you may know, 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 drink scotch
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 thoughts about him.
suspect you too - to whom these reminiscences have found their
way - have a story or two you could tell about The Life and Times
of Farrell Toombs. I would love to hear them, and I am prepared
to mask this entirely selfish desire with a higher-sounding purpose,
to whit: I undertake to compile such accounts as come my way,
and get back to you with them. I am reachable by phone, fax, email
and even by letter.
here are some recollections to prime the pump.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
in all those places, times, and circles, he ever made an enemy,
I never got wind of it.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
Farrell turned to Dave that morning at the Bureau, "So what?"
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?
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:
and Master of my life,
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.
free to pass this along. Do get
in touch if you have stories to share.