By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 37th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
If ever there existed a guy whom one would consider a sure-fire-bet NOT to become Orange Coast College’s president, that guy would have to have been Gene Farrell.
Gene appeared to stand a better shot of becoming Bishop of Rome, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or founding dean of the UCI law school!
But occasionally the Fickle Finger of Fate intercedes and designates an unlikely hero, changing the course of history. That’s kinda what happened in the following situation.
Why was Gene such an improbable candidate for Orange Coast College’s CEO post? It WASN’T because he lacked the requisite talent and skills. He was, in fact, brimming with intellect and strong leadership qualities. Rather, it was that nefarious previous allegiance.
Gene, you see, was a Golden West College partisan…a Rustler for Life. GWC is OCC’s ancient, primordial nemesis. Sure, we’ve been facing Fullerton and Santa Ana colleges – and even San Bernardino – on the field of combat for more years than we’ve faced GWC, but, in 1966, a deep sleep befell Orange Coast College’s campus and the Rustlers were riven from our side. Bone of our bone. Everyone knows that internecine conflict is the cruelest sort of competition. Farrell, a GWC coach and administrator for nearly two decades, oozed Golden West Green and Gold from every pore. He loved to beat the Pirates…oh, how he enjoyed kicking his archrival’s tail.
Nah, he’d never wind up at OCC (except, maybe, to unfurl the Rustler banner before greasing the Pirate flagpole!).
It’s unthinkable that an Irishman would consent to become an Orangeman. Gene Farrell assuming the presidency at OCC would be tantamount to Tommy Lasorda leaving the Dodgers to manage the New York Yankees, or Mike Scioscia departing the Dodgers to manage the Angels…uh, well, there’s a prime example of Fickle Finger of Fate intervention!
Farrell joined the Golden West College faculty in 1969, at the age of 32. He was a physical education instructor and also an assistant football, baseball and track and field coach.
Dick Tucker, OCC’s head football coach from 1962-85 – and later the college’s athletic director – faced Farrell many times on the field of battle, and respected him.
“He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever known, and a great football coach,” Tucker once told me. “As far as Gene was concerned, there was nothing better than beating Orange Coast, and nothing worse than losing to them. He was as intense as they come.”
Though a teddy bear by nature, Gene can occasionally demonstrate a flash of anger. Early in his career that trait would sporadically slip out. Like during his first year at GWC when he taught an evening class in the college’s gymnasium. Dr. Tom Blakely, district director of the Evening College, made an unannounced classroom visit. Now Tom, you must understand, could at times be prickly…even nasty. Shortly after entering the gym the highly opinionated Blakely uttered a derogatory comment about Farrell’s teaching style, in front of the entire class. Gene, young and impetuous – and also physically imposing – wasn’t about to take that behavior from anyone. He didn’t have the slightest clue who Blakely was, but he became so agitated with the insult that he chased the administrator out of the building and halfway across campus. Gene was summoned to GWC president Dudley Boyce’s office the following morning and admonished never to chase Dr. Blakely again.
Actually, Boyce thought it rather funny, but couldn’t let Gene know that.
Over the years, the OCC and GWC football staffs have been regularly accused of spying on one another before the annual “Big Game.” In the 1970s, one OCC assistant would park his car on McFadden St., across from the GWC campus, and watch practice surreptitiously. What were the Rustlers putting into their playbook for the Pirates? A pair of Golden West coaches – one being the aforementioned Mr. Farrell – admitted years later to peeping in on a Pirate practice through binoculars from their fourth-floor perch in the unfinished OCC Library (now Watson Hall). Tensions always ran high the week of the Golden West-Orange Coast donnybrook.
During the early ‘70s there was such animosity and friction between the two rivals that Tucker attempted to cancel the annual football brouhaha. At the time, the schools were in different conferences and played only by mutual consent. Coast District chancellor, Dr. Norman E. Watson, would have none of it, however. Norm stepped in to put the kibosh on the request. He realized the great PR value of having the two district rivals meet on an annual basis.
“When Gene came to Orange Coast as an administrator in 1984 I thought, ‘He’ll never be a Pirate!’” Tucker told me. “But, you know what, I was wrong. He became one of the most dedicated Pirates ever. He left an imprint on this place that will be felt for years and years.”
