William O. ("Doc") Farber has taken a lifelong approach to educating students at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Nearing his ninth decade, he is still a teacher, a mentor, a gadfly in the Socratic tradition.
His goal of being a "change agent" has rubbed off on dozens, maybe hundreds of students he's taught or mentored over the years -including household names like Tom Brokaw.
Although Dr. Farber retired in 1976, he still runs a busy operation from his house on 413 East Clark Street, across from the USD campus. The sign on his door reads simply: "Knock. Enter."
Visitors often find Farber busy at work, talking with a student or former student, thinking of ideas or a new approach to public policy, politics, or the academy.
"You cannot leave his house ... without the sense that you have learned something, or have been questioned, or have thought deeper about why things are the way they are," says Dick Brown, a former Farber student and a state representative and businessman in Sioux Falls.
In an age of online universities and large lecture halls, this political scientist and professor emeritus says one-on-one interaction and long-term relationships with students can make a difference.
"The teacher's role today is not primarily to provide information - students can get that through a variety of media - but to stimulate. I try to be a motivator, a counselor, even a placement officer. And I try to teach by example," he says.
Preparation and creativity are the key to good teaching, Farber says, recalling his years behind the lectern. Although somewhat of a traditionalist, he realizes students' attention spans and interests change over time. "You have to have stories and you have to have humor. You've got to have stuff they can relate to."
Farber has been a fixture on campus since 1935, when he was hired as an assistant professor at age 25. Three years later he was promoted to department chair, a position he held until he retired. USD recently opened Farber Hall in his honor and started a special academic program called the Farber Center for Civic Leadership.
"He has been an inspirational teacher. That is, of course, best exemplified by the phenomenon of the 'Farber Boys.' You just have this long string of really distinguished graduates who credit much of their success to him," says Don Dahlin, who was hired as a professor by Farber in 1966 and is now vice president for academic affairs at USD.
Dozens of Farber's students have become prominent "change agents," including Mr. Brokaw, USA Today founder Al Neuharth, TV personality Pat O'Brien, US Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota, former Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, and Phil Odean, chairman of technology company TRW.
"I started out in chemistry and he talked me into majoring in government," says Mary McClure Bibby, who graduated from USD in 1961. Mrs. Bibby went on to be the first woman to serve as president pro tem in the South Dakota Legislature, and also worked in the White House during the Bush administration. Of Farber she says, "He definitely put me in a new direction and I have never regretted it."
Farber realized early on that his passion was to be a motivator. He says no one reaches his or her fullest potential, but "we are all underachievers."
In 1962, he talked future Representative Brown into majoring in government at USD when he visited the campus with his mother. Brown became overinvolved in school activities and saw his GPA dip to "2-point-something," but Farber let him move out of a fraternity to his house in exchange for doing household chores.
"My GPA went up to 3.6 the next semester and I was never off the dean's list for the rest of college," says Brown, who chairs the House Education Committee in the state Legislature. Farber challenged Brown to get internships with US senators and now is challenging him to run for governor or for South Dakota's lone seat in the US House of Representatives.
Brown and other students respected Farber in the classroom because he stimulated debates and discussion with humor and lively stories.
When famous alum Brokaw's bestselling book "The Greatest Generation" was published last year, the news anchor made sure a complimentary copy was mailed to Farber, his professor and friend.
"It's a few years late," Brokaw wrote on the title page, "But I'd like to resubmit my senior thesis."
Somehow, Brokaw was allowed to graduate in 1962 without completing the required undergraduate thesis. (He did complete it by 1964.) It was Farber, however, who challenged Brokaw to focus his energies on broadcasting and drove him 240 miles south to Omaha, Neb., for his first job interview at KMT-TV.
"He has the great ability to see a potential inside someone and to try to bring it out," says Brown.
Farber says his traditional approach to life stems from his early lessons in hard work and people skills as a clerk in his father's grocery store in Geneseo, Ill. It also comes from academic success at Northwestern University in Chicago and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was impressed by professors who invited students into their homes to socialize with politicians and to discuss issues.
Farber's career has included fellowships at think tanks and involvement in government. He's taken the lead on dozens of state and national public-service projects, including serving as minority counsel on the Senate Subcommittee on National Security. His retirement has given him the opportunity to travel more, to everywhere from Greece to Cuba. He never married, but considers his students his family. He often takes them with him on trips around the globe to be conversation partners and "luggage carriers."
His current "luggage carrier" is Mike Koehler, a third-year law student at the University of Wisconsin who graduated from USD. Mr. Koehler came to play basketball at USD and left with much more, as Farber helped him get internships with Senator Pressler and in the White House.
"Generally speaking, Doc's students are small-town, middle-income students," Koehler says. "They are not stupid or incompetent, however - what they lack are experiences."
Farber uses his network of former stu dents to gain opportunities for current students. Graduates have given $1.7 million to the Farber Student Internship and Travel Fund, which pays for USD political science students to travel.
"Doc's educational philosophy is rather simple," Koehler says. "It consists of the background to know, the vision to see, and the will to do. Doc provides the first two, and it is up to the student to seize the last."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society