Requiem For a Motivator

Requiem For a Motivator
William O. "Doc" Farber, professor emeritus of political science at The University of South Dakota, was a lifelong bachelor, with no blood relatives living near the Vermillion community.

Shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday, March 24, Farber, age 96, passed away at the Sanford Health Respite Care Center in Vermillion.

He didn't die alone.


He was surrounded by several of the famed "Farber Boys" from around the area, including Dick Brown of Sioux Falls, who, for decades, has enjoyed a strong relationship with Farber.

"There were four or five of us that were there," Brown said. "Twenty-four hours a day, he had someone in that room that he was aware of and knew the best he could during those last days when he was growing increasingly tired."

During the last day of his life, several people called his room. "I'd place the phone up to Doc's ear and those folks would say their goodbyes to Doc; I don't know if he could hear those conversations, but those were very moving, tender moments, meaningful to everyone."

Former students from Minneapolis, Wisconsin and Illinois journeyed to Vermillion to say goodbye, including Vermillion native Drake Olson.

"These are people who are symbolic, who felt they had to be there," Brown said.

During the last 24 hours of his life, he said, visitors took turns holding Doc's hand and comforting him.

"I think it's reflective of the deep feelings of this individual beyond just the political science aspect of his life," Brown said. "They wanted to make sure he was cared for and didn't have any discomfort."

From September 1960 to June of 1966, former Gov. William Janklow attended The University of South Dakota, and took only two classes taught by Farber.

Unlike Tom Brokaw, Pat O'Brien and scores of other people who studied political science at USD, Janklow doesn't consider himself one of Farber's Boys.

"I was a F.O.F.," Janklow said. "I was a Friend of Farber, and I really got to know him after I left the university when I was in public life. He was a � and I really mean this � a very often, very useful, very valuable private advisor to me. He knew everything about the South Dakota government and its history."

Janklow is certain that Farber's influence eventually led to a Constitutional reorganization of governments in South Dakota.

"It was Farber drilling it into all of his students' heads over years," he said. "He used to have a chart that showed we had more government units in South Dakota than the state of California, because we had a government for everything and he pushed constantly for government to change as society changed."

Janklow said Farber believed that as the demographics of the state's population changed, and as the economics of South Dakota changed, government also had to change.

"He felt that too often, governments became static while the society was dynamic, and he never quit," Janklow said.

Al Neuharth, who enrolled in classes at USD in 1946 right after the end of World War II, was a student in one of Farber's classes.

"I went on to major in journalism, and minor in political science," Neuharth said in a phone interview Monday.

He said the political science professor's strongest influence was felt outside of the classroom.

"He taught me what was right and what was wrong," said Neuharth, who rose from being editor of the Volante on the USD campus to, decades later, launch USA TODAY. "Over the past 50 years, we talked quite often, and he always had the greatest counsel and advice."

Neuharth said a personal lesson he never forgot from Farber was to always be fair in both life and journalism.

"When I was editor of the Volante, I endorsed a good friend of mine who was running for student office, and he won the election," Neuharth said. "Doc Farber and I met in passing on the campus the next day and he asked me how I felt, and I said ?Pretty darned good. Democracy was in action.'"

"The Volante is the only paper on the USD campus," Farber replied to Neuharth, "and you endorsed your friend. You should ask yourself if that was fair."

It's a lesson that the famed newspaper publisher has never forgotten.

"It's the reason that USA TODAY has never endorsed a political candidate," Neuharth said. "Farber taught me that newspapers should debate, not dictate."

Don Dahlin, who has retired after a long career as political science professor at USD, will never forget the first time he met Farber.

"It was in 1966, and I was coming here for an interview," he said, "and I had some trouble getting here because there was a big blizzard in the plains."

Dahlin's plane landed at the Sioux City, IA, airport. "There was Dr. Farber and his driver to meet me, and I remember right away his upbeat spirit, friendly personality, all in a funny, rotund little guy, and I was just intrigued with him right from the beginning," Dahlin said.

He added it didn't take long for him to develop a strong relationship with Farber after he was hired to teach in his department at USD.

"Just as he mentored so many students, he was a pretty darn good mentor of me as a new faculty member, too," Dahlin said.

Farber's success can be attributed to, in part, the fact that he didn't have a vindictive bone in his body, he added.

"He certainly could make difficult judgements," Dahlin said. "He could be tough-minded, but I think everyone recognized the spirit in which those hard decisions were done."

It wouldn't be uncommon for students to be in office during much of the day, and over at his house in the evening, tapping into Farber's endless fount of wisdom.

"They were clearly the most important people in his life," Dahlin said. "He was accessible at essentially any time to both faculty and students."

Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) began taking classes at USD the fall after he graduated from Humboldt High School.

He found himself in a world completely different from the small farm where he was raised and small school he attended.

"Today, it might seem to be an easy step, but it was a very big step for me, coming off that farm," Pressler said. He admitted that, at first, he felt inferior to many of USD's students who came from bigger schools in South Dakota and surrounding states.

"I met Farber, and he encouraged me to stay, and he helped me get a student loan," Pressler said. "I was a rather weak student at first; one easily forgets how, as you become more self-reliant, there was a time when you needed some help."

Farber, however, never forgot that fact.

"He reached out his hand to me, and he told me I better stick around, and he helped me get a summer job.

"He guided me, as he did many other people, through times that could have been difficult," Pressler said. "When I was a freshman, I was on pretty shaky ground, and Farber helped me."

The former senator thought of potentially pursuing a career in agri-business or school administration.