Gene was just as surprised as Tucker when he wound up at OCC. He didn’t pursue the opportunity. Neither was the move inscribed as a goal on page two of his Personal Career Plan.
“One evening in 1986 I received a phone call at home from the chancellor of the district, Dave Brownell,” Gene recalls with a smile. Farrell was in his 17th year at Golden West College and was serving as director of business services. He was perfectly happy with the direction and trajectory of his career.
“Dave said, ‘Gene, you’re a team player. I need your help with a problem.’ Mike Webster, OCC’s vice president of administrative services, was moving to the district to become vice chancellor. OCC had a new president – Dr. Donald Bronsard – who really knew nothing about school financing in California. Dave asked me to move from Golden West to Orange Coast.
“I almost dropped the phone.”
Again, you must keep in mind the Tommy Lasorda/Dodgers-to-Yankees analogy.
Farrell had serious reservations about accepting the OCC assignment. The Pirates, after all, were the Rustlers’ most hated rivals. Gene would have to drastically alter his perspective on life. Suddenly the grass was blue, the sky was green and tomatoes tasted like nectarines.
“I accepted the move – what choice did I have? – but I was really nervous,” he confides. “I wasn’t sure I could ever fit in at Coast.”
Gene arrived on Orange Coast College’s campus on July 5, 1986. On his second day on the job Brownell called him on the phone again.
“Gene we’ve got a problem. You must cut $1.2 million from OCC’s budget…by Friday!”
“I thought, ‘You set me up, and I’m going to get my tail whipped!’” Farrell laughs. “I immediately had a problem with my new OCC colleagues. Not only was I the Golden West guy, but I was the Golden West guy who was about to slash their budgets.”
During his first week he met with the campus’ 40-member Budget Committee.
“We met for about five hours dealing with the immediate budget crisis and cuts, and boy did I learn a lot about OCC and its people during that meeting. It takes a long time to figure this place out, but that one meeting was extraordinarily helpful to me. I was introduced to the key players. The informal structure here is very complex, and it takes a while for an outsider to decipher the code.
“There’s no manual to explain how things run at OCC, but everyone knows what to do. When something needs to be done, people step up and get it done. You never have to worry about that. During my first few days on the job I was impressed by what I saw. These people were smart, passionate and committed to their programs and to the college.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, Gene crept from one pool of darkness to another as he approached a stretch of the Berlin Wall not far from Checkpoint Charlie. With a searchlight flooding an area a hundred yards away, he prepared to scale the wall and come in out of the cold.
Gene’s secretary was Marie Grams, a longtime OCC staff member, who’d worked in Counseling and Admissions for many years.
“She was great. Marie was very protective of me, and she told me where all the bodies were buried. She was the most organized person I’ve ever worked with. She blocked out an hour in my schedule every week so that I could go out on campus and meet people in departments that I never otherwise would have visited. She insisted that I keep to that schedule. It was the best thing I could have done.”
Gene says people on campus, at first, tended to keep their distance from him.
“They were suspicious. I didn’t have many friends here. I’d walk over to the Student Center, grab a cup of coffee and sit at a table…alone. No one wanted to sit with me.”
For a while, it was Lonesomeville for Coach Gene. He pined for Rustlertown.
Then, one day, Jim McIlwain, an administrator in OCC’s Athletic Department at the time, walked up to Farrell at his empty table and said, “You look like a guy who could use a friend.” That changed everything.
“We ended up becoming the best of friends because of that kind gesture,” Gene says. Later, when Farrell became a vice chancellor at the District Office, McIlwain replaced him as OCC’s vice president of Administrative Services. Jim was Farrell’s right-hand man when he became president.
“Jim must have told people on campus that I wasn’t as evil as I appeared because I began to make lots of friends.” All of a sudden Orange Coast College opened its arms and embraced the ex-Rustler.
Farrell enjoyed working for president Don Bronsard, who, frankly, was not universally liked on campus. Despite his fiercely competitive nature as a coach, Gene gets along with anyone and everyone.
“Don had a reputation for being tough on his staff, but I actually enjoyed working for him. I’d always been an assistant coach, so I was used to working for a demanding head coach. Ray Shackleford – the head football coach at Golden West for many years – was a tough guy to work for and he chewed me out a number of times. I never let that bother me. We were office mates for a dozen years and he never once gave me a compliment. Bronsard didn’t seem all that difficult to me.
