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Attorney Bill Farley, dead at 66, helped keep the peace at Yale

Attorney William H. "Bill" Farley Jr. | Family photo

Even in the kaleidoscopic fashion era of 1970, William H. “Bill” Farley Jr. was easy to spot on the campus of Yale University.

In his poncho, shades and black cowboy hat, he carried himself with a resplendent, elegant swagger that conjured one of his favorite movie stars, Clint Eastwood.

He also was part of what might be “the most noble moment in the history of Mother Yale,” according to scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., an old Yale classmate, who says, “Bill was one of my closest friends and one of my heroes.”

A leader of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, Mr. Farley was in the class of 1972, which had 96 black students, the most in university history, according to the book “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And the Redemption of a Killer” by Paul Bass and Douglas Rae.

William H. “Bill” Farley Jr.
William H. “Bill” Farley Jr.

The students were among a wave of African-Americans coming out of the nation’s most elite schools as the 1960s segued into the 1970s. Radiating assurance and confidence in a new day, many took up positions in politics, civic groups and cultural institutions, serving as inspirations and advisers to the minority students and professionals who followed.

“We were the generation chosen to integrate the power elite,” says Gates, then the secretary of the Black Student Alliance at Yale and now the host of PBS-TV’s “Finding Your Roots,” as well as the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Mr. Farley and other members of BSAY — including Kurt Schmoke, who later was the first elected African-American mayor of Baltimore — were credited with demonstrating powerful leadership during one of Yale’s most challenging, chaotic chapters: when a 1970 campus uprising threatened to shut down the university, or worse.

“They were natural aristocrats,” Gates says of Mr. Farley and other BSAY activists.

Mr. Farley went on to be a Rhodes scholar and earned a Yale law degree. Until his death from Parkinson’s disease in April, at 66, he prospered in a 31-year legal career in Chicago. A onetime top lawyer in the administration of Mayor Harold Washington, he worked for some of the city’s most prestigious law firms and served as general counsel for the CTA and headed the group Business and Professional People for the Public Interest.

But before any of that, Mr. Farley, Schmoke and other African-American student leaders helped avert campus violence during unrest that arose over concerns about a fair trial in New Haven, Conn., for Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers’ national leader, who’d been accused in the torture and murder of a suspected informer.

A May Day 1970 protest at Yale, also fueled by anti-Vietnam War sentiment, drew an estimated 20,000 demonstrators. Thousands of state troopers and members of the National Guard were dispatched. The FBI warned that “as many as half a million persons” were going to descend on New Haven, according to “Murder in the Model City,” a 2006 book about the Seale trial — which ended with a judge dismissing the charges — and the uprising.

Students went on strike. The protests were marked by chants from Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the raising of Vietcong flags, speeches from Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, fistfights, tear gas and rumors of weaponry in the crowd.

Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president, turned for advice to Archibald Cox, who later was special prosecutor in the Watergate case. Brewster drew Vice President Spiro Agnew’s denouncement for declaring that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

Days later, four students were fatally shot by the Ohio National Guard during protests at Kent State University.

Given the nation’s tensions, “it was a miracle” there was no violence at Yale, Gates says.

Mr. Farley and other African-American student leaders communicated with Brewster through back channels, Gates says, averting riots and assuring that the school’s gates remained open. “We all worked with Kingman Brewster to keep violence from erupting.”

When Mr. Farley — who chaired the student strike committee — told Brewster it was time to shut down the university, “Like two Yale gentlemen, they shook hands,” according to “Murder in the Model City.”

“Bill was an outstanding student leader at Yale during a period of crisis,” says Schmoke, now president of the University of Baltimore. “He was both a fine writer and a wonderful speaker. His words helped to calm people who were traveling in troubled waters.”

And the university president demonstrated trust and nerve, according to Gates: “Kingman Brewster brought us in and told us we were the future leaders of the United States.

“We wanted to support the concept of a fair trial for Bobby Seale,” Gates says. “We wanted to oppose the systemic oppression of the Black Panthers. But we also wanted to preserve the integrity of the university we were rapidly becoming a part of. We chose to identify as black — and Yalies.”

Mr. Farley described the era in a 2005 interview with the Yale Daily News: “We felt that with the Panthers trial going on literally down the street from Old Campus, we could not ignore the implications of what was happening to the Panthers, nor those of the Vietnam War, nor town-gown relations. The only way to get things confronted and faced was to drop normal activity and to concentrate on what was going on around us.”

Gale and Bill Farley on their wedding day.
Gale and Bill Farley on their wedding day.

Gale Farley says that, from what her husband told her, “Him and Kingman spent a lot of time talking people off the cliff.”

Mr. Farley spent much of his youth in Lewistown, Pa., where his father, William Farley Sr. — a Tuskegee airman with a doctorate in agronomy, the study of soil — worked with farmers and the Amish. At dinnertime, “His dad used to make his boys recite the different countries in Africa,” Gale Farley says.

Young Bill “worked in a movie theater and was a radio DJ and worked in a shoe factory,” she says. “He put the soles on shoes.”

Mr. Farley met his wife of 33 years when they both worked for the Chicago law firm McDermott, Will and Emery. They raised two sons in Oak Park according to “The Farley Rules” — do your best, be kind to others and “a deal’s a deal.”

“He never missed one of our football games,” says his son William. “He would get up at 5:30, wake me up and drive me to weight-training.”

In judo, Mr. Farley achieved the rank of black belt. “I think that is where he got his meditation techniques from,” his wife says.

Meditation became an effective tool for his other son, Royal, when he was 6 or 7 and sick with fever. His father laid him down and encouraged him to focus his energy and feel calm.

“Just with his voice, love and instructions, to bring me that level of peace, while I was sick, at that young of an age, was powerful,” Royal Farley says.

Mr. Farley loved horror films like “Hellraiser,” “Friday the 13th” and “From Dusk till Dawn.” He watched Westerns like “Unforgiven,” “Bonanza” and “The Rifleman.” He enjoyed family vacations, especially to Ohio’s Cedar Point, where he rode the roller-coasters.

“He was a brilliant lawyer, he was soft-spoken, and he was wise,” says attorney James Montgomery, City Hall’s corporation counsel during the Washington administration.

“He didn’t have a mean bone in his body,” says attorney Judson Miner, another former Chicago corporation counsel, who hired Mr. Farley as his deputy.

He always made sure he had an extra dollar to give to a homeless man he saw downtown each day, according to his wife, who says that although she misses him terribly, she feels a sense of sanctuary in their home because, with him, “Nothing ever bad happened here.”

Mr. Farley is also survived by his father; a sister, Laura; and two brothers, Michael and John.

Gates says a favorite memory of Mr. Farley is from when they were studying in England. Mr. Farley was at Oxford. Gates was at Cambridge. One time, over tea and scones, Gates says, “We looked at each other and said, ‘Can you imagine what the brothers at home would say?’ ”

Gale and William Farley and their sons, Royal (lower) and Bill (top).  | Family photo
Gale and William Farley and their sons, Royal (lower) and Bill (top). | Family photo