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In Memory of Gregory R. Farrell (1935-2020)

The following is excerpted from a reflection by Richard Stopol, President & CEO of NYC Outward Bound Schools.

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Greg lived a life that was filled with adventure, purpose, and accomplishment. He leaves behind a coterie of Greg Farrell acolytes, which includes me along with hundreds of others who he inspired, supported and mentored, and who loved him deeply.

Greg played a seminal role in the history of our organization. Indeed, if NYC Outward Bound Schools has a founding father, it is Greg Farrell. It was Greg who had the vision of bringing Outward Bound to New York City and its public schools, and it was Greg who, in his capacity as the executive director of the Fund for the City of NY, acted upon that vision by bringing together a planning group in 1986 that began sketching out what an Outward Bound Center that was focused on bringing Outward Bound’s lessons and activities to NYC’s young people could look like. That planning group included Arthur Sulzberger, Bill Phillips, George Miles, Rochelle Evans, Bill Abelow and several other members of our founding generation to whom our organization owes its existence.

And when NYC Outward Bound was born in 1987, it was Greg who not only served as a founding Board member, but for all intents and purposes, was its first executive director, providing it with the credibility, direction and solid foundation it needed to get off the ground. Greg was also the person who first brought me into the NYC Outward Bound orbit (I was working for him at the Fund for the City of NY and he persuaded me to participate in the first course we ever ran in September 1987), and it was his faith in me and his unyielding support that made me feel like I had a chance of success when I took on the role of executive director in 1989. That faith and that support never wavered over the ensuing three decades and I count them among the most precious gifts that I have received in my lifetime. In the best tradition of Outward Bound, he saw more in me than I saw in myself.

After helping to start NYC Outward Bound, Greg went to work for Outward Bound USA in a new role that had him traveling around the country attempting to create other Outward Bound centers like the one that he had helped to bring to NYC and to steer Outward Bound back to its educational roots by following the model that had been established in NYC and bringing its pedagogy and activities into schools. That work led directly to the founding of Expeditionary Learning (now known as EL Education) in 1992 when Greg led a team from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound in crafting a winning proposal to the New American School Corporation, an entity started by President George H.W. Bush to create “break the mold” schools in the U.S.

Photo credit: EL Education

The approval of the proposal led to Greg’s being named as the founding President of EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), a role he served in until he retired in 2008. It was a role that represented the fulfillment of a vision he possessed since the early 1960s when, as a young man who had served as a teacher and an admissions officer at Princeton, he went on an Outward Bound course in Colorado and came away from that experience asking why school couldn’t be more like an Outward Bound course, with a premium placed on adventure, discovery, teamwork, craftsmanship, and the completion of challenging tasks that require the exercise of problem-solving and critical thinking skills as well as individual and collective best effort. That vision of what schools can and should be is now being brought to life in hundreds of schools across the country that incorporate the EL Education model, including those that are part of the NYC Outward Bound Schools network.

But for all his professional accomplishments, what best defines Greg Farrell and stands above all else is the quality of his character. He was, quite simply, an extraordinary human being, the rare individual who was equal parts wise, kind, funny, curious, empathic, gentle, and generous. Greg didn’t just preach the values of Outward Bound, he lived them. And he also was the embodiment of the spirit of Outward Bound.

Photo credit: EL Education

He didn’t just go through life, he experienced it fully and zestfully, with a hunger to continue to learn, to grow, and to try new things. He didn’t just interact with people, he embraced them fully, recognizing their strengths while accepting their foibles and always making them feel wanted and loved.  And in every interaction with Greg, what came shining through was his compassionate nature. When you were with Greg, you always knew that you were with someone who cared about you and would, without reservation, lend you a helping hand if you needed it. That compassion was never more evident than in the remarkable care he gave to his wife Cathy who had a 15 year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and who Greg lovingly and tenderly looked after as her primary caretaker until her death last year.

Greg was one of the few people I know who actually met Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound. He had dinner with Hahn sometime in the early 1970s when Hahn was visiting New York City. I remember Greg describing him to me as “courtly,” someone who talked little about himself but was intensely interested in whomever he was with, asking probing questions of them through which he forged an intimate connection. Whether he realized it or not, in describing Hahn, Greg was describing himself. He too was a master of listening and of the gently probing question; someone who was genuinely interested in other people and who was genuinely convinced that there was dignity and worth, greatness even, in each person whom he encountered. The columnist David Brooks might well have been talking about Greg when he wrote this about the novelist E.M. Forster: “To speak to him was to be seduced by an inverse charisma, a sense of being listened to with such intensity that you had to be your most honest, sharpest, and best self.” Perhaps Greg’s greatest gift is that he helped so many of us tap into our best selves.

