In Memory of Greg Farrell (1935-2020)
“The idea is to put really important and difficult work together with great joy in doing it.”
EL Education mourns the passing of our Founding President and board member, Greg Farrell, and celebrates a remarkable life of purpose, adventure and contribution.
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 (formerly Expeditionary Learning) from our founding through 2008 and continuously served on the Board of Directors through 2020. Greg helped to launch our organization together with a group of visionary educators from the Harvard School of Education and Outward Bound, when this unlikely team put forth a winning proposal for the New American Schools competition for break the mold school designs in 1992. Their innovative proposal for “Expeditionary Learning” put students’ academic achievement and character development at the center of the way school ought to be. Nearly 30 years later, EL Education is thriving, serving more than 500,000 students annually with a broad vision of student success that joins character, academics, and contribution.
Life of Service
Greg Farrell was born on November 27, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois, son of Edward Farrell (a salesman) and Dorothy Farrell (a college admissions officer).
Greg attended Princeton University, where he received a bachelor's degree in English. After graduating from Princeton in 1957, Greg moved to Hawaii and taught ninth-grade English and speech at the Punahou School in Honolulu. Greg served as a private in the U.S. Army before returning to Princeton University to work as an assistant dean of admissions, and then became a reporter for The Trenton Times.
In 1964, Greg attended one of the first Outward Bound courses in the country, and it proved to be a transformative experience. Returning to Trenton, NJ to head the anti-poverty organization there, Greg arranged for scholarships for 30 young men from Trenton to attend Outward Bound courses the following year. From 1967-1970, Greg served as Assistant Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and was a visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton.
From 1970-1990, Greg served as Executive Director of the Fund for the City of New York, a private foundation and public charity established by the Ford Foundation to help improve the quality of life and government in New York City. During this time, among other accomplishments, he helped to found NYC Outward Bound Schools (our longstanding partner). When he left the Fund for the City of New York in May 1990, The New York Times devoted an editorial to the extraordinary distinction of Greg's contributions: “He leaves behind a strong, vibrant organization and a 20-year record of unique service to the city and its people.”
In 1990, Greg went to work for Outward Bound to lead an initiative to bring its educational and developmental insights, practices and programs to bear on cities and schools. That initiative gave a boost to many of Outward Bound’s city and school efforts, including the Harvard/Outward Bound Project, which led to the founding of EL Education (then known as Expeditionary Learning).
Legacy at EL
With Greg as President for the organization’s first fifteen years, EL grew from 10 original schools to more than 150 public schools, K-12, in urban and rural communities across the country. Greg was a charismatic and kind leader, whose personal qualities—his integrity, his compassion, his curiosity and joy in life—were a central part of what fueled EL’s positive culture and its success, and attracted many mission-driven educators to this work.
Greg’s personal ethic of service guided EL’s vision that students should be “getting smart to do good” for the world. EL’s original curriculum idea, the Learning Expedition, always included students using their learning to contribute to their communities and the world.
A hands-on leader, Greg took delight in being with teachers and students in classrooms across America—and indeed, the world—and hearing their stories. He traveled continually to spend time in every EL school he could visit, listening carefully to children and adults alike about what they were learning and what they valued.
After retiring, Greg guided EL as an active and engaged board member, finding joy in the continued growth and innovation of the organization and its school and district partners, ever an ambassador for EL’s mission. At 81, he joined EL staff, founding board members, educators, and other leaders “on the river” for an Outward Bound course, regaling his coursemates with the stories of EL’s founding.
Greg’s wife of 50 years, Catherine Farrell, a former professor and dean at La Guardia Community College in New York City, passed away in July 2019. Greg is survived by two sons, Andrew and Nick, daughters-in-law, Krista and Chloe, and two grandchildren, Cormac and Fallon Farrell.
A memorial celebrating Greg Farrell will be planned for later in the year, when we can gather in person.
In 2018, EL Education established the Greg Farrell Spirit of Service Award. If you would like to make a contribution to EL Education in Greg Farrell’s honor, you may do so here.
We know you will enjoy this 2017 interview with Greg: Slab Bacon and Tequila: The Ingredients for a Full Life (NationSwell)
Greg meant so much to so many of us. We invite you to leave a personal tribute to Greg here, and we will post it on this page. If you have any technical issues, please email email@example.com.
