Writer, blues aficionado and nature lover: remembering George Farrell
By Jenn Watt
Friends describe George Farrell as a doer, someone who was interested in the world, other people, new ideas, and when he wanted to get something done, he put his whole self into it.
He organized and promoted the Canadian Blues Legends series at Minden’s Dominion Hotel with Shawn Chamberlin; he photographed the relics of old cars, turning them into artwork; he wrote regular columns for several local newspapers; he penned a mystery novel, published and promoted it; and he became the frontman of a blues band.
He did it all with enthusiasm and energy, his friends say, taking great pleasure in all of it.
On Oct. 17, Farrell died at the Haliburton hospital from complications resulting from a brain tumour. He was 74.
“He was one of those guys that was involved in a lot of artistic and creative pursuits in this community,” said his friend Sean Pennylegion. “... Anybody that had any contact with the creative world in this community knew George or knew of George.”
A longtime columnist for various publications, most recently County Life, where he wrote weekly about arts and culture, Farrell was a regular fixture at county events and particularly good at making connections and finding stories.
“He was always looking for people to engage with and talk to and he was certainly gregarious,” said Hugh Taylor, who has known Farrell since they were university students around 1969 or 1970.
They were roommates for a year, back when Taylor attended the University of Toronto and Farrell was at Ryerson, studying radio, television and journalism. They bonded over their love of music and stayed in touch for years until Taylor moved away.
When Taylor and his wife Pamela Marsales moved to the Highlands in 1995, he was thrilled to find Farrell and his wife, Michelle St. Pierre and their sons Brendan and Tyson living here, too.
They picked up right where they left off.
“Over these many years in Haliburton we often went on long walks together accompanied by George and Michelle’s remarkable, and kinda crazy dog Weasel, who would almost always cause some kind of emergency, from bear encounters to getting lost in the foundations of a derelict building, chasing a critter,” Taylor shared via email.
Most friends of George report that he loved to chat. He wanted to engage with other people and sometimes debate points of view.
Laurie Carmount, curator of the Agnes Jamieson Gallery in Minden, worked with him for 10 years at the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, which includes the gallery. Farrell was assigned to various aspects of the cultural centre, with a particular penchant for Nature’s Place.
Over the years, Carmount said they had many spirited conversations.
“He really wanted to come to understand your full reasoning – and you had to support your reasoning – he’d come at you from a couple different ways to see why you’re thinking what you’re thinking,” she said.
Farrell could work at any part of the cultural centre, Carmount said, because he had wide-ranging knowledge and the motivation to learn about new things.
“I think it was mostly because George could speak to any art, any aspects of the centre, history, you name it. .... I could easily have him in any spot. Nature’s Place sat really well with him because he had an interest in the nature/environment connection here, the ecological uniqueness,” she said. Carmount said she wanted to pass along condolences from the staff at the cultural centre to Farrell’s family.
Although he spent a good deal of his early adulthood in Yorkville, chumming around with musicians and running a photography studio, Farrell also had a deep connection to the natural world, which was part of the reason he and St. Pierre chose to relocate to the Highlands in 1988.
The pair met in 1980 and were friends for four or five years before a romance blossomed. St. Pierre said she was attracted to his sense of humour and his irreverence, though, she points out, he was always respectful to others, even when he disagreed.
He had worked in the film industry for a time, and after becoming injured on the job, began working from home more often. He spent hours with his sons at that time helping them with school work and fostering a love of the outdoors.
“He was home a lot so he was very active in the boys’ upbringing and very patient,” St. Pierre said, recalling his time educating the kids on the birds that came to the feeder and caring for animals, like Sherman the Ermine.
“He loved being in nature, he loved being in the country. Even though he’d been a city person, his true self was being in nature,” she said.
More recently, Farrell’s attention was placed on music, in particular the blues. For nine years, he worked with Shawn Chamberlin, owner of the Dominion Hotel in Minden, on the Canadian Blues Legends series. He brought his connections from the Yorkville days, helping to select and book major talent.
“He knew these guys from seeing them play in their early years,” Chamberlin said. “They all went on to become quite famous and popular … this was an opportunity to reconnect with them for George.”
Taylor marvels at the names he brought in – some of the very best in the province – including Lance Anderson, Teddy Leonard and Danny Mark.
Farrell would get up on the Dominion stage to introduce them, telling jokes and sharing stories. “When I think of George, that’s a big part of the image that comes to mind,” Taylor said. “George on the stage there introducing these wonderful musical acts.”
St. Pierre said she and the family have been overwhelmed by the support from the Highlands community during George’s illness and following his death.
“The community has been wonderful. I don’t think he realized how much he was loved and appreciated and how many lives he touched. It’s been remarkable,” she said.
A celebration of life will be organized this spring.