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Living Life Fully and Joyfully: A Tribute to Greg Farrell

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    Scott Hartl

Gregory Roland Farrell, 84, of Brooklyn and Keene, NY, passed away peacefully in New York City on March 29, 2020, from complications associated with acute myeloid leukemia. A beloved friend, board member, and a founder of our organization, Greg led a truly remarkable life of purpose, adventure, and contribution. Greg was President of EL Education from our founding through 2008 and continuously served on the Board of Directors through 2020. Below are excerpted remarks that were made by Scott Hartl at a memorial service celebrating Greg’s life.  

A large part of Greg’s legacy lives in his role as an educational leader. Nearly 30 years ago, Greg founded EL Education with a remarkable group of co-conspirators. I was hired very early on and I’ve been doing some job with or for Greg, for almost 30 years.

It is hard to separate EL Education, the organization, from Greg Farrell, the person.

EL Education came into existence by winning a deeply competitive national call for “Break the Mold” ideas in U.S. education. The very first line of the proposal read: To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be a human being.

Greg loved this line, and he was quick to point out that it was contributed by his dear friend Tom James. For me, this beautiful language–that you will find painted on the walls of EL Education schools around the country today–always makes me think of Greg.

"Because if you are going to proclaim what it means to be a good human being, then the life of Greg Farrell is a mighty fine exemplar to point to."

Scott Hartl, CEO & Founding President, EL Education

EL Education’s proposal was one of only 11 chosen in that competition from a really strong pool of more than 850 proposals from all the big names in American education at that time.  And of the 11 models chosen 27 years ago, we are the only one still going strong today. Why is it that EL Education has persisted and flourished when others with more funding or more initial notoriety have not?

In part, it is what Greg has said–the root ideas of EL Education are really good and deeply values-based. However, I think that a big reason we’ve endured and flourished is that from the beginning Greg attracted remarkable people to work at EL. Greg would meet someone on a plane, or at a conference, and before long they were working with us. The people Greg attracted were consistently people with an unusually deep sense of mission and values. The quality of the people the Greg attracted, imbued EL with an unusual resilience, commitment, and depth that has served the organization well over the years. And through the hard times at EL–the particular quality of Greg’s buoyant and inviting life energy was able to keep us connected to why our work mattered.

This was Greg’s magic.

EL Education is now a nationally prominent school organization. We’ve grown from 10 schools at its founding to now touching half a million kids each year. The founders of EL set an aspirational goal–for EL to “get into the drinking water of US public education. And you did it, Greg: EL is now one of the most influential education organizations in this country, and there are EL schools in Australia, Rwanda, England, and India.

And in this time of societal crisis, the EL Education vision of schools is looked to as a model of hope. Greg always believed in the power of education to help create a better world and that students, even the young ones, can contribute meaningfully. Greg always believed in getting smart to do good

The core idea of EL Education has always been that academic development is inextricably linked to character development. Greg and EL have stayed committed to these beliefs over many years even when they were not popular ideas in the educational mainstream. Greg had an instinctual understanding of what educating the Whole Child meant. And today–Greg’s vision is now buttressed by a large and growing body of research and by thousands of successful schools–often the most sought after in their communities.

In the clarifying light of our current societal crisis, it is EL Education that is being looked to as a leading example of what schools can and should be if we are to heal and move forward. Greg’s educational legacy is a proud one. His vision and leadership have made a positive difference for millions of kids.

I know that Greg found “sparkling-eyed” joy in this work. When summarizing the educational vision of EL, Greg would often say these words:

"The idea is to put together really important and difficult work, with great joy in doing it."

Greg Farrell, Founding President, EL Education

Those are indeed mighty good words to live by for educators. They are words to live by for all of us as they describe a life well-lived and capture the essence of Greg’s spirit that has been so influential for so many of us for so long. Greg’s memory asks each of us to live life fully and joyfully.