge Road, Pittsburgh, Penn.

Nicholas Brastins Barnes was a warm and loving friend, a lively debater, a dedicated student and an adventurous traveler.

A third-year in the College from Fox Chapel, Penn., he was found dead in his dorm room on Feb. 15. He was 20 years old.

Friends and teachers said he recently had been making plans to develop his strong interests in Germanic studies and history.

“We saw Nicholas transforming from a student into a scholar,” said Catherine Baumann, senior lecturer in German and director of the Language Program in German.

His family described him as an exuberantly curious boy who was homeschooled until age 13. He was a voracious reader and thoughtful writer, the kind of child who read the encyclopedia for pleasure, consumed Proust and Freud as a young teen and filled his room with piles of papers and books. His father, Jay Barnes, remembers taking his son to art and science programs at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, where they would linger for hours among the exhibits.

In high school at the Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, Nicholas excelled in his coursework, showing a restless intellectual curiosity and a broad interest in the world. He lettered in cross country, started a cricket club, and participated in the speech and debate teams.

“Nick was one of the most brilliant kids I've ever met,” said Catherine Vodrey, whom his family described as a “second mom to Nick.” She got to know him as the mother of his closest friend and classmate, Henry Klein. “Unlike a lot of brilliant kids, Nick had a highly developed sense of humor about himself and was the first to make fun of his sometimes offbeat interests.”

He began to study German in his junior year of high school—an interest that evolved beyond the language to the culture, art and history of Germany. He also had a talent for drawing, leaving a trail of intricate doodles on scraps of paper or a clever cartoon or caricature of a professor on the chalkboard.

His mother, Laura Maynes, said he was drawn to the University of Chicago for the atmosphere of rigorous inquiry and scholarship. He was so sure of where he belonged, it was the only university to which he applied, by early decision, without doubts or a backup plan, she said. He easily found mentors and friends in the College when he joined the Class of 2015.

“Nick was at home in the campus community,” said Joela Jacobs, a PhD student in Germanic Studies and one of the many instructors who saw “incredible potential” in Barnes. “He was incredibly sharp, analytic and witty, and wrote the most insightful essays,” she said.

“Nick was one of the best students in this class and in any of my courses,” Jacobs said.

He studied abroad in Vienna during his second year, forging deep friendships with the students in the group while cementing an interest in Germanic studies.

“Nick’s love of Freud and all things Germanic made him a pleasure to be around in Vienna because he was just so passionate. In class, he found wisdom in all our professors and true purpose in all our lectures and discussions,” said Danielle Espinosa, AB'13.

“His ability to turn any moment of life into a philosophical question, and his eagerness to engage with anyone willing was inspiring,” she said.

He returned to the College dedicated to pursuing a double major in Germanic studies and history. He earned a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant to study German, and spent the summer of 2013 in Germany. He was making plans to return for the summer of 2014 for an original research project connected to his BA thesis.  

“Nicholas was a thinking, young historian,” said Michael Geyer, the Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History and the advisor on his BA thesis. Geyer wrote an enthusiastic recommendation for his young student for a travel grant.

“He had a sense of what is interesting and what made a difference in history,” Geyer said.

Barnes is survived by his sister Clara Barnes, his grandmother Emily Brastins, his father Jay Barnes, his mother Laura Maynes, his stepfather Gregory Maynes and his stepbrother William Maynes.

His friends in Pittsburgh have set up the Nicholas Brastins Barnes Prize for students at the Shady Side Academy, where donations can be sent in his memory.

His family asked to share a quote with special meaning for Nicholas’ life:

What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.  — Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy