Wild and Precious Life

When I heard the news, I was standing on the white waxed tiles of a second grade classroom–fighting the familiar sheen of summer sweat as I imagined 7 year old children filing in the door with backpacks and questions and the world at their feet.

As I contemplated the location of the computer tables and the weight of 22 young minds, my cell phone buzzed in my palm. A classmate from college I hadn’t talked to for months popped up on screen. “Prof. Farrell…” the text read. My stomach dropped. I fumbled to open my email on the handheld screen. The news barreled in like a freight train.

He was gone.

After overcoming all of those close calls, months of radiation, and hours spent reassuring his college students that the hacking cough was merely an annoyance, Jim Farrell left us silently in the middle of the night. I didn’t see it coming. To me, the man who defined my undergraduate experience was invincible.

When I made the drive back to a brand new apartment in an unknown city, thinking again about the nature of life transitions, I shielded my tear-stained cheeks from neighboring cars stopped at red lights. I watched as a slideshow of memories merged with my view of Indianapolis’s 38th street and Fall Creek Parkway.

Next to the homeless man holding cardboard on Keystone Ave.,  I saw Jim’s gangly frame  in the green grass of St. Olaf College– sporting wool socks and Birkentocks.


Through the car horns and muffled rap music of a hot summer afternoon, I heard his wise and quiet voice. “What we are is stories,” he mused.

At age 22, grief remains foreign and confusing territory.  I cannot grasp the weight of absence–the depth of the hole that has been left behind. Maybe I never will–forever enveloped in waves of feeling, followed by sleep and food and a numbness that crackles like one of those horror movie television sets with no signal .

When I first met Jim Farrell, I was 18 years old and an open book. I was fascinated by questions of identity–searching for myself at a liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. I was a regular freshman cliche. Like so many idealistic undergraduate students, I wanted to “make a difference.”

When I arrived on the Hill of St. Olaf College, everything I owned stuffed into the family station wagon and hauled up the steps of my freshman dorm, I was given the opportunity to think about what it means to think–to decide what I wanted to know and demand my professors teach me that. It was Jim Farrell who gave me this power.

In my first two years, I developed an independent major titled Growing Up in America: A Systems Thinking Approach. Its work was the product of Jim’s endless support, connecting mind, and mentorship. The experience began as a “study of American identities” … and it turned into more.

As I answered questions from the front of our American Conversations classroom, trekked to Jim’s 6th floor office in the snow, and began to take my education into my own hands, I acquired a set of skills that would change my view of the world.

While navigating the inner workings of college dances and shifting friend groups, I learned the art of “dense facting.” Through this practice, I unpacked the complex meaning of college life–thinking about how an understanding of why things are the way they are could lead to social change.

The strangely conjugated verb “to dense fact” is an expression for seeing the connections in everyday life. It was everything I wanted from education in a nutshell.

The stitching on a pair of blue jeans transformed into a study of department store history, globalization, and “branded selves.”  My dorm room was a museum.  Under Jim’s direction, we took inventories and thought deeply about what our possessions said about us. There were stories in everything.

I learned that I could write a captivating essay about something as mundane as a paperclip.  I didn’t want the experience to end.

So I kept it going. We kept it going.

Semester after semester, I had the great privilege to collaborate with a man who understood me as a student and as a person. Jim shaped my story, and taught me the importance of telling it.

I could tell you about the summer research we performed on our current college sustainability program, or the work we did on the topic of Emerging Adults, electronics, and the environment. I could share the results of our independent study on the politics of parenting and the unique “momosphere” of blogging mothers. I could even summarize the work of my senior project–an endeavor entirely inspired by hours of incredible discussion with a professor who had an incredible penchant for shifting the frame and introducing a new and challenging lens.

I could share of these things for minutes and hours, but they are not what I saw as I made today’s tear-stained drive (besides, you can read about all of them within the archives of this blog.)