“Don had lots of redeeming qualities. He was a fun guy to talk with. There were times when we’d sit alone in his office and laugh our fannies off. We could also be brutally honest with each other when we had to.”
Farrell admired Bronsard’s keen intellect.
“He was smart and quick, and had bright ideas. But he was also overly guarded. He deeply distrusted the District Office. He just never caught on to the Coast culture, as much as we tried to tutor him. He didn’t want to join the parade that had been going on on this campus for more than 40 years. He wanted his own parade. That didn’t work, and it ultimately sank his ship.”
In 1988, Coast District chancellor, Dr. Al Fernandez, asked Gene to go to the District Office as interim vice chancellor of human resources.
“Al had me in his office and, frankly, he intimidated me,” Gene recalls. Few human beings on this planet intimidate Gene Farrell. “He told me that he wanted me to serve as interim vice chancellor. I wouldn’t be allowed to apply for the position, however.
“Well, I didn’t want the job. I knew nothing about human resources. I also didn’t want to leave OCC. I’d fallen in love with the place during my two years there. So I told him, ‘Dr. Fernandez, I think I’m going to apply for the position, so I can’t serve as interim.’ I had no intention of applying, of course, but that seemed the easiest way out.”
Fernandez nodded and dismissed Farrell.
“I got to my car and realized that I’d just done one of the dumbest things of my life,” Gene says. “I walked back into the chancellor’s office and said, ‘Dr. Fernandez, I’d like to take that assignment.’”
Farrell left OCC’s campus and would not return for 14 years.
He was interim vice chancellor for human resources for three months, and then took on the additional assignment as interim vice chancellor for administrative services. A few months later Fernandez asked Gene to apply for the vice chancellor of administrative services position. He did so, and landed the job.
“I really didn’t want to be there, but Al was persuasive. I still preferred being on a campus.”
Three years into his tenure as vice chancellor, Farrell requested that Fernandez reassign him to a district campus.
“Al was an incredible guy and he knew how to play his cards…but he always played them one card at a time,” Farrell says. “I told him, ‘I can’t help you unless you show me the cards.’ Al didn’t want me to leave, so he began to confide everything to me after that. Knowing his plan really helped me to be more effective in supporting him.
“When Al retired in 1993 I was very sad.”
Bill Vega, president of Coastline Community College for eight years, became the new Coast District chancellor.
“Hiring Bill was one of the smartest things the District ever did,” Gene says. “He was an incredible guy with a very different take on things. Al would send me out to the campuses to be the bad guy. That was my role, and I was pretty good at it. I’d deliver the bad budget news.
“Bill said to me early on, ‘Gene, people don’t want to hear bad news. You’re never going out as the bad guy again. You’re going to give them the situation in terms that they can understand, and then you’re going to tell them what we’re doing about the situation.’
“His plan changed my life. I learned that people will accept bad news if we tell them why we’re in the situation in the first place, and how we’re going to get out of it.”
Gene became a master at communicating budget permutations. He was highly respected by staff members on every Coast District campus. When Gene spoke, everyone listened. He understood things that none of the rest of us could possibly fathom, and, despite our lack of understanding, his explanations always made sense.
A community college product himself, Gene attended Compton College and was a Compton football player. He went on to play three years of football at California State University at Long Beach, and earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees. He did additional post-graduate work at Long Beach, Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton.
After serving as a high school history and geography teacher, and football and wrestling coach, Gene joined Golden West College’s faculty in 1969. In addition to teaching in the physical education department, and serving as an assistant football, baseball and track and field coach, he was Golden West’s head wrestling coach for one season.
A tough no-nonsense offensive line coach – who was respected and loved by his players – it was obvious to everyone that Gene was a natural-born leader. He was at once intense, demanding, funny, approachable, and a superb teacher. Blarney Stone or no, it was abundantly obvious that he had the gift of the gab. Farrell was the GWC athletic director for two years, from 1980-82, and served as the college’s associate director of business services from 1982-84. He was director of business services from 1984-86.
Gene moved to Orange Coast College’s campus in 1986 to take over for Mike Webster as dean of administrative services.