Greg Farrell was one of the best people I’ve ever known. In truth, I’d be hard pressed to name someone who I consider to be his match. As I write this, I am finding it impossible to contemplate a world without him. But I take solace in knowing that the world is so much better because of him and that each of us who had the privilege of spending time with him has been immeasurably enriched and will do our best going forward to honor his legacy.

Photo credit: EL Education

Greg didn’t just preach the values of Outward Bound, he lived them. He didn’t just go through life, he experienced it fully and zestfully, with a hunger to continue to learn, to grow, and to try new things.

Richard Stopol

President & CEO, NYC Outward Bound Schools

Read EL Education's Tribute to Greg Farrell

A quote from Greg’s memoir, excerpted from The New York Times April 9, 2020 Tribute to Greg:

“In Outward Bound there are almost no lectures, you work in small groups and help each other out, you learn important things you never forget and that you can apply to new circumstances, you do things you think are impossible, sometimes with style, and the idea is to get everyone over the mountain rather than to see who can get over the mountain first,” 

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Greg was a great educator, totally dedicated to giving equal opportunity to all. EL is a great organization and there may very well not have been an NYC Outward Bound Schools without him. He was a wonderful man who has given a lot and who will be remembered and appreciated for a very long time.

Alexander Goren

Board Member, NYC Outward Bound Schools

Startling news and warm heart. Everything Peter said describes the man I knew. There are moments of learning from Greg to me that I use daily. Although since his retirement we only spoke briefly, I will miss knowing his light will be lost from those he spent time with on earth.

Gary B. Cohen

Its sad to hear, but I’m so happy that Greg found his niche and got to revel in it.  He and I had a good connection in the mid-70s and became quite close in the early 80s.  He was always regretting that he hadn’t worked in Outward Bound and was driven to participate somehow.  It finally started to gel for him as NYC Outward Bound Schools evolved in the later 80s, like a kid finally beginning to catch up to his dreams. 

Greg was “heart” driven and struggled in the early 80s trying to fit in with the New York based business hot-shots on the nat’l OB Board.  He often confided that he felt like a fish out of water and other Board members didn’t take him seriously because he wasn’t as practical about business strategies or finance.  He was a late bloomer in combining his passion for OB with finding his place in it and it changed his life forever.   It was wonderful seeing his confidence grow as he gradually discovered that he could become a leader in NYC and still remain “heart-based”.  He was one of the warmest men I’ve known on OB Boards and was always ready with a laugh. 

The last time I saw him was at a benefit banquet 3 years ago in NY and he quoted something I had shared with him 43 years earlier about when I lived with the Cree.  He LOVED simple connections and raw human experiences.  The world is a better place for Greg’s active participation in it.

Ted Moores

Greg was of the finest people I have ever known. He embodied the tenacity of spirit and gentleness of leadership as if to make everyone feel as though Lao Tse was in the room….guiding people to their best Person. He also reminded many of us that the principle of experiential learning knows no bounds. His spirit, his KA, will live on for many generations.

Stocky Clark

Greg was special to Richard and therefore special to me. This is the way I knew Greg for over 40 years; I listened to his stories and heard his words on a variety of subjects through Rich. Then last summer, I stayed at his “Palace” above his beloved Yurts in the Adirondacks with Richard and the original NYCOB Staff for a reunion. This time, I got to know Greg for myself — brief but profound. He amazed me with his vitality, his twinkle of delight in everyone and everything. He personified the guru one wishes to learn from and emulate; A Friend for Life. To me, I experienced Greg as that kind of person who makes you feel the best of who you are and the better you can become. Yes, Greg was Special.

Carolyn Stopol

Greg was one of those rare and precious human beings who embraced Life with open arms, a curious mind, an adventurous spirit, and a generous heart.  Personally and professionally, he was a true explorer and creative innovator who seemed to see in every situation a chance to experiment, try out something new, think outside the box, connect ‘this’ with ‘that,’ delight in the possibilities.    He was a dreamer whose feet were firmly planted on the ground, a visionary who knew how to get things done.  As a doer, one important way for him was to work through other people, bringing out the very best in them.  So to me, one of Greg’s most special gifts, his magic — something so many of us experienced firsthand and are forever grateful for — was his unwavering faith in others and uncanny ability to detect and draw out their talents (even well-hidden ones!).  We are all so much better for having known Greg.  May his bright twinkling eyes and beaming smile, his knowing chuckle and uproarious laugh continue to warm our hearts, lift our spirits, and light our way.  Safari salama, Greg.

