Editor’s note: This Chester County Leadership profile of Commissioner Terence Farrell was originally published on August 1st, 2015.
When Terence Farrell won his first county commissioner election in 2007, he had to defeat at least one of the two well-prepared women, both with better name recognition, in the Republican primary. His second place finish in that race, between first place finisher incumbent Carol Aichele and third place finisher Sandy Moser, just 1,100 votes behind Farrell, was enough to win a coveted spot on November’s General Election ballot and ultimately one of three county commissioner seats.
Eight years later, and up for election for a third term in November, Commissioner Farrell talked with VISTA Today recently about his memories growing up in Lincoln University in southern Chester County, going to college in Minnesota just as the Vietnam War and the civil rights battles of the 1960’s were heating up, the impact his parents and former Chester County Republican Chairman Alan Novak had on his life, and the two pieces of advice that helped him win that 2007 county commissioner primary and keep him in front of Chester County and on top of his game.
VISTA Today: Where did you grow up, Commissioner?
I was born in Plainfield, New Jersey but grew up in Lincoln University in southern Chester County. My dad graduated from Lincoln in 1934. Both my mom and dad came from single-mother homes. My dad’s dad was not part of the household, by his own choice. My mom’s dad died from tuberculosis when she was twelve years old. Both my mom and dad were the firstborn in their families, so they had to step up and become adults early in life.
Your father was a freshman at Lincoln during the deepest part of the Depression.
Yes, he saw his future in education and after getting an undergraduate degree at Lincoln, he went on to get a Master’s and then a Ph.D. degree in English. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in English from Ohio State.
That was quite an accomplishment for that day and age.
That was what that generation did! When I was growing up, Lincoln University was full of professors just like my father who were the first African-Americans to get advanced degrees from predominantly white institutions. Back in that day, faculty lived on campus. My playmates were other faculty brats just like me.
What do you remember about growing up?
We played all kinds of sports and even had a bicycle club that rode in formation. I was a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout. At that time, parents were involved in everything we did. Even though he disliked the outdoors, my dad became an assistant scoutmaster.
How many siblings do you have?
I have a brother who is four years younger and a sister, now deceased, who was eight years younger.
Where did you attend high school?
Growing up, I went to Oxford area schools until 10th grade. I then transferred to Sandy Springs Friends School in Sandy Springs, Maryland, a few miles outside of DC. After graduation, I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
How did you settle on Carleton College?
First, there was no thought given to NOT going to college. My father was an English professor and head of the English Department at Lincoln for a number of years. My mother taught English and was also, at one point, a librarian on campus. For me, going to college was a given.
The question was where I would go. At the time, I was thinking I wanted to see a different part of the country when I went to college. My plan was to go to college in the Midwest and then go to graduate school in the Far West. A friend of mine took a college tour with her parents and came back with a glowing report on Carleton College. A short time later a Carleton recruiter came to Sandy Springs, and when I met him in the headmaster’s office, we were both wearing blue seersucker sports jackets. I thought, hey I could not only get into this place, I could fit in! I applied for early admissions and was admitted.
Was Carleton College a good choice for you?
It was! Carleton was a bit of an oasis for me. When I went away to school in 1965, the country was in a lot of turmoil. The Civil Rights battle and Vietnam War were both heating up. Campus life was academically focused and classless. There were no cars allowed on campus, nor were there fraternities or sororities. Everyone wore jeans and had a nickname. You couldn’t tell who came from what economic background. At the time, many universities were reaching out to minorities to increase their diversity. Carleton was no different. Each year I was at Carleton, there were more and more African Americans and Asian Americans on campus. I enjoyed meeting other minorities and learning more about their background and culture.
Who gave you your big break in life?
The first big break I had was getting the parents I did! They were the generation who went from just finishing high school to getting advanced degrees. My dad had a Ph.D., and my mother had several Master’s degrees. They both taught at Lincoln. My mother taught me to read by the time I was four. By getting up and going to work each day, they set a great example for me. My parents gave me a huge head start.
Who gave you your big break here in Chester County?
The first person who recognized my full potential politically was Alan Novak. I returned to Chester County in 1981, and when my two sons got old enough, I could go out to political meetings and volunteer to help elect Republican candidates. That was in the mid to late 1980’s. In 1990, I ran for Committee person in Lower Oxford Township. I put a lot of effort into that campaign. Even though only ten signatures were required to ensure my name was on the ballot, I got 60 or 70 people to sign my petition.
Two years after I won that election, I was asked to be the southern Chester County area chair. As soon as I took over, I found out the committee was flat broke. We had to borrow money from two candidates, Art Hershey and Earl Baker, to get out a mailing before Election Day. Afterwards, we started doing sub sales to raise a little money and then made a leap of faith and started a golf outing. We went from raising $500 on a sub-sale to generating two or three thousand dollars at the golf outing.
While we were rebuilding the coffers, my team and I filled all the local committee person slots, not just with straw people, but with people who did the work. Alan Novak, who was chairman of the County Republican Party at the time, took notice. He made sure my team was invited and had tickets to county events and even brought then-Governor Ridge to one of our golf outings. That put us on the map! It was Alan who put me on committees, took notice of me and encouraged me.
Looking forward, what Challenges and opportunities do you see for Chester County?
At a macro level, the challenge for Chester County and County government is our growth. The better we do as a county, the more people want to move here. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission estimates the county will grow from about 500,000 people in 2010 to 650,000 people in 2040. That’s a 30 percent growth in 30 years. There will be additional pressure on all the things we hold dear, including our open space, human services department, court systems, transportation and housing. That’s the challenge – dealing with that growth and the pressure it puts on all of our systems and infrastructure:
How do we maintain and grow the 26 percent of the acreage already protected under Landscapes2?
How do we make sure a safety net remains in place at both the county and municipal level for the most vulnerable?
How do we get people to behave better, to put it politely, so there isn’t as much pressure on our police forces or court systems?
How do we mitigate congestion and get all the people to their jobs and back home to their families again? We’ll continue to emphasize transit systems such as the SEPTA and Amtrak lines, the SEPTA and County buses.
Finally, not everybody living in Chester County will be able to afford a $350,000-and-above home. How do we keep a segment of the housing stock “affordable” for everyone?
All those challenges resulting from the projected growth are our constant focus.
Finally, Terence, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and how does it guide your life?
There are two that come to mind. First, showing up is 90 percent of success. Another way to say the same thing is, get up every day and kick at it. I learned as a young reporter that good things happen when I showed up. There is a real benefit of going to the scene to see what happened for myself and interviewing someone in person rather than talking to them over the phone. I got more of a story than I would ever get over the phone.
Following that advice made the difference for me in my first race for county commissioner in 2007. I didn’t have nearly the name ID as the other two candidates in the race. I persevered and showed up everywhere I was welcome and ended up winning the primary race by just 1,100 votes.
The second piece of advice is: the difference between the “A” student and the “C” student is that the “A” student double-checks his work. I try to do that in all things, from re-reading my emails before I send them, to looking over my calendar the night before, to checking information before I repeat it, and in many other ways. I want to maintain those habits that make someone an “A” student. I want to give my very best to this wonderful job of being a commissioner, and also to do the best with what I got in this life.
Editors Note: VISTA Today’s profile of Commissioner Michelle Kichline is here. A profile of Commissioner Kathi Cozzone is in the works and will be published in the coming weeks.