Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by James Hawker
With a golf club in his right hand and three golf balls in his left, Harold Bardo, Ph.D., exits Wheeler Hall for a little chipping practice in the “front yard.” As he lines up the ball, he comments on students passing by, buildings on campus and things that “used to be.” But his comments are not tinged with regret; after 44 years on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Dr. Bardo is proud of his second home.
The 44 years began with degrees from SIU Carbondale and SIU Edwardsville. Bardo then became an instructor at SIU in educational psychology in 1968. In 1984, he joined the faculty in medical education and became director of the SIU School of Medicine’s Medical/Dental Education Preparatory Program (MEDPREP). Inside Wheeler Hall, Dr. Bardo has created a “mini university” for the MEDPREP students as well as a safe, nurturing environment where everyone feels at home.
The atmosphere in Wheeler Hall allows the students to feel comfortable approaching him and the rest of the faculty with their joys, concerns and sorrows. Dr. Bardo understands that if the students feel that they have an advocate, then they are more likely to succeed. “One of the first questions Dr. Bardo asked me was, ‘Do you feel safe where you live?’ ” says Jaleen Sims, a second-year medical student. “I remember thinking that he cares enough to ask me that. It really drew me in.”
For the last 28 years, Dr. Bardo has directed and encouraged hundreds of underrepresented and underprivileged students, many of them minorities, to achieve their dreams of becoming physicians. “Dr. Bardo is passionate about our future leaders and would give his last for those in MEDPREP,” says Antoine Leflore, M.D., MEDPREP alumnus and SIU School of Medicine Class of ’07.
Dr. Bardo has set a professional, yet warm tone inside Wheeler Hall. Colleagues refer to each other formally by surnames yet are at ease with each other, sharing jokes and stories. He leads them by example and openly gives credit where credit is due. “He values and acknowledges the contributions of others,” says biology instructor Shirley McGlinn. “Dr. Bardo is humble, always crediting his faculty and staff for the program’s success.”
“I never dreamed I would be working in the medical field,” says Dr. Bardo who grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Sparta. He never met an African-American physician until his adult life. “There were no role models of color in the medical field; no people of color in my hometown were physicians.”
Dr. Bardo says that education has always been an integral part of his life. “Without my education, I’d be back in Sparta, probably, trying to eke out a living, not unlike how my family was as I grew up,” Bardo says. While attending a small, all-African-American grade school, Dr. Bardo remembers his teachers encouraging him to do his very best, take pride in himself and write about people of color in school whenever he could. “You’ll often hear people say that if you have an education, no one can take that away. They can take your house, your cars, but not your education. I believe that,” he says.
In 1957, Dr. Bardo combined his zeal for education with his second passion, athletics, while attending SIU Carbondale for his undergraduate education. He received a basketball scholarship and played for the Salukis from 1957-61 and also competed on the Saluki track and field team. He continues to support the athletics department as a faculty representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The family shares an enthusiasm for sports. Dr. Bardo and his wife, Lana, have three children and seven grandchildren. All three of his children received scholarships to play basketball in college. And despite the fact that they live in different cities across the United States, they enjoy getting together. Family visits often revolve around watching sports on the big screen at his daughter’s home. And, of course, he gets the golf clubs out once in a while to tee it up on a nearby course.
Though MEDPREP students may see him chipping the ball on the lawn or note the basketball poster in his office, Dr. Bardo won’t engage in any sports with the students. “They always ask me if I’ll play,” he says. But he stands firm. “Their primary purpose here is not to play golf; their primary purpose is to fully understand the concepts that they failed to understand enough to do well in the past. I remind them of that because distractions are what kept them from where they wanted to be at this point. I’m not going to abet that kind of behavior when they’re here.”
An avuncular figure, Bardo still has the unmistakable physique of a basketball player. His no-nonsense attitude toward student achievement commands respect and admiration from the MEDPREP students. “Dr. Bardo was a towering figure, and I always felt the need to sit up straight when he walked in the room, but his warm smile gave me permission to relax,” says Darrell J. Solet, M.D., MEDPREP alumnus. “He demands excellence and accepts nothing less. He inspires by example.”
Dr. Bardo believes that the students are the heart of the MEDPREP program, and he continues to stay with the program because of them. “I’m passionate about this program and the students, otherwise I would’ve retired years ago,” he says. “I get to laugh, joke and cry with them.” The students’ honesty, integrity, compassion and willingness to help one another continue to inspire him.
“The University has been good to me,” says Dr. Bardo. His colleagues and students would argue that he’s got it backward.