Recalling a strong woman who told it like it was

I’ve been a sportswriter for 40 years and in that time I’ve had some people who didn’t like something I had written and they let me know about it.

A few years back a woman was so riled up with me that she ended her phone message: “…And one more thing. Get rid of that moustache and that hair. You look like an out-of-work porn star.”

Back in 1990, Victor Kiam, the owner of the New England Patriots and the once-famed CEO of the Remington shaver company, took out a full page ad in The New York Times and both Boston newspapers so he could deny a sexist comment and the laughing derision I’d reported him directing at previously-harassed sportswriter Lisa Olson when they were in the Riverfront Stadium dressing room.

As it turned out, a sportswriter from Brockton, Mass., heard him say the same thing and he wrote it, too. Kiam was lying. The NFL fined the Pats over their treatment of Olson and I felt vindicated.

That was not the case with Barbara Farrelly.

Nobody in my four decades in the business has lit me up quite like she did.

Again it was 1990 and along with being an English professor at the University of Dayton, she was the academic coordinator for UD athletics.

That fall the Flyers brought in Chip Jones, a talented basketball player from Cincinnati who had had a roller-coaster life on the streets and through two junior colleges before coming to UD. Early in his first season here — a season in which he would average a team-high 20.2 points — I sat down with him to tell his story.

“Be gentle with him. Be kind,” Barb told me beforehand. “You can’t imagine some of what he’s had to endure over the years. It’s another world from what most people have had to deal with.”

My story ended up focusing on a few of his wildest escapades — they were sensational in detail but should have been put in better and more compassionate context — and she hit the roof. She wrote me a scathing, five-page letter that left me feeling as if I’d gone five rounds with the then-young Mike Tyson.

It hurt for several reasons:

She had been one of my English teachers at UD 20 years earlier.

She was my friend.

She was right.

“I believe I got to read that letter before she sent it,” Tom Westendorf said with a laugh Wednesday. He’s now the UD registrar and assistant vice president, but back then he was interim athletics director.

“She never always told you what you wanted to hear. She told you what you needed to hear.”

The lesson she gave me back then was one I have never forgotten.

This weekend a lot of people will be telling stories about her on the UD campus.

She died suddenly from complications following an aneurysm on Aug. 20. Saturday a memorial Mass will be held for Farrelly, 71, at the UD chapel at 1 p.m. and afterward Jim, her husband of 43 years, and their two children, Ann and Mark, will meet with friends for a reception at the Torch Lounge in Kennedy Union.

Much of the UD community will be there, including several former athletes like the 44-year-old Jones.

He hadn’t known she had passed away, and a week or so ago, he called and left a message for her. He said he had some good news he wanted to share with her.

“I had to call him back and tell him she’s no longer with us,” Jim said. “But I told him he could come share it with me.”

‘A secret past’

Barbara and Jim were the ultimate UD couple. He’s still teaching English there, she taught until her retirement in 2004. Their two children are UD grads. And if you went to UD games for the past 35 years, you always saw them there and witnessed the steady parade of former students stopping by to say hello.

In recent years Barb spent months reading and analyzing the books of the annual candidates for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In 2000, she won the UD Miryam Award for her support of women’s achievements on campus.

“She was a strong lady and she had such respect from the coaches,” Westendorf said. “That’s not to say she didn’t clash with people. She was a straight shooter and very passionate. You knew where she stood on an issue.”

And yet she had “a secret past,” Jim said with a laugh: “She graduated from Our Lady of Good Counsel in White Plains, N.Y. and then entered the convent of the Sisters of Divine Compassion.”

She spent six years there, wore the full habit and served as the dean of students at her all-girl alma mater before leaving the sisterhood and coming to UD to get her master’s degree. She met Jim on campus and though they eventually wed and started a family, the tenets of her Divine Compassion days remained a big part of her life.

“She always wanted to make sure the academic side was important, not just the basketball,” Jim said of her academic adviser days. “She’d tell kids, ‘I want you to be ready to speak up for yourselves and never be used by anyone. Less than 1 percent of college players go to the NBA. You are going to have to live your life in another context.’ ”

The list of UD athletes she mentored is long, but no one was more touched by her than Jones, who starred one season at UD and then was dropped from the team five games into his senior year. He was averaging a team-high 23.6 points a game at the time, but he wasn’t hitting the books.

Barb was dismayed by that and she stayed after him when he left UD because she wanted him to graduate.

“Thanks to her I did get my degree in 1999,” Jones said Wednesday. “She made a big impact in my life. She taught me a lot. She took me in like a son.”

Over the years Jones said he has worked for the Cincinnati schools as a coach and teacher’s aide. Now he’s about to get a hip replacement.

Asked about the “good news’ he so wanted to tell her, he drew quiet and then finally said:

“I wanted to tell her that I’ve changed my life. I gave my life to Christ. I’m doing things different now. I wanted to tell her thanks because when others didn’t, she did believe in me long ago.”

I know.

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