Bill stops by our house for a visit
Christmas is a time when many of us get together with family and celebrate. However, around this time of year we also experience some sadness, as we think about past Christmas’s with family and friends who are no longer with us. Today I am missing my good friend Bill Farris, who died last December.

Bill was not a nursing home resident — he lived independently and was sharp as a tack until his death at 95 years old. I always felt a little awkward talking about Friends Across the Ages around him, because I wanted to follow it up with “But just so you know, Allison and I really really like you, not just because you’re old!” Guess I’m neurotic about stuff like that. I didn’t want him to think we just hung out with him as a charitable work, but I could never find an appropriate way to express that to him. Hopefully he knew.

Allison and I both wrote reflections about Bill shortly after he died. We never posted them anywhere, but it seemed like an appropriate time to do that now. Since they were remarkably similar anyway, I’ve combined the two into one reflection below.

Meeting Dr. Farris

We met Hansford W. “Bill” Farris five years ago, when we bought our current house from him and his wife Vera, as they downsized and moved to The Village. 3-year-old Peter charmed him and Vera so much that they decided to accept our offer on the house, even though there was another better offer at the time. A few months later, Annie was born on October 7, 2009. Bill’s birthday was October 7, 1919. They shared a birthday, exactly 90 years apart, so we called them “birthday buddies”.

Vera died a few months later, unfortunately. Bill’s love for her never did, and he spoke about her often; he called her his “little miracle”. We had the great privilege of becoming good friends with Bill over the past 5 years. He was a true gentleman and a scholar in every sense of those words. Incredibly kind, courteous, intelligent, compassionate, astute, and witty. He was one of those people who inspire us to say, “I want to be just like him when I grow up.”

Call me Bill

For a year or two we always called him “Dr. Farris”. Then one day he sat Steve down and said, “Steve, I need to have a talk with you. If we’re going to be friends, you going to need to call me Bill!”. And he was right, it did make a difference. Steve felt more comfortable just calling him up out of the blue and saying, “Hey Bill, how ya doin’?” He even wanted the kids to call him Bill – we compromised at “Dr. Bill”. (By the way, you might have speculated that his middle name is “William”, but it’s not — we’ll leave that story for another time).

Bill was a retired professor of electrical engineering, but he never really retired from teaching in the broader sense. From time to time he would make an unscheduled stop by our house, to drop off a math problem or two for Steve. Steve learned more about the Fibonacci Sequence, the Golden Ratio, and Euler’s Formula, than he ever learned in college. Bill taught us how in 1969 “We went to the moon on a slide rule”, and how the invention of the Magnetron (used in radar) turned the tide in World War II, and forever changed engineering education. And it wasn’t just like reading about it in a textbook, he lived this stuff! Steve doesn’t see engineering as just a job any more, and is proud to identify himself as an engineer because of Bill.

Steve would occasionally ride his bike over to Bill’s new apartment at The Village. Sometimes we would watch his old videos – he had a great series of videos, produced in the 1970s, that featured a youthful Bill Farris discussing the role of the Engineer in society. There was one episode about how a junkyard separates old cars into various elements for recycling, and Peter enjoyed this one.

The “100th Birthday Party”

We always had Bill over for a birthday lunch, except for his 95th, when we came to him, since he had stopped driving. (We called that lunch the “100th birthday party”, since he and Annie were a combined 100 years old). After each lunch, a homemade thank you card from Bill would swiftly arrive in the mail a day or two later. He had an impressive command of the English language (unusual for an engineer). He was so careful in his use of language, and so skilled at finding just the right word to express every nuance of what he meant to convey, whether in writing or in speaking. Allison wasn’t surprised to find out they shared a favorite book: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.

Bill died peacefully at his apartment, just two months after the “100th birthday party”. His health and mobility had been deteriorating, much to his frustration. One afternoon he decided it was his time. He took a shower, laid down in bed, and closed his eyes. After his death, his daughter Diane found among Bill’s possessions a birthday card for Peter. Peter’s birthday was not until December 22nd, but Bill had made a card for him ahead of time.

We feel so fortunate, SO blessed, to have known Hansford W. Farris. One thing Allison and I are certain of: it was not by chance this wonderful gentleman and scholar came into our lives. Bill, we will never forget you, and each time we celebrate Annie’s birthday, we will remember to celebrate yours as well. We will take care of your house, and will try to share with our children some of the lessons we learned from you. As sad as we are to lose you, it cheers us to think that you are back together with your beloved Vera, just in time for Christmas. We love you, Bill.

The “100th Birthday Party”