"Greg Farrell embodied a Buddha-like quality that opened hearts and inspired one to be kinder and more compassionate. He opened doors for me, introducing me to the beginnings of EL Education and trusting me to join the crew—the gift of a lifetime! I have only gratitude for having such as he in my life. May we all bring a bit of Greg along with us in the days ahead!"
"There is a special place in your soul for that mentor who guides you from college to your first job; Greg Farrell was mine. Greg took me on to develop a mentoring program based on the principles of Outward Bound. Greg believed anyone who overcame a challenge became someone new. He loved relationships of hands extended to climb. Greg passed away this week, and I feel the shared tremor of so many who have lost an irreplaceable star and guide, a model of a great life." (On Greg Farrell, Medium, 3/31/2020)
"Wherever I travel, I try my best to take a Greg Farrell approach—be patient and kind with everyone I meet, get to know new people and listen carefully to their stories, and if there are glitches with transportation, embrace them as part of the adventure. Greg is the only person I have ever met who regularly said, "Well, my flight was canceled but it was a great opportunity to explore the airport; I met some terrific people and learned a lot." Greg's kindness, grace and joy in life were a model that I aspire to emulate every day."
"Greg inspired generations of students and adults to love learning, to be kind, and to do good. His peaceful, joyful presence will be sorely missed but we are forever grateful for EL Education, the place where we feel at home with our tribe. Thank you, Greg."
"Greg was an influential mentor early in my career, allowing me to intern with him in the Garrison office basement in the formative years of EL. He made an indelible impression on me as an educator and human being -- a leader, a sage, a joyful warrior. I'll never forget him singing karaoke to "When I'm Sixty Four" on his 64th birthday, his impish grin, his glow. Thank you, Greg, for the gifts and guidance you have given to countless educators, leaders, and learners."
"I had the distinct pleasure of being in a raft for 5 days on the river with Greg. I have never up to that point and probably never will again get to know such a gentle, good human. On the trip all in our raft took on river names. When Greg was asked what he wanted his to be he responded, "Big Julie" a character out of Guys and Dolls. Big Julie left an incredible legacy and hundreds of people who were blessed to know him. I count myself among them. He is missed."
"I had the great fortune to work for Greg in the early 90's as part of the EL Education team tucked into a basement office in Harvard Square. Though based in New York, Greg was a frequent presence—attentive to all aspects of the work, supportive and challenging. As a mentor and colleague, he modeled the values he was bringing to life in Expeditionary Learning. He was a compassionate, attentive listener; he embodied joyful curiosity; he loved craftsmanship.
Later, I was even luckier to become a friend (quite a common experience!). I told Greg recently that I was so impressed with how many people he was in touch with, and the detail with which he remembered their lives. He gave a little shrug and said "I never like to let a good person go."
So many of us ache to let Greg go, but we also know with confidence that his light and love will go on in the lives and work of those touched by his presence."
"Over the years, Greg made many kind and supportive comments to me. At first, I was nervous and in awe that he even knew who I was, but I learned quickly how deeply he cared about the work each of us was doing at our schools. I think my favorite memory was the day in Detroit when I had the opportunity to tell Greg how proud we all were to work towards his vision for better schools. A vision that he carried from the start. All that's good in our schools can be traced back to him. I am honored to help undertake the important work necessary to continue his dream."
"Greg said a lot with his eyes. He was a wise thoughtful warm man, who was very good at being a good friend."
"When we were first starting our charter school in Pocatello, ID, we came across the EL model and were interested. We contacted EL Education, and before we knew it Greg came to one of our planning meetings. We were really just in the formative stages, and we didn't even have a place to meet, so we met at a local pub that was quiet and didn't mind us talking education for hours. (When I ran into him years later, he told me we were the only school he knew of that was planned in a bar!) We told him our vision for our school, and he told us we were a good fit for EL. We told him we didn't have any money to sign a contract with them—we didn't even have students at that point. He smiled kindly and said, "Don't worry—you will." He shared his expertise and was a great mentor. And he was right. We got the school started and when we had a bit of money at hand, we signed our contract with EL Education. That was 20 years ago and our school, the Pocatello Community Charter School, has continued to thrive under the EL model and the vision Greg shared with us all those years ago. I find myself quite sad to discover he has left this world, even though our paths haven't crossed in many, many years. I shall never forget his kindness and generosity."
