Eleven years ago, our Development office told me that an alumnus who owned some historical newspapers wanted to donate them to Washington & Lee. Frederic B. Farrar was 85, a journalism major from W&L’s Class of ’41 who had served in the “casualty assistance” branch at Camp Pinedale in Fresno during World War II, then for the next 35 years worked as a national advertising rep for big daily newspapers from the West Coast to Canada and England.
His initial donation turned out to be a remarkable collection of some 1,500 American newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries. He added some European newspapers as old as 1559, and tossed in, as a bonus, bound copies of 118 years of Gentleman’s Magazine. Fred Farrar’s love of these historical rag-paper publications from handset print shops had developed in him an intuitive knack for finding them. He would buy unrecognized treasures at below-market prices in old bookstores and flea markets from Philadelphia to London, or bargain and trade for what he wanted, filling gaps in his collection. He drove up to W&L in Virginia from Florida in a series of visits, each time surprising us with more donations. By the summer of 2005, he had handed over to Special Collections an archive that was organized into 10 portfolios, 10 bound volumes, five binders and three drawers, which is now online and partly indexed as “Farrar Newspaper Collection.”
In his late 80s and 90s, he drove the 820 miles from his Clearwater retirement home to W&L many times, bearing fresh loads from his collection. I got to know this remarkable man, who would hold my students mesmerized for an hour in a course I designed around his collection. His passion for history was rooted in something other than the historiographical methodologies and theories of the professoriate. It seemed to grow out of his robust life experiences and his discovery of primary sources as the intimate physical body of history. This distinction reminds me of Nietzsche’s critique of “objective” Rankean history in “The Use and Abuse of History,” in which Nietzsche calls for historians who confront history out of real-life experience and character.
Fred was a strong-voiced, leonine man who would test your interest before fully opening up on any subject. Once he sensed with a cagey sidelong glance that he had you hooked, he would share story after story from American history – romantic or astonishing tales plucked from the Grand Narrative – or from his own charmed life.
He was a master storyteller, with timing and details honed by years in different sorts of classrooms. It began when he visited an 8th grade class with reprints that the New York Times had made of its front pages covering Civil War battles, around the war’s Centennial. Later, he took so many evening classes at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., that he earned a master’s degree in history in 1975, at age 57. His thesis became a high school classroom workbook, This Common Channel to Independence: Revolution and Newspapers, 1759-1789. This teacher workbook became a curriculum just in time for the U.S. Bicentennial, outlining the development of American liberty and Revolution through reprints of historical newspapers. By then, Fred had been elected to the American Antiquarian Society. He also wrote a history of Editor & Publisher on its 100th anniversary in 1984, filled with reprints of E&P articles from each decade.
In a second career that began in 1980, he taught journalism history at Temple University’s School of Communications, using his newspapers and broadsides as primary sources for slide lectures. Students were impressed with his toughness, as if he were some manifestation of the past that had barged out of the same character-forming history he loved. A columnist at the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times wrote 20 years after taking his class that Professor Farrar was merciless, and instilled lessons you never forgot. “You want to be a journalist?” the columnist quoted Farrar. “Then you think like a journalist and notice detail because detail is the essence of all great journalism and all great writing. That’s what I’m teaching you.” Fred never stopped teaching. In retirement in the Tampa Bay area, he taught history courses at various colleges to adults over 50 and in the end, to residents of his retirement community.
Fred Farrar died on July 29 with pneumonia, five days after his 96th birthday. In the years since I had met him, he had continued giving W&L gifts he had only hinted at earlier: a collection of U.S. newspapers reporting the winners of every presidential election (almost) since George Washington, and a rich collection of Civil War newspapers covering battles from both the Union and Confederate perspectives. His last donation came when our director of Special Collections, Tom Camden, visited him for several days in July, just weeks before he died.
Camden, the former director of special collections for the Library of Virginia, radiates a boyish delight in the ragged oddments and dusty discoveries that fill his quarter of the library. He had that look as he recounted his final visit with Fred in his home. Fred brought out historical and rare books: General Henry Lee’s memoirs of the American Revolution, the 1869 edition with a biography written by his son, Robert E. Lee; an antique two-volume Life of Walter Scott; an “arts and crafts” edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley, and more like that. He also turned over rare documents that are now on display in our library: sheets of incunabula from Dante’s Commedia (1477) and the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), and the original Indenture conveying land in Philadelphia in 1801 to printer John Dunlap for printing the Declaration of Independence and other works for the revolutionary cause. Camden’s irrepressible amazement may have been a factor in Fred’s decision to give this last trove. But I am sure it was something else. It was Fred’s final recognition that his alma mater was the right home for this stuff.
Every time Fred came to visit, he would explain that he was looking to leave his historical publications in a place that would share his appreciation for how they contain the reality of history. He gave these piecemeal, partly to test whether our interest was as passionate as his, and partly, I suspect, because he was still using the material to teach history.
It was hard for this gruff gentleman to let go of it all, right up until the end.