Gregory Farrell

Gregory Rowland Farrell, 84, of Brooklyn and Keene, passed away peacefully on March 29, 2020, at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City due to complications from leukemia. In the days prior he was surrounded by his sons Andrew and Nick Farrell, and daughter-in-law Krista Farrell. He is also survived by his daughter-in-law Chloe Farrell and grandchildren Cormac and Fallon Farrell. His wife of 50 years, Catherine “Cathy” Farrell, a former dean at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, passed away in July 2019 at their house in Keene.

Before retiring in 2008, Farrell served as president and CEO of EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning), which he founded in 1992. His vision was to transform public schools into something more like an Outward Bound course, with a premium placed on adventure, discovery, teamwork and real-world “learning expeditions.” This approach is now thriving in hundreds of schools and serving more than 500,000 students across the country. From 1970 to 1990, Farrell was executive director of the Fund for the City of New York (FCNY), a foundation created in 1968 to improve the functioning of city government and the quality of life in New York City. Prior to FCNY he led an anti-poverty agency in Trenton, New Jersey, which is where he met, hired and, after a decent interval, married Cathy Otis; at the time, the headline in the Trenton Times read, “Poverty Aides Wed.”

Greg was the son of Edward and Dorothy Farrell and grew up in both Chicago and Columbia, Missouri. He attended Princeton University from 1953 to 1957 and during this time spent two summers working as a counselor at Camp Dudley in Westport. The Adirondacks had a profound impact on him, and when he met Cathy, their second date was a trek up Mount Marcy. In 1976, with the help of 50 of their closest friends, Greg and Cathy built an off-the-grid yurt in Keene, which they lived in during summer and visited in winter for 33 years until Cathy persuaded him they should build a real house on their property, with a bathroom, which they did in 2009. Greg was a beloved and active member of his North Country community and served on the boards for various local organizations, including the High Peaks Education Foundation, the Keene Valley Country Club, the Keene Valley Library, North Country School and Camp Dudley.

For all of his professional accomplishments, Greg was an even more extraordinary human being. He was a wonderful father and husband who infused his household with joy and adventure, and raised his sons to be amphibians equally at home in the city and mountains. He had a special ability to see challenges as opportunities, like during his wife Cathy’s 15-year battle with dementia, which he viewed not as a burden for him but his new life’s work — a kind of spiritual practice that forced him to pay attention in new ways. Greg was also a master listener whose genuine interest and caring for other people fostered connection wherever he went.

The columnist David Brooks might well have been describing 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.” Greg’s greatest gift may be that he helped those around him tap into their best selves, the ripples of which will be felt for many years to come.