Instead, I’d like to show you a few of my memories of Professor James Farrell–a 64 year old man who lived hundreds of lifetimes in one. Here they are, in stream of consciousness:

  • Sticky fingers, mismatched mugs, and clinking spoons. We laid graduate school, relationships, and family vignettes  across the table outside of the campus coffee shop every Thursday. Espresso ice cream and smile lines. Sometimes with coffee. Jim told me not to worry so much. Control what you can control, keep reading the New York Times, never stop writing, take on the world.
  • Grass-stained knees and a circle of twenty-somethings designing new systems on a Friday afternoon on the quad. What if we thought more like children? 
  • Balancing notebooks on my thighs as I swiveled in that giant leather office chair–surrounded by 1,000 books stacked on mismatched shelves stretching to the ceiling of that office in the turret of Holland Hall. Feminism and Frank Lloyd Wright and 200 volumes on the 1960s. My face is red as I chase another idea around the labyrinth Jim has built. He listens silently  as my eyes flit from shelf to shelf. My hands gesture emphatically. He nods, then offers a one line response that wraps the loose ends I’ve unraveled into a neat package. He proceeds to open 5 more doors I’ve never seen before. I am inspired and humbled. Another session of Jim Farrell therapy ends. I leave with a yellow post-it note list and ideas that ping against the sides of my skull like hail. Who will clean out that office now? What will they find in those stacks of legal pads and boxes upon boxes of books with annotated margins? What will happen to his notorious green pens?
  • The metal bird taking us home to Minnesota after a weekend of sustainability conferencing in Pittsburgh lurches beneath our feet. I chatter nervously about the weather and upcoming due dates and the future as I struggle to still my shaking limbs. Jim places his latest article and pen in his black briefcase. He looks at me calmly. “Everything will be okay.” When the cabin descends yet again, pushing my stomach to my throat, he puts his hand over mine.
  • In the cover of the book he gave me at the end of our 4 year journey together, there was this inscription:

The professor had managed for years to live two lives. Both of them very intense. He would willingly have cut down on his university work, would willingly have given his students chaff and sawdust–many instructors had nothing else to give them and got on very well–but his misfortune was that he loved youth–he was weak to it, it kindled him. If there was one eager eye, one doubting, self-critical mind, one lively curiosity in a whole lecture-full room of commonplace boys and girls, he was its servant. That ardour could command him.” – Willa Cather The Professor’s House

To Andi-

Thanks for being that person in every interaction we’ve had. You’ve been such a joy to me!

Your friend,


I share these fleeting moments and exchanges because they are pieces of a beautiful friendship.

As he did for me, Jim Farrell undeniably altered the mindset of every student seated in his class. Beyond the typical college essays written in a caffeinated haze, Jim taught us all to hope. He taught us to be citizens, to question, and to find passion in all areas of life. Channeling the poet Mary Oliver, Jim challenged us; “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” He rooted us in the idea that we live in our stories.


Jim used to call himself “Dr. Death” as a tribute to his fascination with the way we deal with death (particularly when it comes to graveyards and posthumous inventories.) He was so infatuated with death, he once wrote an entire book on the subject. To think about Jim as “Dr. Death” today feels morbid and darkly ironic, but weirdly appropriate. In his lectures on birth and death (and all that comes between,) Jim led us in the discovery of life. He unearthed the “whys” that had been squeezed out of us by the end of adolescence, and inspired thoughts that would otherwise go unthought.

I am grateful for Jim Farrell. Without him, I would not sit where I am sitting–positioned to teach 7 and 8 year old children with the odds stacked against them to question and wonder and think in systems.

What we are is stories. Thank you Jim, for helping me to learn to write mine. This one’s for you.

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It's Spring! Outdoor class sessions become the norm.

It’s Spring! Outdoor class sessions become the norm.



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7 Responses to Wild and Precious Life

  1. Allegra Smisek says:

    This was a beautiful tribute to an amazing man, and teacher. Thank you.

  2. Korinthia says:

    This is a lovely piece of writing, Andrea. Your teacher would have been proud.

  3. Dave says:

    Thank you, Andi! Such a beautiful tribute from one beautiful spirit to another.

  4. Jean Callister-Benson says:

    Andi…thank you for sharing your story about a professor who made a difference in your life. We are all reeling from the news of Jim’s death. He would be so happy to know that he mattered. That he instilled values that were important to him. That he made an impact in the lives of so many people May God’s grace grant us peace. May God welcome Jim home with open arms.

  5. Christopher Grasso says:

    I was a colleague of Jim’s at St. Olaf in the 1990s. Such sad news, but what a wonderful man. Thanks for writing this.
    –Chris Grasso, Dept. of History, Wm. & Mary

  6. shoshanablank says:

    Thank you so much for this. I am in tears as I read it. He was such a good man, a good professor, and a good friend. His teachings will forever be a part of me.

  7. Troy Goodnough says:

    Thanks or sharing this reflection. I am deeply saddened by his passing, but so grateful that for some brief, incredibly influential moments, he was a part of my story, too.

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