Sanna Randolph Thomas

Greg was a very special man and I am thankful to have spent time with him. One thing I find very unique about him is the ability to become friends with countless generations. He is one of the few people who could meet anyone and immediately connect with them. He was very close with my grandfather, my mother and me. Three generations of people, and he was able to bond with all of us. One of the greatest memories I have of Greg is at Pantry Island in the Adirondacks. I was going through a dog phase, so we decided to drink water out of bowls like dogs. He also created the best club on earth, The Lime Club. Lime makes everything better. It all started when he told my brother and me to put lime on our ice cream, by far the best combination. I remember him making us members of the Lime Club. I’ve known him my whole life, and in those 14 years I’ve never met anybody kinder. He impacted so many lives, including mine. I feel so grateful to have had him in mine. Greg, you are deeply missed and will be remembered forever.

Maeve Larson

I fell in love with Greg Farrell the moment I met him.

This was, of course, a very different kind of love affair than the ordinary I speak of, far different than you might imagine, far different than I had ever dared to imagine.

Meeting Greg allowed me to fall in love with life all over again, with the simplest of pleasures that life has to offer.

I fell in love with smiling, with his smile, with my own smile, with the elegant unassuming natural smiles which grew on people’s faces after spending any time in Greg‘s company.

I fell in love with food, eating, drinking, sharing the simple of things in life. A glass of cool water on a hot day poured by the hand of a friend. A true friend, a gentle unassuming man who truly wants your thirst to be quenched. A friend who relishes in watching the satisfaction that water brings as it becomes evident upon your face that it has done its job, the need is filled, the urgency stilled, the act of sharing becomes the act of caring, and a simple glass of water becomes the stuff of champions, Dionysian nectar, wine fit to toast the last supper.

I fell in love with the soulful timbres resonating with Greg‘s voice. A voice deep yet soft, commanding yet never demanding, rhythmical and musical yet never sing-songy, loud nor monotone in its volume, pitch or tone.

Greg‘s voice enriched all who had the pleasure to hear his carefully chosen, softly-sometimes bluntly- spoken,  sensitive, empathic and caring words.

To hear Greg‘s voice was like listening to a symphony, it was to become lost in a carefully orchestrated cacophony of sound which captures your imagination first and then frees you from the monotony of the ordinary, reigns you in and captures you again and again with its complexity, simplicity, wisdom, wit and wonder.

If the qualities of the man can be measured by the words he speaks,  Greg was a man of great calibre!

Greg mastered not only the spoken word but the persuasive power of the unspoken. Greg knew intrinsically that silence is essential to empowerment, to feel truly validated a person must know and feel they have been listened to. To listen you need to be quiet, to pay attention, to absorb what the speaker has to say, to listen you cannot talk.

I remember talking to Greg about the way he would sit so quietly and seemingly never miss a thing. He was ever humble about this, he told me he enjoyed nothing more than hearing what others had to say, their adventures, their worries, their puzzling problems, their highs and lows, it was how he learned about what was important in others lives, and it was helped him to value his own life and the people whom he loved.

Greg would ponder events which puzzled and perplexed most; he would think long and hard before speaking, choosing the moment to interject with care; he would put forth his opinion in a  poignant-matter-of- fact manner- his words were often like a spotlight illuminating the most obvious of truths.

The ability Greg had learned, honed and perfected, to sum up, an entire afternoon in a few eloquently spoken words, was truly remarkable.

I would listen painstakingly,  to every word spoken throughout the day, to every discussion or debate, in anticipation of what Greg might have to say.  His contributions would “hit the nail o’ the head”,  capture the essence of the moment and leave me often with a rare and priceless gem to take home, to cherish and reflect upon.

I was transfixed by the warmth and safety of Greg‘s innate masculinity, paternity, camaraderie; he was the father, brother, teacher, lover whom I had always yearned for yet never thought existed in real life. 

He was the imaginary friend from my childhood, my Peter Pan; the imaginary boyfriend from my adolescence, my Don Juan; the imaginary father etched from the fanciful memories of a four-year-old girl who had never seen her father again; he was the hero of every book  I had ever read- the heroes who were larger than life itself- my Ishmael, my Queequeg, my Ernest Shackleton, my Atticus Finch all rolled into one.

We will all remember you Greg Farrell, all of us for our own reasons, all of us with our own memories and recollections, I consider myself among the lucky for having known you, I will cherish  what you shared with me, and for what you showed me to be true, everything is possible, you have to dream it first for it to become possible, I will never stop dreaming, I will never give up on love and living, for you have shown me life is truly worth fighting for, worth trying for, worth every breath, so I will breathe deeply and savour every moment of it.

Thank you Greg.

