Talk about an interesting life and career, Farrell Fleming has covered more ground in his professional life than any 10 normal individuals.
Born and raised in the New York City borough of Queens, Fleming attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
“It was really a different world back then,” he recalls. “When I applied back in 1958 the entire cost of a year at Brown was $1,200. And that included tuition, room and board all rolled up into one.”
But like all good deals, it wasn’t to last. The summer before Fleming was due to start, he received a letter from the college president.
“It was almost apologetic,” he remembers. “The president was sad to inform me that due to increased costs, the price for a year at Brown would be going up, and he ‘hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a problem for me’ and that I’d still consider attending.”
The new cost — $1,400.
Needless to say, it was not a problem, and Fleming arrived at Brown to start his freshman year in the fall of 1958.
No sooner was he settled at Brown than one of what would be a lifetime of bizarre opportunities fell into his lap.
The student manager of the Brown marching band — who also served in the pivotal role of drum major, leading the band onto the field in a tall bearskin hat, strutting, stepping and brandishing an 8-foot gold baton — informed the school that he would not be coming back.
“With only a few weeks to go before the first big football game, I was asked to both manage the band and be the new drum major,” Fleming laughed. “The band director was a classical cellist, and running a marching band was really not his thing, so he needed someone who could hit the ground running. Why they offered it to me I have no idea — I didn’t know the first thing about doing either job, but of course I jumped at the chance!”
Next step was a quick trip to the library where he found only one book — written in 1890 – on drum majoring.
“I picked a routine that didn’t look too difficult, practiced it, and the rest — to coin a phrase — is history.”
Farrell marched, strutted and studied his way through Brown, graduating in 1962 with a degree in philosophy.
He subsequently attended other schools for graduate work, following his chosen path to become a professor of philosophy.
“My first teaching job was at the University of Manitoba in the 1970s,” he recalls.
This was a time when older folks — the term “seniors” was just starting to come into general use — were at last becoming recognized as a valuable resource, an asset to the community, and a potent pool of untapped talent. In 1978, Fleming was invited to be part of a new group whose mission was to explore ways to both enrich the lives of older adults and bring them into a more active role in the community.
“We needed a name for ourselves, and we came up with Creative Retirement Institute,” he explained. “At the time it was the only thing of its kind in the world, but it went on to become the genesis of today’s CRI.”
The first members were all part of the educational community, all retired, and most born in 19th century.
“The life they came from was so different,” Fleming recalls. “They had the steam engine and the telegraph, but for the most part life moved at the speed of a horse. It was a more leisurely pace, and many of our members missed it. I was fascinated by these people, their stories, their lives. I was hooked — I found that I just loved working with older people.”
Fleming worked with CRI in Manitoba for the next 20 years, after which he, wife Delaine and family retired to live the good life on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands in 1997.
“If someone told me at the time that I’d have a whole new 20-plus-year career working in senior centers, I would have thought they were crazy,” he said. “But that’s exactly what happened.”
The opportunity came up to join the Stanwood Senior Center as development director, and he couldn’t resist. He and Delaine moved to Everett, and Farrell dove into fundraising and related activities in Stanwood.
In 2001 he was invited by then-Edmonds Senior Center Director Kathy Segura to attend a board meeting and help facilitate a discussion about an issue they had been grappling with for some time. For several years the board had been on the horns of a dilemma: The existing senior center building had problems, and board members wanted help in exploring the idea of a new building.
“I had visited Edmonds and the senior center before, so they knew me and thought I’d be a good resource as they explored this issue,” he recalls. “But it soon became apparent that there wasn’t the energy to see this through.”
Apparently the board was impressed with Fleming, though, and in fall 2001 he was invited to come back down to Edmonds as Senior Center Executive Director.
“While I was really happy in Stanwood, I jumped at the chance to come to Edmonds,” he said.
Over the next few years Fleming worked tirelessly to help build the array of programs and services that made the Edmonds Senior Center a model for similar facilities.
“It was the people, really, who made all this happen,” he said with typical modesty. “We have such an incredible pool of talent in this community, and an extraordinary number of really wonderful people.”
But the Kumbaya spirit was not to last.