"Greg came to Buffalo when our educational landscape was at a low point, and he lifted spirits in a talk he gave. He knew how to light up a room. He inspired connections and collaborative work that resulted in a group of us founding an EL charter school. This project made for the finest years of my career, and for remarkable experiences that move a community of educators and learners to this day, owing to his dedicated effort and joyfulness that contagiously spread. I'm so thankful that I was able to cross paths with him. His was absolutely a life well lived."
"I am so sorry to hear of the loss of Greg Farrell. I have taught the EL program for 3 consecutive years, and I must say: the EL curriculum provides instruction for students at all grade levels within a grade level. This says a lot about Mr. Farrell in terms of who he was an educator, as well as who he was as a person. Kudos to you, Mr. Farrell. You were a visionary-a professional-and most of all, a human being-who addressed a major social issue of our society while providing meaningful and helpful instruction to students!"
"This was in the last email I sent to Greg on his birthday. Everyone of us whose life he touched was blessed with his joyful love. My heart is sad but also grateful that I had the chance to know him."
"May his soul rest in peace. Deep condolences to the family."
"I first met Greg around 1992 when I directed an evaluation of Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound (as it was then called). I always thought I had a relatively open and daring attitude toward what schooling could and should be, but in working with Greg and the ELOB network, I was always left in the dust when he expressed his ideas and plans for what needed to happen in our schools. He was an ambitious educator with a vision that scoffed at the status quo in a kind, caring, and respectful way. In the course of that work, I got to meet his wife (whose name presently escapes me) and his sons and even got to go to one of his son, Nick's, basketball games in Brooklyn. Whenever he would call me at home to talk about the work I was doing, my wife always knew I was talking to Greg because she could hear his voice project most anywhere in our home even on our pathetic little telephone. His voice was as substantial as his integrity. The current prominence and ongoing success of EL is a reflection of his vision, effort and commitment to social justice. I guess he's now off on a new expedition. I'm sure he'll welcome the adventure."
"Every crew needs a person at the helm and charting the course - for me, Greg played that role for EL. With over half a century of personal contact and proud to have played a small role with Greg, Meg, and Diana in the process of getting EL launched, my admiration for what Greg has accomplished could not be more profound. Watching an idea grow, seeing so many join the crew, admiring his steady hand and quiet sharing of leadership - legions of crew members will miss Greg and will celebrate what he has helped to accomplish."
"Greg brought his special brand of magic to everyone he came into contact with. But the secret of his magic was deceptively simple: be curious, listen, act with integrity, be compassionate, explore! I first met Greg in the early 2000s when I was in graduate school at NYU. It was there that the Dean of the School of Education, Tom James, met with me to point me to leaders in the field of experiential education; Greg was one of those leaders, and I began to deeply immerse myself in learning about his work and the work of NYC Outward Bound Schools and EL Education. Several years later, he contributed his insights as a thought-partner to a book I was writing, and soon thereafter he shephered me into my first role as a School Designer at NYC Outward Bound Schools. Greg had a spark that ignited the best in so many people, and he leaves a legacy of engaged learners impacted by his vision. In Outward Bound, we say "Leave No Trace," to take from the woods what we carry in (e.g.: wrappers). Greg leaves not only a trace, but a SUBSTANTIVE imprint—which makes us all luckier and better off; I am grateful to have benefited from his love."
"Greg Farrell was the finest person I have had the pleasure of knowing. He was devoted to bringing out the best in people and for me that is about as good as it gets. We will miss him, but how lucky we were to have him as long as we did."
"When you meet somebody like Greg, you think, 'I want to be more like him.' Not in a superficial way, but deep in your character. Being more like Greg means being kind, being humble, being curious, deflecting credit, pausing to appreciate, laughing a lot, never complaining. Having known Greg for 25 years, I hope I have become more like him in those ways. He is leaving an enormous legacy of accomplishments, but I think he is leaving a bigger legacy of influencing people."
