Everybody knows his name
August 24, 2012
Communications Officer Jim Enright submitted the following remembrance.
“Hello, young man. My name is Neil Farmer, and I bet you and I are the only two people in this building who remember when Ike was president.”
My white hair has sparked many impromptu conversations over the years. This time, the conversation lasted more than seven years.
I had been working at Lewis & Clark less than a month when Neil introduced himself while making his regular McAfee rounds. I quickly learned that you didn’t have to catch sight of him to know that he was in the building. It was like Norm, in Cheers: Everybody knew his name—and he, theirs. Except that Neil was in better shape than Norm, and had more hair. More friends, too.
That day Neil dropped in, he started telling stories. And oh, the stories he could tell.
Stories about serving in the Army during the war and making the most of each day because “we knew we could all die tomorrow.” About coming to Lewis & Clark on the GI Bill and taking courses in biology and Shakespeare from Benjamin Thaxter. Once, on a test in the Shakespeare class, Neil scored 100 but Professor Thaxter gave him a B. Master Sergeant Farmer asked why. “Your spelling is atrocious,” said Thaxter. “This is a course on Shakespeare, not spelling,” Neil shot back. Thaxter gave him an A.
Neil introduced me to Morgan and Ruth Odell. Thanks to him, I see them strolling the campus at twilight, greeting students by name, the president’s coat pockets stuffed with dreams for the college, jotted down as he walked.
“Dr. Odell was sincerely interested in students,” Neil said. “He was also a no-nonsense guy. He was not tolerant of alcohol on campus.” Which never stopped Neil and his GI buddies from frequenting the Three Star Tavern on Barbur Boulevard and sneaking beer into their rooms.
One day he invited me to lunch. Going to lunch with Neil was like crossing the Rubicon: You weren’t sure what lay ahead, and you knew there was no turning back.
He wanted to take me to one of his favorite places from his student days. He drove. I sat rigid and kept tightening my seatbelt. North on Terwilliger went the Cadillac before turning west onto Barbur. Other drivers moved to our left and right. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea.
A couple miles down the road he pulled into a lot and parked in front of a vacant building, probably last occupied when, well, Ike was president. But a sign pointed the way to a building in the back. Boom-Boom Room, it said. Not a good sign. My thoughts ricocheted from consternation to bemusement to, frankly, anticipation (thank you, Y chromosome) before settling on, “This must fall under ‘other duties as assigned.’”
But Neil was as baffled as I was. “This is where we always came,” he said. “I wonder when it closed.” Somewhere Sinatra was crooning, “There used to be a ballpark right here.”
But Neil had promised me lunch, and Neil was—always—a man of his word. “Walter Mitty’s!” he said. Back onto Barbur, and then south onto Capitol Highway, turning left from the lane clearly marked “Buses Only.”
I kept waiting for the flashing lights. They never showed up.
That day at Walter Mitty’s, Neil introduced me all around—everybody knew his name—as his grandson. I’ve seldom received a higher honor.
He always made a point to stop at my office whenever he was in McAfee—and he was in McAfee a lot, thank goodness. (I still marvel that the visitor’s parking space was always open whenever he drove up. Neil had friends in high places. Very high places.) “James!” he boomed. “Neil!” I boomed back. Boom-Boom Room, indeed.
He was right about my remembering Ike. Neil was right about a lot of things. But, actually, I was a Stevenson man. I suspect Neil knew that, too, but he never let it make a difference.
Sometimes I’d find myself wishing that I had gone to college with Neil. Now I know, I really did.
Godspeed, Neil. Cheers.