“Orange Coast College is a most interesting place, I really can’t describe it,” Farrell muses. “It has the most unique and incredible culture. OCC has served as a model for a lot of other schools. Most schools aspire to be like OCC…but most aren’t.”
Webster took an administrative post with the University of California at Irvine in 1988, and Gene took over his position at the District. He was responsible for budget development and management, and for facilities planning.
Gene elected to retire in 2000, at the age of 63.
“Within two weeks I realized that I wasn’t ready to hang it up,” he said. “I was too young to retire, and had no clue as to what I wanted to do with my life. I missed the routine of getting up in the morning and going to work. I’m a card-carrying member of the ‘Guilt Generation.’ I felt guilty that I wasn’t working.”
Following his retirement, Farrell worked for a year and a half as a consultant with the Ventura Community College District, and spent a year consulting with Long Beach City College.
Margaret Gratton announced her retirement as OCC’s president in March of 2002. A nationwide search for a new president was launched later that spring. Gratton retired in July, and Gene was asked by Vega to step in and serve as the college’s interim president.
“’Gene, you owe me,’ Bill said in a telephone call,” Farrell recalls. “‘I want you to be interim president at OCC. It’ll only be for eight months.’ I thought, ‘that’ll be fun,’ so I accepted.”
After reviewing applications that summer, the presidential search committee decided to shut down its search and re-advertise the position in the fall. The second presidential search closed on January 31, 2003.
After reviewing the second batch of candidates, the search committee recommended to the chancellor and the Coast District Board of Trustees that Farrell be offered the position. The Academic Senate and union concurred.
“The search committee unanimously agreed that having a president who is knowledgeable about the college, the district and the state budget processes will be critical over the next two years as the college grapples with this disastrous economic situation,” said Dr. John D. Renley, Coast District vice chancellor of human resources. “Farrell will not have to face a steep learning curve on these issues, and can instead draw upon his extensive background to make difficult budget decisions and to develop the new facilities and academic master plans that will determine the future of Orange Coast College.”
And that’s exactly what Gene did. He officially became OCC’s eighth president.
Orange Coast has now had nine presidents, and each has brought unique skills and perspectives to the post.
“When you think about it, if you look at the presidents chronologically, each does a complete 180 when compared to the previous president,” Gene says. “Dave Grant was completely different than Don Bronsard, and Margaret Gratton was completely different than Dave Grant. Margaret and I were 180 degrees apart.
“But there’s been a thread of excellence and consistency between all nine, and that comes through loud and clear when you look at the total picture. I think it’s been a real strength for this college.”
During his first year as president, Farrell was approached in the quad by an OCC English professor.
“Gene, why are you always smiling?” she asked suspiciously. “Do you know something we don’t?”
“I laughed,” Gene says. “Faculty and staff members were always supportive while I was here – and very much involved – and I truly appreciated that involvement, and enjoyed my working relationship with them. They were comfortable enough to be completely candid with me.”
When Gene was offered the permanent presidency in 2003, he requested a two-year contract rather than the customary three. His plan was to retire (for the second time) in 2005. He ended up serving as Coast’s president for just under three years.
“Coming back to Orange Coast College in 2002 was great therapy for me,” he says. “I had a wonderful ride as president. OCC does everything with class. People like to be associated with a winner…and Coast is a winner. We’re always playing for the championship. Our employees spend their careers here, and take pride in the place. They don’t tell their friends, ‘I work at a community college.’ They say, with great pride, ‘I work at Orange Coast College.’
“My three years as OCC’s president served as the summit of my 34-year career with the Coast District. OCC is a fantastic place, and I had an opportunity to spend quality time with students, faculty and staff.”
Orange Coast College’s master plan was developed under Farrell’s watch, and is one of his enduring legacies.
“Together, we dug out of a financial mess and we developed an impressive campus master plan that will take the college well into its future.”
The master plan contains extensive and integrated components that focus on academics, technology and campus facilities. The college is currently in the midst of a $300-million building campaign. Master plan projects include a new library, new health sciences building, major infrastructure renovation, and a huge new classroom building.
“When I first came to OCC as vice president in 1986 the campus was in a terrible state of disrepair,” he says. “I looked around and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we have so much work to do.’ But we needed money and there was nothing available. We thought, ‘If we could just build this; if we could just remodel that.’ It was so frustrating.”