There are two quotes from my favourite author -Haruki Murakami-which remind me of you Greg Farrell

“The most important thing we learn at school is the fact that the most important things can’t be learned at school.” —What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets.” —Kafka on the Shore

Cheryl-Anne Yeend

 In all my work, I strive to enable the inspired, creative, challenging, and fun learning environments that Greg championed. And in my personal life, he has set an incredibly high bar for what it means to live not only a good life, but a meaningful one. Click here for full tribute.

Paul Herdman

President & CEO, Rodel

It was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to work closely with Greg for many years  as a member of the group which was planning and implementing  the creation of  NYC Outward Bound Schools. As I look back at that experience I have come to realize it was a highlight of my life, one that led to my involvement as a Board member and employee of  NYCOBS for over thirty years. It all started with a conversation instigated by  Greg  at a meeting of the National Board of which I had been a member for several years. The more I worked with Greg the more I came to appreciate his many talents and his dedication to the principles on which Outward Bound was founded and his unique devotion and dedication in putting them into practice. I regarded him as a dear friend, teacher and mentor and will forever be grateful to him for all that he taught me by his ability to lead by example.  I will surely miss him!

Bill Abelow

The world has lost a great man. Greg was always kind to me and I will remember him for that and for  his contributions to OB and the world. Rest in peace.

Trisha Nason Mark

When I was writing my grant to start a school back in the mid 1990’s (ALPS, Which eventually became Channel View), Greg personally came out to my apartment in Far Rockaway to help me.  I certainly was inspired by him and his belief in the vision.  I was always thrilled to see him at the annual NYC Outward Bound Conferences, and yes, he had that special way about him that you knew he cared.  His legacy lives on in all the schools.

Pat Tubridy

Greg was a mentor, boss, friend and shining light for me at many times. He was the head of The Fund for the City of New York when I went there to take my first job. Gently—almost invisibly—he infused the whole organization with joy, imagination, friendship and the sense that we were doing something really important. He never micro-managed—he led. He had faith that we would have our own good ideas—ideas that might not have occurred to him—and that we would do our best.  And we did.

I next knew him when I did some consulting for Expeditionary Learning in its earlier years. He drove a few of us fellow New Yorkers up and back to the office up on the Hudson every day, and—beyond the thrill of working with him on a concept of learning that was so new and exciting and amazing—there was the thrill of spending a couple of hours every day listening to his stories while also having him take so clear an interest in whatever we were doing.

And finally, I knew him as a mentor for my daughter, who became a teacher in New York and (of course) went to work for an EL school. My clearest memory of him was when I once asked him—a man who really enjoyed eating meat—how he put up with the vegan cuisine at the yoga ashram where he periodically disappeared for weeks at a time. “Well,” he said, “I…enjoy seeing what it’s like to… live as a vegan. To be something I’m not, generally. To stretch things a bit.” The world is wider, and brighter and our minds and lives have been expanded more than any of us will ever be able to express by a man who—wonderfully, magically—never stopped stretching his own boundaries.

Susan Leicher

Greg, you were a hero and mentor of mine for over 30 years, and will be forever. I and so many others will miss you but thanks to you thousands of students every day receive the type of engaging, rigorous and compassionate education all students deserve. And I believe the foundation you built for a more equitable and powerful approach to teaching and learning will eventually make its way to millions. Thank you!

Paola Vita

Chief Advancement Officer, NYC Outward Bound Schools

When I was a newly hired teacher for Bronx Expeditionary Learning School (BELHS), one of the first schools to open up with the initial grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund, Greg called me up. The school had not opened yet and I was still working all night at a popular restaurant in New York City. I remember answering the phone and being in awe that Greg called me up. He asked me if I would like to join him and Ron Berger who had just come into town. Being a bit in shock, I eagerly agreed. Greg picked me up at my apartment in Brooklyn and drove me and Ron to his house in another part of Brooklyn. Greg made us all lunch and we sat in the backyard of his house talking about what the Adventure Coordinator (the role I had been hired for) could look like. We talked about “Wellness Attributes” and what they may include. I remember being struck by Greg’s willingness to learn together and ask questions. We spent the afternoon together and it is one of the formative experiences in my career.

Over the years that followed, Greg was always genuinely interested in how I was doing. He even invited me to his holiday party one year at his home. He walked me and my girlfriend at the time to the door and bid us farewell and relayed a time he had met Kurt Hahn and how he was impressed with Kurt walking him out and taking time to bid him farewell. Greg even invited me to his property in the Adirondacks once after not seeing me for a few years. It struck me that he lived and breathed the values of Outward Bound and EL Education. I aspire to impact my students the way Greg has impacted me.

