Powered by a sense of service
A few years ago, Waldo Farnham worked with fellow McMinn-ville Rotary Club members to put up the huge flag and flagpole at the Y intersection of Adams and Baker streets, near the McMinn-ville School District office.
The monument needed a lighting system. So Farnham decided to check out the lights system used on another big flagpole, the one in Newberg.
Holding a small flashlight, the electrician stretched out on the sidewalk beside the pole, peering down at the below-grade lights. He took a good, long look.
“I was laying there and I heard sirens. They got closer and closer. Then they stopped,” he recalled.
He sat up to see what was going on — and, in so doing, startled the approaching medics. Someone had called to report a dead body on the sidewalk beside the pole.
Farnham, who has a great sense of humor, delights in relating such stories. And he has a million of them, many of which poke fun at himself, his family or the many friends whom he admires and respects.
He’s always looking for a chance to add to his collection. Often, he sets up the circumstances — planning an elaborate practical joke, for instance — so he’ll have both a good laugh and a good story.
Knowing that, his family and friends bravely went ahead and planned a surprise party to celebrate his recent retirement after about six decades of running Farnham Electric.
Surely they knew there would be retribution.
“A lot of people have some read bad times ahead,” Farnham predicted.
Those people know who they are. And they know Farnham has lots of wickedly funny ideas (He once plotted to lift and rotate a friend’s house while he was on his honeymoon) and, now that he’s retired, plenty of time in which to execute them.
Farnham was lured to his retirement party under the guise that he would be attending his daughter Lori’s engagement event. He even washed his ‘55 Crown Victoria so the happy couple could drive away in it.
Instead, he arrived at the Yamhill Valley Heritage Center on July 13 to find the parking lot full. He’s spent many, many hours there restoring vintage tractors, so he knew it was strange for others to be there on a Saturday evening. Still, when the doors of the reconstruction shop rolled back, he drove innocently into the building, only to find it crowded with well-wishers.
“He was in shock,” Lori Farnham said.
Maybe not shock, her dad said. He was just concentrating on figuring out a way to flee.
Lori and her siblings — Denise Farnham, Dennis McGill, Tim McGill and Pat McGill — had been planning the event for weeks. They nabbed their dad’s address book, then teased the poor guy about being forgetful when he went looking for it. They heisted the photos and awards from his office, no explanation given, to display at the party.
They invited Farnham’s current friends along with acquaintances he hadn’t seen in years. Industry leaders attended, as well, including the Oregon state building codes administrator and representatives of the National Electrical Contractors Association.
It wasn’t the first time Farnham had been the center of attention. In 1996, for instance, he was one of four inductees at the Academy of Electrical Engineering Contracting’s annual banquet in Boston.
The AEEC is an elite, worldwide organization whose members must be nominated and vetted before being accepted, so it was a huge honor.
“That was a big time in my life,” Farnham said, recalling the induction.
He almost missed it, though — when the letter from the academy arrived, he thought it was a mistake. Believing they wouldn’t be inviting someone like him to join, he humbly tossed it in the trash, only to retrieve it and read it more closely later.
Good thing — AEEC officials not only inducted him then, but this year sent a letter of commendation that was read at his retirement event.
Everyone from his fellow electricians to friends and neighbors are eager to honor Farnham because of his lifetime of hard work and helping the community.
Although he’s known far and wide as “Waldo,” the McMinnville native is actually named Ralph Waldo Farnham. He shares his surname with his late father and role model, Ralph Farnham, who worked at Farnham Electric before he took over.
The company was started by Waldo’s uncle, Les Farnham, in 1920. During World War II, many of the firms workers were called up for the military, and young Waldo, born in 1934, was pressed into service as a helper for those who stayed behind.
“They’d take me to the jobs and I’d be carrying pipe and pounding nails,” he recalled. It was a good lesson in work ethics. But it gave him the wrong impression about what it would be like to be an electrician — he wanted more from life than working as an assistant.
Instead, the boy became an entrepreneur. In addition to helping his mother with her early-morning milk route and assisting his dad in the shop after school, he cleaned sidewalks and did lawn care.
When he was 9, he marched into the First National Bank of McMinnville asking for a one-year, $400 loan so he could buy a rototiller, Banker Jim Stannard called his dad, who co-signed, something young Waldo didn’t know until many years later. It was a good investment on the adults’ part: Waldo paid the money back in six months.
In high school, he did tilling and tractor work all over town, working far into the night until the police came and told him to knock off the noise. He’d go home to catch a few hours of sleep — and often few more hours during school.
He managed to graduate, though. He started college at Linfield, then switched to Oregon State University.
Afterward, he joined J.C. Compton’s firm and became foreman of the oiling crew. He didn’t mind the work, but he didn’t like the traveling that was required, so he eventually asked his father if he could apprentice as an electrician.
“I got a year’s credit for all the work I did as a child,” he said.
And before he finished his five-year apprenticeship, his father made him president of Farnham Electric.
It’s been a good career, he said.
Over the decades, Farnham and his crew have wired many, many commercial and industrial buildings in McMinnville, from the steel mill to downtown businesses. Since the 1960s, Farnham Electric also has specialized in building electrical switch houses for rock crushing plants all over the U.S. and the world.
A switch house is a major piece of crushing plant. It involves 300 to 400 horsepower motors that power equipment to pulverize rock into progressively smaller pieces.
“Every plant we built was different,” Farnham said. “It was a great industry for us, just good, heavy-duty work.”
A plant owners’ preferences would determine the design and detail of each project. The site figured in, as well, especially when it came to a plant Farnham built for installation at 13,000 feet elevation in Peru. “Over 12,000 feet changes the way electricity flows,” he explained. “We had to use bigger wire, bigger motors that could work harder.”
About half the switch houses Farnham Electric has created were built on-site in Peru or locations like South Korea, Alaska or Canada. The other half were built in McMinnville, tested, then shipped to their final destination, where Farnham crews assembled them.
Farnham himself rarely went to the installation sites. “I had quality people out there all the time,” he said, “and there were a lot of facets to building the company I had to take care of.
“It wasn’t necessary for me to go just so I could pat myself on the back.”
He often gives the credit to others.
“I tell myself I’m not very smart, I don’t know everything,” he said. “All I have to do is surround myself with quality people.”
In 2012, Farnham sold the business. He officially remained on board to answer questions until recently; now he goes to the office when and if he wants to.
“At my age, I really enjoy not having any responsibility,” he said. “I can play with my tractors, do demo work ... .”
He particularly enjoys the latter. After so many years doing exacting electrical work, he said, it’s fun to just rip something apart.
“I can take a two-story and put it at parade rest in 10 minutes,” he said. “It’s fun to whang on things. I can grab it with the excavator and shake it like a dog with a rat. I just love it.”
He also remains active in the McMinnville Rotary Club, to which he’s belonged for ages. He’s a past winner of the International Rotarian of the Year award.
For years, he hosted an annual get-together for Rotarians to pack up children’s toys made at the federal prison in Sheridan.
He’s also been involved with the club’s rose sale, not just selling roses but making sure area care home residents each received a bloom. “But I didn’t want the credit,” he said, seeming disappointed when his daughter revealed that he was behind the gifts.
Lori Farnham said service is in her father’s blood.
“His dad served the community and he took over,” she said.
Waldo agreed that his father set a good example and encouraged him to help others.
“I guess service is my fun,” Farnham said. “I like a challenge. I need to do something. I’m almost like a weed blowing around, looking for something to get my roots into.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.