"When we first envisioned MELS over ten years ago, there were a handful of people that were instrumental in the founding of the school. Greg Farrell was one of those people.
Before MELS had even opened, we were in Baltimore for the EL National Conference and decided to go to a restaurant in the Inner Harbor (don't judge!) to grab a quick bite between sessions. We sat down next to a man who was by himself, but struck up a conversation with us, telling us about his son who was teaching at a school in the Caribbean, and asking us about our proposed school and what we thought about education. He was immediately engaging and seemed intensely and genuinely interested in these two guys who didn't even have a school yet. We later realized that the "Greg" we were talking to was Greg Farrell, who at the time was the President of Expeditionary Learning.
Almost from our inception, Greg was a huge supporter of MELS, and for our teachers that were fortunate enough to meet him, they saw that he was one of the kindest human beings you could ever meet and a walking inspiration in the EL network of schools and American education in general. Greg was very much at the heart of the practices that MELS is built upon and was our friend.
We will certainly continue to aspire to be the leaders that he would want us to be and we hope to honor his legacy in our work."
"One of the things I loved best about Greg was his curiosity about everything....people, concepts, places, practices....everything. He asked great questions and then he really listened. He listened as if I was the most interesting person in the world....and I know he extended that to everyone. At EL National Conference, he didn't always choose master classes facilitated by well known EL schools. He would often choose a class that interested him, facilitated by teachers from a school new to our network, and then just show up with the mind and heart of a learner. I've heard so many teachers say, 'Oh my God, Greg Farrell came to my master class!'"
"I met Greg at a conference of the Association for Experiential Education in 1993. I didn't realize at the time that meeting Greg would chart the course of my life for the next 25 years. Of all the things I admired about him, of all he taught me about education and life, about curiosity and adventure, the most enduring is the way he loved and cared for Cathy. I'll never forget singing together (Cathy too!) in the Adirondacks. I am grateful for his model of what it means to lay down your life in love."
"On behalf of his friends in Bermuda, I share our thanks for his valuable advice and good friendship. We had the good fortune to meet through the kind introduction of Rafe Parker who was leading Sea Education Asoociation (SEA) at the time. With input from Roland Barth, Rafe and Greg we conceived the educational youth development programs used for stv Spirit of Bermuda. These programs were well respected from the very first year, gaining the sail training program of the year award in the inaugural year! Greg's advise then continued in helping Bermuda to consider the greater use of experiential education in the local public schools. Greg advised a committee on education reform under the direction of Dr. David Hopkins. I had the distinct honor and pleasure of working closely with Greg on all of these initiatives and always found him to be enthusiastic, wise, helpful, practical and engaged. He opened the door wide to his skilled associates at ELS (now EL Education) and followed up regularly. Greg was an absolute pleasure to work with. His communication skills were superb, at all levels, from Goverment Ministers to principals, teachers, parents and students. Greg, you have left the world a far better place and be assured that your legacy of helping to develop and implement EL will live on. Heartfelt condolences from your friends and educational colleagues in Bermuda. Rest in peace dear friend and may your SPIRIT shine."
"I was deeply saddened to hear of the news of Greg's passing. Though it had been years since I last saw or spoke to him, the world was safer, kinder, more creative and inspired knowing that he was here. When speaking with him, he had the unique ability to make you feel like you were the most important person around and I always felt as if I had been given a treasured gift through his quiet words and bright eyes. I am so grateful for those encounters and keep his family in my prayers."
"I first met Greg in 1992 when I was a young staff member at New American Schools and EL was an idea submitted in the form of a proposal to NAS. I was absolutely captivated by the vision of EL and even more captivated by the team that brought it to life, with Greg leading the charge. In about 1993, Greg invited me on a river trip on the Green River that in many ways changed the course of my life, as it pulled me towards the West. Despite many moves and miles between us, Greg and I managed to stay in touch, which was a true gift to me. His incredible sense of humor and story telling, his way of looking you right in the eye and his hearty laugh are right there with me and always will be."
