More than five years after her death, Rockingham County native Ben Barlow continues work to shine light on the issues his wife, Monica Pence Barlow, championed in life.
A nonsmoking victim of lung cancer, Monica Barlow was a pioneer in her field, becoming the director of public relations for the Baltimore Orioles at a time when few women in Major League Baseball held such a position.
“Now there are an increasing number,” Ben Barlow said. “But it was always important to her to increase diversity there.”
The Barlows each grew up outside Harrisonburg. Ben graduated from Turner Ashby High School and Bridgewater College, Monica from Spotswood and William & Mary.
As adults, the couple lived in Maryland and married at Harrisonburg’s First Church of the Brethren. As Ben began a successful career in law, Monica became a prominent figure in Baltimore’s professional sports world.
Cancer claimed her life at age 36 in February 2014, just months before the Orioles’ run to the American League Championship Series. Before her death, both Barlows became heavily involved in Lungevity, an organization that raises money and awareness for lung cancer research.
And while Ben Barlow has remained heavily involved in Lungevity, he’s strived to devote an equal amount of time to other causes that represent Monica’s life as much as her death.
Barlow and Monica’s mother, Romana Pence, have also worked with Rockingham Educational Foundation Inc., forming an endowment for childhood literacy programs.
“We contributed a significant amount of money up front, and we still get donations from people,” Ben Barlow said. “The idea was to start up a program in the local school districts that could every year impact childhood literacy. The idea of the endowment is that every year we can hopefully have a big impact.”
Last year, what’s become known as “Monica’s Gift” was given to teachers at River Bend Elementary School, who with their own time and money had created a mobile library to serve children in the Elkton area.
“Last year we took a different turn and gave $1,000,” Pence said. “Nobody applies for it. We hear about an activity or something happening in the school system that nobody really knows about and people in the school system are doing without any kind of funding. I think it was about the best possible scenario for Monica because she loved books. This year we’ll be doing the same thing this spring and we are currently working on those untold stories in our local school system.”
Barlow has also begun working on a project that could fund programs at William & Mary to encourage women pursuing careers in sports.
“We are still in beginning stages, but hoping to get that going pretty soon,” Barlow said. “Rather than just being a scholarship, maybe at least a portion of it will be for women being involved in baseball. I think it’s important to remember Monica’s career, because it was very important to her.”
And work on lung cancer research and hope to reduce the stigma associated with it as a “smokers’ disease” continues through Lungevity, which has raised money through events such as walks through downtown Baltimore that end inside the Orioles’ Camden Yards stadium.
Yet even with that work, Ben Barlow hopes Monica’s legacy extends much further.
“It was really important to her that cancer not define her life,” he said. “So for all of us, it’s been about finding ways to make sure cancer also doesn’t define her death.”