Opinion: Farrell’s passion for history inspired his life’s endeavors

Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

A late-night exchange, earlier this year, came to be my last with Tom Farrell and involved a picture I’d come across in the 1942 edition of West Point’s “Howitzer,” the U.S. Military Academy yearbook.

“Your uncle?” I asked.

“It is,” Farrell responded. “He served in North Africa and Sicily first. He won the DSC [Distinguished Service Cross] in Sicily. He was killed at Anzio. Never clear …. whether I was named after him or my grandfather — likely both. Played on the Army football team. Wish I had known him.”

Thomas F. Farrell II lost a battle to cancer — a battle few outside his family knew he was fighting — earlier this month. For a 15-year stretch, Farrell ran Dominion Energy as CEO and chairman of its board.

“It’s hard to think of an individual who has had a greater impact on the growth and success of [Richmond] in the 21st century more than Tom Farrell,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said about Farrell’s near-constant philanthropic efforts.

While I was writing for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation — which Farrell also chaired — Dominion contracted with me to help with his editorial chores, meaning I wrote on his behalf about subjects from history to philanthropic this or that, the University of Virginia (often) and back to history.

Yes, lots of history. That was a constant, a fixture with Farrell.

Years ago, historian/critic Christopher Lasch, writing about the “for the moment” current era, concluded, “We are fast losing … the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”

Likewise, Farrell believed civic duty ran both directions: backward and forward, past and future.

That mentality produced startling results. Encountering Farrell in a Richmond parking lot, about seven years ago, he looked at me and just grinned. He was covered in mud. He was making a movie about the Civil War and things were getting messy in the fields of valor.

“You know,” I told him, “If you keep this up, people will be forced to reevaluate you.” He thought that was funny.

Farrell had surprisingly decided to co-write and produce a film called “Field of Lost Shoes,” a dramatic account of the 1863 Battle of New Market and the near-mythological involvement of Virginia Military Institute cadets.

Tricky challenge, these history movies. Farrell was trying to extract something from the past, something he thought was important to understand. “It’s a story that deserves to be told,” he explained, when asked.

That same enthusiasm caused Farrell to invest many years on the board of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. One-time rector of the University of Virginia, he threw himself into its bicentennial.

But there was something else with Farrell and the work of history — something vastly more personal. He was military, right to his core. Father, uncles, grandfather, great-grandfather — all were career Army officers.

With the industry group Electric Power Institute, which he also once chaired, Farrell was instrumental in creating the Troops to Energy Jobs program, a highly successful effort to clear a career path forward for military veterans.

Military involvement affixes history to you by the simple expedient of keeping a permanent record. Some years ago, I visited the site in France where Farrell’s grandfather in 1918 had led a company of fellow engineers up a steep hill near the village of Exermont, earning a Distinguished Service Cross of his own.

You need to see this place, I told him, and it was on his long list of things to do.

In 1945, that same grandfather, Thomas F. Farrell — a brigadier general then, later a major general — served as chief of field operations for the Manhattan Project and stood beside J. Robert Oppenheimer on the plains of the Alamogordo for the first test of the atomic bomb.

That sort of history sticks when you’re hinged to it by birth. It removes the abstractions. It establishes a mental framework and, in Farrell, compelled a civic commitment that you less readily encounter these days.

Farrell generally opted for fewer words over many, while merrily drawing people toward him in pursuit of one project after another — including, in recent years, a fix for Richmond’s downtown that, in financial structure, strongly resembled Virginia Beach’s Town Center.

History got Farrell going on that one, too — meaning Virginia’s often self-defeating racial history and its continuing inability to steer and effect urban change. Frustrated on that one, Farrell knew history would call again.

“A sense of historical continuity,” Lasch called it. Farrell had that to the end.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.