As I walked in the woods this morning, I thought a tribute to you should be in the present tense, as if you were still with us because, my friend, you really are still with us. You are imprinted on all of us and we are better people because of it. You have a sorcerer’s ability to leave a mark of love on everyone with whom you came into contact. Indeed, we are called to love our neighbors, and you, Greg, are one of the few master craftsmen in that department.
When we met so many years ago, I was struck by the fact that you carried a journal with you. Always a learner, always believing that everyone has something to offer, you are regularly standing at the ready to write down profound messages, or maybe just doodle. And I do believe you get high marks for active listening, regularly smiling and nodding approvingly when listening. You so often linger after meetings to reflect on what you notice and wonder, regularly with a smile and encouraging word. And you often notice things that I don’t, causing me to think more deeply. And sometimes you notice quirky and mischievous things that are hysterical. At least I think you think they are because you start giggling about them before you finish your sentence. Thank you for knowing that humor is a gift from God that you can give others, Greg.
Your storytelling is top shelf too. It invites me in and I often feel like you are speaking only to me. How do you do that? I’ve been working on that storytelling bit and trying to get better at it myself but I have a long way to go yet. Thanks for being a good model for the rest of us, Greg.
And then there are those moments when you embrace Kurt Hahn’s “Plus est en Vous” approach to life and, before I know it, you have me volunteering to do something that is WAY out of my comfort zone. “How did that happen?”, I ask myself. Maybe it’s because it is so hard to say “no” to you. And then, later on, I think about how great I feel for having accomplished so much more than I thought I could. Always a loving teacher you are. Thanks for pushing me, Greg.
Thank you for sending me a letter two weeks ago that said, “Hi Tom, Just maintaining contact. Why don’t you use this calendar to fix some dates when you’ll visit me in the Adirondacks?" I’m sorry that I haven’t taken the time to visit the yurt in the Adirondacks, always enticed by the thought of sipping scotch and eating carrots with you. I desperately want to take you up on that offer my friend. Thanks for thinking of me, Greg.
As you know, you and I share a love for bacon. Life is better with bacon. Tequila, not so much, but yes to bacon. Thanks for having good taste, Greg.
Thank you for believing in me, Greg. I think I speak for everyone who knows you when I say thank you. You have made our world better because of all that you are. I miss you, Greg.
Love to you and yours, Tom"
Greg Farrell: "A Man for All Seasons"
Human being and leader extraordinaire
Best hearty laugh - especially after hearing a good joke
Paul Bunyan strong and tender-hearted
'Sean Connery' handsome
Champion of profound values
Saw through bs materialism
We count ourselves blessed to have spent precious times with Greg. We loved him and will miss him terribly.
"Such a kind and gentle soul—you will be missed dearly Greg...that laugh...that smile...that heart—sleep well my friend....see you on the other side."
"Greg, you are my forever mentor in terms of "way of being." Because of your influence, I connect more deeply with others, drawing them out and listening with all my senses. I pay greater attention to the subtleties of nature, noticing with awe and wonder. I ask more questions of myself and the universe, pleased with the never-ending road of curiosity. I take more risks, knowing that the "worst" outcome will be unanticipated learning and more stories to laugh over, eventually. Thank you not only for all the ways you've contributed to making the world more meaningful and joyful for so many, but also for your eternal sparkle of vitality in your resonant laugh, your twinkly eye, your ability to truly and deeply be present in every moment. Here are the two stanzas from an E.E. Cummings poem that made us both chortle with glee and say YES the last time we read together. They seem fitting now.
'(While you and i have lips and voices which are for kissing and to sing with who cares if some one-eyed son of a bitch invents an instrument to measure Spring with?
each dream nascitur, is not made...) why then to Hell with that: the other; this since the thing perhaps is to eat flowers and not to be afraid.'
With great love to the Farrell family. Thanking you for sharing Greg with his wider "family" all these years. My heart is with you."
"Greg Farrell was one of the best people I’ve ever known. In truth, I’d be hard pressed to name someone who I consider to be his match. As I write this, I am finding it impossible to contemplate a world without him. But I take solace in knowing that the world is so much better because of him and that each of us who had the privilege of spending time with him has been immeasurably enriched and will do our best going forward to honor his legacy. (Remembering Greg Farrell, 4/2/2020)