“I really don’t want to get into the details, but suffice it to say that internal politics led to a rift between the board and the membership,” he said. “It all came to a head in 2007, and one result was that in October of that year I was fired as executive director.”
With typical aplomb, Fleming landed on his feet and within a few weeks was hired as Director of Senior Services for Island County.
“It was a great job with great people,” he recalls.
But then in the spring of 2010, fate took another turn with Fleming’s life.
“The issues at the Edmonds Senior Center had settled out, Rose Cantwell was the new board president, and she reached out to ask if I’d be interested in coming back,” he said. “My time with Island County was a delight, but the timing was good to come back to Edmonds.”
When he arrived in March 2010, the first thing he saw was a banner in front of the building saying “Welcome Home Farrell.” When he entered the lobby there was Rose Cantwell, who along with the rest of the board and the membership broke into a chorus of “Hello Dolly” (except in this case it was “Hello Farrell”).
“When they hit the line ‘it’s so great to have you back where you belong,’ I just fought back the tears,” he recalled.
Since then Fleming has served as the undisputed leader of the band at the Edmonds Senior Center. The bearskin hat and baton of his drum major days may be history, but the energy he brings and the inspiration and example he provides are as strong as ever.
And the modesty.
“If I have a real talent, it’s having a nose for good people with character, who want to do good work, and are inspired to contribute their time, energy and talent to make things better,” he said. “The people are thing one, thing two, thing three and on and on. If I can serve to bring this kind of energy together, and encourage this experience and intelligence, I guess I’m doing my job.
“My fondest accomplishment here is the new Waterfront Center,” he said, referring to the new building that will replace the former senior center, which has been demolished. “It’s so much more than just the building,” he continued. “The real heart of the place — and the heart of my pride in it — are the people who planned it, nurtured it and will animate it. The building by itself is just a shell — it’s the people, really. I’m always struck by Margaret Mead’s famous quote, ‘A small group of people with an idea can change the world.’ I’m seeing that happen here, and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of it.”
Other notable highlights of his years at the Edmonds Senior Center include establishing and consolidating partnerships with groups including City of Edmonds, Snohomish County, Verdant Health Commission, Edmonds College, Edmonds School District, Edmonds Library, AARP, and the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce; keeping all core staff through the COVID crisis (something no other Snohomish County senior center has done); overseeing 16 years of ensuring the center’s finances stay in the black; establishing the Bastyr Medical Clinic at the center in 2012; hosting a cold weather emergency shelter for the homeless; and overseeing the continued operation of all programs through the year of transition to the Waterfront Center.
Oh yes – and hiring Daniel Johnson as Waterfront Center capital campaign director.
Johnson did such a stunning job that earlier this year the senior center board unanimously voted to name him to succeed Fleming as Executive Director. At the same time, the board also created a new title for Fleming, naming him senior consultant, but with the understanding that Fleming and Johnson would continue to work together through the end of September, when the new Waterfront Center is scheduled to open.
A better outcome could hardly be imagined — the two men are truly a professional match made in heaven.
“Daniel and I are an incredible team,” Fleming said. “We joke about finishing each other’s sentences, but it’s actually true — we give a lot of presentations together, and if one of us is stuck on a word the other jumps in and supplies it. It’s really fun. It’s so rare in the business and nonprofit worlds to be able to train and work with your successor, but we’re actually doing it. This is the way a transition should work at its very best.”
Fleming’s current contract with the senior center board runs through Sept. 30, closely coinciding with his 80th birthday. His current plans call for settling in on Salt Spring Island and enjoying retirement. He doubts he will be much of a presence in Edmonds after his contract expires, but given the twists and turns his life has taken so far, it would be unwise to place bets on this.
In honor of his years of service to the community, the Edmonds Chamber earlier this year named Farrell Fleming as Grand Marshal of the Edmonds Kind of Fourth Parade. But that was before the COVID-19 restrictions forced the chamber to cancel this year’s Fourth of July festivities.
Not to be deterred, the chamber organized a special parade of one, where Fleming was chauffeured through downtown in a classic yellow convertible, waving to passersby on the sidewalk and basking in their cheers and good wishes.
How fitting that the former drum major would go out of town leading a parade.
— By Larry Vogel