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James Barry
James Brian Barry, teacher at Priory for 45 years.

J. Brian Barry was a young midshipman when his British cruiser was said to have mistakenly fired the first shot of the D-Day invasion of World War II.

After the war, he fell in love with an American woman, left Britain and the Royal Navy, changed careers and continents and became a popular teacher at St. Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur.

Mr. Barry died on Friday (Nov. 5, 2010) at age 86.

He died at his farmhouse home on the grounds of the Priory School where he had taught for 44 years until his official retirement in 2004 at age 80. His family said the cause of death was complications from mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos. They suspect he contracted the illness during his naval career.

Mr. Barry was the third of four children born in Roos, Yorkshire, England. His father was a medical doctor and a decorated World War I veteran, and his mother was a nurse.

He joined the Navy at 18 and served aboard the HMS Orion. On June 6, 1944, the ship and its young officer joined the massive D-Day armada traveling from England to France.

According to one account, when the order came down from the bridge to "prepare to fire," someone misheard and fired. It was said to be the first shot of the invasion.

Mr. Barry and his crew were told they were expendable.

"I didn't much like the idea of that!" he recalled in a 2005 interview.

Mr. Barry survived, and after the war met Gertrude "Trudy" Quetsch during a philosophy class at Oxford in 1952.

She first thought he was a British earl, and he took her for a rich American.

"... We were neither of us right!" he recalled in the 2005 interview. "But it was immediately apparent to me that she was the smartest, most beautiful thing ..."

They married in 1954 in her hometown of Chicago.

In 1960, he retired from the Navy and got an offer to teach here at the new St. Louis Priory School.

It was founded in 1956 by a group of wealthy families who wanted a school that would prepare Catholic boys for the very best colleges. The best schools then were considered to be British, so the founders went to England to recruit monks of the Benedictine Order of Ampleforth College.

Some of the monks knew Mr. Barry from Ampleforth, where he had studied, and they hired him.

"I had no qualifications in teaching at all," Mr. Barry remarked in the interview.

At the Priory School, he taught physics, a sometimes dry subject, but not in Mr. Barry's classes.

"Brian was wonderful, quirky and very, very engaging," said Deacon Tom Mulvihill of the Class of 1980 and now admissions director at the school. "You could never be bored in a Brian Barry class."

Mr. Barry also was director for 10 years of the now-closed Mark Twain Summer Institute here, born during the 'space race" with the Russians after the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Mr. Barry said he got the best students in St. Louis, the best teachers — and plenty of money.

He also worked part time at Monsanto, where he engaged in one of his lifelong passions: trying to use electromagnetism to desalt seawater.

"Yes, this idea is really a bit wacky, but it may work," he once said.

Mr. Barry donated his body to science through St. Louis University. A memorial Mass will be celebrated at 3:30 p.m. today at St. Louis Abbey Church, 500 South Mason Road, Creve Coeur, followed by a reception at The Switzer House on the campus of the Priory School.

Survivors, in addition to his wife of 56 years, include a daughter, Anne Weber of Wright City; five sons, Mark Barry of Town and Country, John Barry of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., Jamie Barry of Kansas City, Michael Barry of Natick, Mass., and Peter Barry of Creve Coeur; a sister, Celia Robertson of Arundel, Sussex, England; two brothers, John Barry of Cromer, Norfolk, England, and Dr. Philip Barry of Brent Knoll, Somerset, England; and 11 grandchildren.