What Is Important and What is Right

Reflections on the lives of Wes Hatfield and Mike Farrell

Many of us have found recent days to be a sobering time.  We have been reminded of life’s finitude. Last week Julie and I were in Florida and looked in on Julie’s mom, who just turned 90; and I spoke with at least four friends who made similar important trips to care for aging parents. Last week we also heard of the passing of Bill Friday, who led North Carolina higher education for thirty years.

Then two real thunderbolts struck: the deaths of Weston Hatfield and of Mike Farrell. Wes Hatfield was a lion of Wake Forest and legendary leader of the Board of Trustees. He lived a full life of 92 years. I heard him give two formal speeches, both saluting Tom Hearn, and I thought I could have been in the presence of Henry Clay or Williams Jennings Bryan. He was an orator of the first order. His was a life of great substance and real Sauvé faire.

Mike Farrell’s death comes as even a greater shock, because his life really was cut short. He was in his prime. He had just achieved his greatest professional accomplishment. He understood the crisis of mortgage financing that plunged this nation into recession and avoided the sub-prime area that was so broadly devastating in the financial world. And from that position of strength, he was becoming a major philanthropist; Wake Forest being the most noticeable recipient. After the funeral, Mike’s brother, Tom, said to us that, today, in a fairer land, Mike is probably selling some heavenly-backed mortgage security.

The lives of Wes and of Mike both speak profoundly to the identity of Wake Forest; one to his history and its forging as an independent private university in the 1980s; the other to its future, a place fully in tune with the modern world—and even its most complex markets—but a place that took people seriously and was deeply grounded in character formation.

When I think of Wes Hatfield, I left with the following question:  What is important to do?  In 1947, Wes chaired a subcommittee that helped plan the groundbreaking for Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Much later, in the 1980s, he presided over the historic meeting when Wake Forest declared itself a free and independent university with a self-perpetuating board of trustees.  He was Tom Hearn’s soul mate and collaborator in charting Wake Forest’s course for a generation. We stand deeply in his debt for thinking big; for charting new paths, for building the modern Wake Forest.

What are the most important things we need to do in our day?

Let’s not go through the motions. Let’s not play on the surface.  Let’s not just enjoy the ride and tinker with the deck furniture.  What can I do, what can we all do, to fulfill the promise of this place for the next generation? That is the legacy of Wes Hatfield.

When I think of Mike Farrell, I am left with the following question: What is the right thing to do?

Mike’s story has Horatio Alger proportions. The noble expectation of his immigrant parents was that we would be a cop or fireman.  From this start, what he built was truly remarkable. Yet Mike never forgot who he was or from where he came. He was a man without pretense. He was just as much at ease talking to Ben Bernanke or to a kid off the street at a ballgame. He remained down to earth, self-deprecatory, and interested in anyone. In Mike’s generous spirit, there were no “little” people.

I remember a two-hour meeting in Mike’s office when he was learning more about Wake Forest. Here was a self-made man, the son of immigrants, who had built the most successful firm on Wall Street that handled mortgage-backed securities. He had enormous power and enormous respect.

Yet what intrigued him about Wake Forest and drew him to it was not intellectual horsepower, per se, or the power of our brand, or even the raw success and prestige of our graduates. What attracted him was the issue of character. Somehow he sensed more in our actions and commitment that this place still existed as a community that taught young people how to live not just what to think. He was a man of principle, not of expedience.  He was a man deeply committed to doing things right. In his firm, Annaly Capital, Mike took a personal interest in everyone. We learned at his funeral that at one point he took every last person in the firm to breakfast—just the two of them. His comment afterward was that he loved the meetings but could not stand one more omelet.

He loved the commitment that Wake Forest and Dean Steve Reinemund had to students; and their commitment to educating the whole person. You always knew that Mike was about doing the right thing and about treating people right.

What a privilege and a gift it was to know these two giants, Wes Hatfield and Mike Farrell, men of enormous spirits and enormous accomplishments. I am deeply grateful for their magnificent examples and for all that they have done for Wake Forest. I trust that the themes that their respective lives so clearly display will be engraved deeply in my own mind and heart: What is important to do? And what is the right thing to do? May those legacies endure.

Categories: Essays