"Farber said, ?Gosh, you should think about becoming a governor or a senator, something like that,' " Pressler said. "He was that sort of guy. He would grab ahold of some little nobody from nowhere, so to speak, and make something out of them."

That support included constant promotion of USD and its students in any setting, said Brokaw, a Yankton native. As an example, Farber and Brokaw were eating lunch at a New York City restaurant with a group, mostly South Dakotans who had done well in life.

"We were at a big table, and Barbara Walters walked by and asked, ?Tom, what is this all about?' I thought Bill was going to ask her right there for a donation," Brokaw said with a laugh.

Brokaw had planned to visit Farber in April. Now, Brokaw says he plans to visit his dear friend one last time when funeral services are held Saturday in Vermillion.

"He meant a lot to me," Brokaw said.

Farber encouraged Brokaw to pursue new ventures which would benefit his home state.

"He was always trying to get me to do the next thing, like buy Spirit Mound (near Vermillion). Or there was a white buffalo that someone wanted to sell, and Doc wanted it for the Sioux Falls zoo and wanted me to buy it," Brokaw said.

Farber often initiated relationships that became lifelong bonds, Brokaw said. He added he still has the answering machine message from Farber, commending Brokaw on recent work.

"He was an equal opportunity friend," Brokaw said. "There were students who didn't know him that he would see on campus and say, ?You know, I keep my eye on you here, and you're not doing as well as you should.' Or, ?You're a business major, why aren't you in political science?' "

An Illinois native, Farber arrived on the South Dakota prairie from Wisconsin and never left even though he may have had opportunities elsewhere, Brokaw said.

"I think (Farber) was impressed with the quality of students he was encountering," Brokaw said. "He arrived at this wonderful South Dakota culture with its emphasis on education and achieving things with your life."

Farber found students who didn't expect others to do things for them, and they responded when he prepared them for the world, Brokaw said. "This was not a one-way street. He got as much out of it as they did," he said.

Farber drew praise from U.S. Sens. John Thune and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, both USD graduates.

"Dr. Farber was truly a one of a kind," Thune said. "He was passionate about learning and passionate about his students' futures. Fortunately for us, he leaves behind a rich legacy that will continue to inspire future generations."

Johnson said he considered Farber a friend.

"The University of South Dakota is a better place because of the dedication of his life to the university and its students," Johnson said. "His legacy remains a powerful force for students from Farber Hall to the Farber Fund."

In recent years, a new generation learned from Farber and have gone on to make their mark.

Yankton native Mindy Glover, a 1996 USD graduate, used Farber as a mentor while she served a two-year term on the Vermillion City Council from 1994-96. She stopped by his house every Wednesday to talk to him about politics and life.

"During our weekly meetings, I would talk to him about (serving on City Council), and he would ask goading questions like, ?Do you think they're going to really listen to a young woman?' or ?What experience do you think you have with the town of Vermillion?' " she said. "Then he would listen and nod his head, and he would know, and I would know, that he just pushed me to think a little deeper."

Glover currently lives in Denver and teaches part-time at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She last saw Farber when she visited Vermillion with her young son in May 2005. Farber inquired about her boy and his future.

"I will really miss Doc," she said. "Although he has left many legacies behind in people, buildings, foundations, organizations � I somehow feel like it is the passing of a great institution."

Sioux Falls attorney Brendan Johnson, the son of Sen. Johnson, said he knew Farber while attending USD and will attend Saturday's funeral on his father's behalf as well as his own.

"I would frequently visit Dr. Farber's home while I was attending USD," Brendan Johnson said. "Everyone knows how he loved to visit about state and local politics. But his favorite subject was to discuss other students that he had worked with at USD and to provide updates on their successes."

While a lifelong bachelor, Farber was a father figure over more than seven decades to generations of USD students, many who became leaders, the younger Johnson said.

"He was as much a proud parent as he was a mentor and instructor," Johnson said. "He constantly reminded all of us about the importance of service and giving back to our community."

South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson was one of the USD graduates who developed a friendship with Farber and went on to elected office.

"Doc was always pushing me, trying to get me to consider what kind of impact I could have on my community, state, and country," Johnson said. "I think, too often in South Dakota, we are too humble and don't always understand that we are able to compete favorably with students and workers from across the country."

"Doc believed that we were smarter and could work harder than students at Ivy League schools, and since he believed it, we started to, as well," Johnson added.

Jeff Navin graduated from USD in 1997 and formerly worked as U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth's chief of staff. He now works with a Washington, DC, political consulting firm. Navin used the Farber Fund to help with travel costs, making it possible for him to intern in Washington for then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD). The internship led to a full-time job and ultimately a career in public service in Washington.

"Doc dedicated his life to his students, and he will certainly be missed," Navin said. "But the legacy he leaves � the Farber Fund, the students he mentored, the Farber Center's Civic Leadership program, and the standard of excellence he made a part of the Political Science Department � will keep his spirit alive at USD."

That spirit is captured in namesakes such as Farber Hall, the Farber Center and a statue of Farber in front of Old Main with a plaque and his words, "To serve well, one needs the background to know, the vision to see, and the will to do."

Brokaw noted Farber's stunned look when the statue was unveiled. "He got such a kick out of it. He would always say, ?Egads!' " Brokaw said with a laugh.

Brokaw has a replica of Farber's statue next to replicas of British prime minister Winston Churchill and President Abraham Lincoln.

"I always told him, ?Bill, I think you're in pretty good company, with Churchill, Lincoln and you,' " Brokaw joked.

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