By Bob


By Bob


Farrell Toombs died on October 21, 1997, his 85th birthday. I probably live in one of the few places in the country where there is not a community of people with whom to gather and share stories about him. (I haven't tested this assumption and, in fact, I would not be surprised to discover that Gabriola Island too has a score of Farrell's old friends.) So I have marked his passing for myself by writing down a few recollections of him.

Farrell and I were talking, one time, about the holocaust. I can't recall what I said, but 25 years later, I can still hear his response clear as a bell. "Some days," Farrell said, "I get up and it is the holocaust for sure."

That is one of the few instances where I remember Farrell's actual words, though our conversations influenced me absolutely and profoundly: I would be a different man today were it not for my friendship with Farrell. So why don't I remember what he said?

One obvious reason is that those talks took place, in the main, between 20 and 30 years ago. But that is secondary. The real reason is the way Farrell said things. Conversation with Farrell had its own flavour, unforgettable if you experienced it, undescribable if you didn't. Most of us, for instance, tell: we argue, we explain. Farrell didn't, he asked. Question after question, ethical questions, off-the-wall questions, hard questions - sympathetic, but hard. When he didn't ask a question, he told a story whose moral was, er, veiled. What I took to be his views, I constructed from the things he asked me about mine.

Farrell's vision, clearly, did not lend itself to easy answers; black-and-white was not a colour combination on his pallet. He was a foe of complacency (the rich man's easy answer) but also of rebellion, though he was a friend of the rebel and, literally, the chief of police. His capacity for outrage was great, his capacity for forgiveness equally so. He was genuinely and passionately concerned about the travails of human beings whether they presented themselves collectively or individually. Marx and Freud each had his ear, though neither had his uncritical allegiance.

Or so it seemed to me. The fact is, the things I can say about Farrell with absolute assurance are few and small. He took cold showers. (From time to time I roomed with him, so I know.) He recorded his thoughts in blue chemistry-student notebooks; accumulated, the books filled an impressive number of shelves. He had a taste for Martin Buber and for pine nuts. He never smoked marijuana or took LSD. In the mornings, he would fill a change purse expressly for the panhandlers and the people who dropped by the Advisory Bureau with a story and a need for coins. Some of them called him "Father" Toombs.

Beyond those observations, I can offer this rough (that is, only roughly accurate) sketch of Farrell's where-abouts over the years. He was born in Kansas in 1911 and raised in Missouri; his father was a Russian Orthodox priest (as was Farrell, at least by ordination) who spent some time in prison. Farrell received a B Phil from the University of Chicago. He and Martha ran a bookstore there, the source of the "Eidelons" faceplates that graced his books. Their daughter Gail was, I think, born there. Shortly after the war, he went to Maine where he worked with Carl Rogers on the initial post-war "T groups".

In the late 40s, Farrell was one of the team that conducted the then-famous Hawthorne Experiments, which demonstrated the wisdom of respectful working conditions. On the strength of his Hawthorne reputation, he was wooed (and won) by the University of Toronto School of Business. Moonlighting from U of T, he had some truck with Indian Affairs, with the Company of Young Canadians and with CMHC. He taught in the U of T med school psychiatry department (Don McCulloch was one of his students) and did everything but teach at the Advisory Bureau. After he retired, he spent time with the Russian Orthodox community at Oxford. Eventually he moved to Springfield, Illinois because it made a good crossroads for Martha's wanderings.

If, in all those places, times, and circles, he ever made an enemy, I never got wind of it.

There is one story of Farrell's I do recall clearly, in fact so clearly that I am no longer sure whether I was there when it happened or just heard it all from Farrell. It took place at the Advisory Bureau, the morning after the death of Colonel Sam McLaughlin, the Canadian who invented the Buick.

Dave Graham, Farrell's longtime colleague, arrived at the Bureau that morning, excited and agitated. He had had a dream in which he was walking along Queen Street between Eaton's and Simpson's when a very old car, driven by a very old man, came careening down the street. Dave lept behind a lamppost for safety. When the danger had passed, he found a cop. "That man shouldn't be allowed to drive!" Dave dreamed he told the cop. "Don't worry," said the cop, "that's just Colonel Sam and he's not long for the world."

The next morning, Dave heard on CBC that Sam McLaughlin had died. Being a man of scientific bent, he was fascinated and flummoxed. No, he had not heard anything about Mclaughlin's passing before he went to sleep. And, no, he had no prior interest in him. He had been visited, there was really no other explanation. The question was, what to do about it. He asked Farrell.

Farrell answered - how else? - with a story and a question. When he was a young man, Farrell said, a friend took him along to visit a medium. When they arrived, the friend went in and Farrell waited on the porch. A little later, the friend came out looking pale as a sheet. Then Farrell went in. The medium (a very nice woman, Farrell said), asked for his ring to hold. She proceeded to describe, accurately, the house in which he grew up and other details of his life. Then she told him that the source of the information was his sister. "But I don't have a sister," Farrell told her. "I don't know what to tell you," the medium replied, "I am communicating with her in the spirit world as surely as I am talking with you in this one."

Sometime later, Farrell visited his father and told him what the medium had said. His father fell silent, then told Farrell that, indeed, he had an older sister. She died at birth. They had never told him about her.

"But", Farrell turned to Dave that morning at the Bureau, "So what?"

Of course there are spirits, he meant (at least in my version of the story), there are also tigers, banjos, sub-atomic particles, but how do we choose to live? Why do we do what we do?

I saw Farrell only occasionally in the last few years, when we both happened to be in Toronto at the same time. His letters grew shorter, mine fewer. We did talk on the phone several times a year. His body, he would report, was a wreck but his spirit was sound. One of our last conversations, as it turned out, took place at the time of "Who's Left", a re-union of the Canadian left of the sixties. I asked Farrell if he would like me to convey a greeting. He called back a few days later with a 2nd Century Syriac prayer, which I read to the old comrades, assembled at the Horseshoe Tavern:

Lord and Master of my life,
Give me not a spirit of sloth, of despondency,
of lust for power and of idle talk.
But Father, give to me, your friend,
a spirit of soberness, of patience
of humility and love,
And grant me to see my own errors
and not to condemn my brothers' and sisters'.
For blessed art Thou onto all the ages.

Feel free to pass this along. Do get in touch if you have stories to share.