Then came the passage of Ballot Measure C, 16 years later – under Gene’s watch as president. The bond measure provided OCC with more than $200 million for construction.
“For nearly 30 years the campus had gone without any major construction,” Gene says. “It’s so exciting to see what’s taking place at OCC right now. The whole place is changing before our eyes. We’ve upgraded the athletic facilities and now have the best community college football stadium and fitness complex in the country.
“The new Library, which opens in January, is the most incredible building I think I’ve ever seen. It’ll be a magnet for students, and will be the prettiest building on campus. Many classrooms have been remodeled and upgraded. The Lewis Center remodel and the new Consumer and Health Sciences Building will be spectacular.
“The campus quad is prettier today than I’ve ever seen it.”
And all of that stands as a testament to Farrell’s leadership.
“When we did the master plan I was excited to see it come together but I was also a little sad. I knew I probably wouldn’t live long enough to see all of it come to fruition…and I so wanted to see the final result. But I’ve been fortunate to see a lot take place thus far, and it’s been a huge thrill.
“I return to the campus frequently to watch the progress.”
When Gene prepared for his second retirement he told his staff, in no uncertain terms, that he did NOT want a retirement dinner, party or roast. Well, that wasn’t going to fly. He simply expected to clean out his desk on a Friday and slip out the back door of his president’s suite one final time. Not on your life, Geno!
He was led from his office late one morning by a couple of administrators ostensibly to inspect a repair project taking place in Peterson Gym. He was met in the foyer by a crowd of 300 OCC students, faculty, staff members and administrators. Gene was given an official OCC letterman’s jacket, and a huge barbecue luncheon was served in his honor. Gene loved the event! He was animated, excited and very touched.
The college was not deprived of its chance to honor its “Favorite Son.”
Gene put his stamp on OCC in the 1970s…when the “big uglies” – his Golden West College offensive linemen – tore holes in the Pirate defense. He applied an even bigger stamp, however, in 2002-05. What you see developing on campus today – and the way the campus will look in 2057 – will largely be the result of Gene Farrell’s vision and hard work.
And check out this irony of ironies: it took a former Rustler to enable the Pirates to fulfill their ultimate destiny. Gene’s a history buff…and perhaps will indulge one final Carnett analogy. Our situation is much like that of the little Corsican of minor Italian nobility (di Buonaparte) who went off to Paris and led France to victories on the battlefield and unparalleled national glory. What man would dare utter the blasphemy that Napoleon wasn’t a Frenchman…or that Gene Farrell isn’t a Pirate?
In the grand scheme of things, what difference does it make, anyway…Pirate…Rustler? All for one and one for all. (Ooops, wrong swashbuckler!) But the Pirate and Rustler are much the same, with only nuanced differences. They live similar lifestyles – ghastly personal hygiene with frequent bouts of thievery and mayhem – but in different geographic milieus.
I would put forth the following subtle distinction: a Rustler is a landlubberly Pirate in baggy chaps, boots and a bad cowboy hat. Pirates chase galleons, laden with gold doubloons, over the high seas and fire shots across many bows; feast on Pirate grub and grog, with dirty beards and greasy hands and forearms, while singing lusty, manly songs; and land on exotic islands to explore ocean caves, climb roaring waterfalls and dig up buried treasure on pristine palm-fringed beaches. Their mates, the Rustlers, by contrast, get tangled in rolled barbed wire surrounding parched subsistence farms (as they attempt to get a lasso around Bessie who’s serenely masticating buttercups in her paddock); subsist on stringy, blackened prairie dog meat; and stoke their campfires with meadow muffins.
Pirates…Rustlers…we all live romantic existences!
But, seriously folks, getting back to the topic of this column: Orange Coast College is becoming what it shall become largely because of Gene Farrell’s incredible influence and tenacity. His foresight has been matchless.
The former Rustler has become one of the greatest Pirates of them all!
WE GET LETTERS….
I enjoyed your tribute to Tom Garrison (“Dr. Tom Garrison: Authentic, Resolute, Passionate!” Orange Slices, Sept. 13). He is truly a gift to OCC and an outstanding educator. I join in your tribute to him. It's hard to believe he's a grandfather!
OCC Professor of Counseling Services (1964-95)