On Wednesday, Sept. 25, more than 200 people filed into Boe Chapel to attend St. Olaf’s service of thanksgiving for the life of James Farrell, former Professor of history, American studies and environmental studies.
Farrell passed away on July 25 after battling leukemia. Originally from Danville, Ill., he taught at St. Olaf for 36 years.
His friends, family, former students and colleagues used the time to celebrate Farrell’s life on the Hill. His son, John Farrell ’01, greeted the audience with memories of his father.
“As he challenged students with good questions to think about cultural assumptions and those subjects, he also challenged his colleagues and friends to do so with humor or with word play,” John Farrell said. “He’d line up with his fellow faculty to enter this space for convocation, or on the field for graduation, reminding everyone that even on a solemn occasion there may be an unexpected way to celebrate.”
With this remark, the audience laughed appreciatively as John Farrell pulled his father’s signature patchwork top hat from under the podium and placed it on his head.
Will Lutterman ’15, one of Farrell’s former students, fondly remembered working with his professor.
“One student summed up Jim’s impact in a 2011 post-class survey of campus ecology. The student echoes many of our feelings by saying, ‘Olaf needs more radical dudes like Jim,'” Lutterman said. “Jim’s life story left us something special and a new way of thinking, and gave us a new story to live in.”
Another former student, Olivia Cooper ’13, said she graduated with what she calls a “Jim Farrell major” after taking seven of his classes.
Those who knew Farrell in an academic setting remembered his fondness for a method called “dense facting,” in which students would look at objects, ideas and actions with a critical lens rather than simply read textbooks. According to Cooper, the goal of these exercises was to understand the deeper meanings and constructions of why things are the way they are.
“I wrote countless papers on topics such as makeup, the coupon and squirrels on the quad,” Cooper said.
Farrell was also passionate about helping students discover their vocations. Many speakers mentioned that he wanted students’ learning to extend beyond the classroom.
Aly Young ’14 recalled how Farrell went out of his way toform meaningful relationships with students and treat them as equals.
“He avoided standing up in front of classes to lead discussion, preferring instead to sit in a desk and immerse himself in the conversation,” Young said.
Paul Jackson, associate professor of chemistry and environmental studies, described Farrell as “a lover of nature, especially human nature.”
Two other colleagues, Judy Kutulas, professor of history, and David Booth, associate professor of religion, gave remembrances of Farrell. His former student and friend, Kendra Smith-Howard ’99, also spoke.
The service, sprinkled with hymns and prayers led by Pastor Matt Marohl, maintained a solemn but joyful atmosphere. Along with the voices of those who remembered him, the voice of Farrell himself was present throughout.
The audience listened to an audio recording of Farrell reading a passage he wrote as “Dr. America,” entitled “Gardens.” Several speakers also read quotes from Farrell’s essay, “Some Thoughts I Have in Mind While I am Professing.”
“For me, teaching at St. Olaf has been a chance to answer the questions that life has posed for me,” John Farrell read from his father’s essay. “I want to be able to explain to myself why we act like Americans. I want to explore the politics of American government and the politics of everyday life. I want to practice and propagate traditions of thoughtfulness, which should be the primary product of colleges.”
Photo courtesy of the Farrell family