Charlie Maciejewski

Mr. Farrell was an amazing individual! He treated everyone like his own, there was never a dull day working with him and he made sure everyone around him was always okay and never in need of anything. It pains my heart that he had to go so soon but I will forever be grateful for the time I had with him. To know Mr. Farrell is to love him so I am sure everyone that had the amazing opportunity to meet him will surely miss him.

Vanecia Johnson

Last week Ty and I shockingly heard about the passing of a dear friend Greg Farrell 1935-2020. Both he and Cathy his wife, (who passed away last year) plus their two sons Nick and Andrew, invited us into their beautiful Brooklyn NY home back in 1989. At that time Ty and I were in our early 30’s and full of life, adventure, and setting goals and dreams that Greg Farrell not knowingly, helped mold and shape to reality. Mike Fischesser, the school director of NCOBS was currently looking for experienced field staff to help the NYCOBC urban instructors learn from seasoned wilderness instructors, the OB Philosophy, courses design, etc. Ty and I had a couple of years as NCOBS Instructors, RLP’s, etc. under our belts maybe not truly seasoned staff, however, we were pretty much the only ones ready to take the challenge on of co-instructing courses with the urban OB instructors. The carrot, that also intrigued us was, The Shawangunk’s near New Paltz NY; a rock-climbing mecca was literally 90-minute drive north or a bit longer by train. Our first question to Mike was why more seasoned wilderness staff aren’t willing to take this offer. I believe it was difficult for many of us to get our heads wrapped around actually running an Outward Bound course in NYC’s “Concrete Landscape”. Well, we decided to go for it. As it turned out, that move led to so many more wonderful experiences in our lives. Looking back now we are extremely happy we took that NYCOBC challenge and left the North Carolina wilderness and our new mountain basecamp community.

Next, we were told that the Farrell family, would put us up in their loft in the third story bedroom of their home in Brooklyn NY. We lived with Cathy and Greg and their two sons Nick and Andrew. The boys at the time were very involved with sports, school, and community events. Ty enjoyed shooting hoops with Greg and the boys in their back yard, while I helped Cathy prepare some of our delicious meals.  It was a pleasure to experience this family work together so well.  Each day we would ride the subway into work at the NYCOBC in Manhattan. The adventure began for us by navigating a subway map instead of a topo map. We did this to the point that we knew where to stand when the subway door opened to let us out closest to the staircase without a long walk. It was all about efficiency. We ended up being able to do this at every stop in the underground subway line.
Most days when we were working for the NYCOBC, we came in and out of the Farrells home at different hours of the night. I can remember clearly that Cathy and Greg would often have their bedroom door open reading in bed as we slowly tipped toed past their door quietly saying goodnight, while we climbed the stairs to our 3rd-floor bedroom. I don’t think I ever witnessed a TV on in their home during our entire stay. They had books in every single room. The days we were not running around the city working or exploring, we enjoyed hanging out with the Farrell family. I recalled thinking to myself if I ever had kids, and that was certainly not on our radar at the time, I would love to raise our children as Cathy and Greg raised Andrew and Nick. We both did not realize this until our recent reflection on Greg’s life, how much he did truly impact both of us, especially with the goal to cycle around the world and later to raise our own two children.

We often sat with Greg at the dinner table or in his living room discussing our daily adventures. He asked us questions about how our plans for tackling this lofty goal of cycling around the world were coming along. He really made us think about our “why” and what was the purpose of this adventure. Now that I look back the logo we had designed for our trip. Chalmers Global Tour “Cycling for a Better World” I am sure that Greg had an influence on the latter half of that phrase. We truly appreciated everything the Farrell Family did for us from the great visionary discussions with Greg, Cathy’s wonderful meals with the kids, to the incredible but few visits to their amazing wilderness Yurt in the Adirondacks. There is a part of us as we finish this letter, a feeling of deep loss of both their lives just as if they were our own mother and father.

In the more present time, we dedicated twenty plus years raising our own two children. Seamus 24 yrs. old and now an officer in the USA Navy and Fiona 20 years old, soon a college graduate and up and coming Nashville singer-songwriter; the Chalmers Global tour and all those wonderful old relationships got put on the back burner, literally put in the closest. We are excited now however, as a fulfilling empty nest project to rekindle those memories and keep the adventure going. We have decided to take our 14 journals (out of the closet) and write the story of our adventures around the world from 1991-1994. If anyone is interested, please join our Facebook page. Called Chalmers Global Tour “Cycling for a Better World which we started June 2020.

We love you dearly Greg, Kathy, Nick, and Andy.

Marguerite and Ty Chalmers

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