Lights dim, and wisdom begins flowing from Barbara Farmer.
She’s preaching in Calvary Baptist Church, her voice surging and ebbing as might be expected from an ordained minister. But this isn’t her church, and the audience isn’t gathered for a service. Farmer, a veteran educator, has come to speak about building relationships at work and home for a Christian leadership conference.Before she taps into her reservoir of advice, however, she thanks the most important person in the building — an unseen assistant. Operating her PowerPoint presentation is her husband, Edgar Farmer.
“My supporter and helpmate and all that,” she says.
Two weeks later, pacing around a classroom, he imparts lessons of his own. He looks every bit the esteemed professor in his sweater vest and bow tie, introducing Penn State students to the course he built, Cultural Diversity in the Workplace.
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For the second meeting, he has a special guest planned — his co-author of the course textbook. He announces the “dynamic speaker” will discuss embracing diversity at home.
“I’m going to bring her to class next week, but I might have to wash the dishes and take her to dinner,” Farmer says.
And a long-standing partnership continues.
The Farmers, who live in Patton Township, have operated as a team for four decades. Together, they’ve taught and explored issues of race, diversity, education and leadership, appearing in each other’s classes, giving joint presentations, co-writing books and columns and collaborating on radio and TV programs. Drawing on their 41-year marriage, they’ve talked about relationships and counseled other couples.
Even when one has a solo act, the other usually is involved. She edits and types his papers; he’s her right-hand man at speaking dates. Whether they’re teachers, scholars or leaders, they’re never far from each other.
“It’s like a dynamic duo,” says Joseph Selden, a friend and the assistant dean of multicultural affairs at Penn State’s College of Communications.
But it’s not like one plays Batman to the other’s Robin. They’re equals. Utter “Dr. Farmer” and both look up. He has a doctorate in vocational industrial education, she in educational leadership — just two items in a pair of lengthy resumes full of titles and honors.
After two decades of teaching at high schools and colleges, Barbara led Lemont and Houserville elementary schools for 11 years as the first black principal in the State College Area School District. She became the director of multicultural affairs in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology last year, and has since worked to recruit more women and minority students.
Edgar, an education professor, directs Penn State’s learning and performance systems department, the latest of several administrative posts. He oversees 38 faculty members in the adult education, instructional systems and work-force education and development programs. He’s known on campus for mentoring graduate students.
“They’re people of character and compassion,” says Patricia Best, a former State College Area School District superintendent. “They’re devoted to one another and their family, and deeply committed to serving others through their professions, their church and their community.”
Amid the big egos of academia, Selden says, the Farmers stand out for being down to earth.
“When you mention the Farmers, a big smile comes across your face,” he says. “Because they’re approachable people. They haven’t let their prestige go to their heads.”The ‘long journey’
Barbara and Edgar sit, shoulders almost touching, in the packed living room of friends.
Laughter sprinkles the conversations of nearby couples. Music wafts from the kitchen, where fruit and desserts cover a table. It has all the signs of a party — until Harold McKenzie calls the meeting to order.
McKenzie is the pastor of the Unity Church of Jesus Christ in State College, to which everyone gathered belongs. Each couple is studying to be mentors in Marriage Savers, a faith-based marital counseling program.
“One of the reasons you’re here is that you don’t represent perfect relationships; you represent strong relationships,” McKenzie says.
The Farmers’ strength, he says, lies in their mutual deference and respect, that “they affirm each other in different ways.” An abiding faith unites them as well.“It’s been their journey with God that’s helped mold and nurture them as a couple,” McKenzie says.
Their personal “long journey,” as Barbara calls it, goes back to their teenage years in Newport News, Va.
Seniors at different high schools, they met in a recreational center taking dance lessons for a debutantes ball. Barbara swayed with her escort, but she liked another girl’s choice more.
“When I saw Edgar, I thought: ‘Where has he been all my life?’ ” she recalls. “He was so sharp.”
They studied apart — he at Norfolk State, she at Hampton University — but grew closer, eventually marrying a year after their 1967 graduation. Edgar then spent a year in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
After his return in 1970, they started their careers and their family. Edgar finished his graduate studies — receiving a doctorate at Penn State — and Barbara taught business education. The first of their three children was born in 1971.
In the early years, they established a chemistry that endured as Edgar moved to Temple, North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina State and then, in 1996, back to Penn State. They wrote well together — compatible, not competitive. Barbara edited his papers late into the night, napping as he worked on sections. Years later, he returned the favor as she went back to school, earning a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
They still mesh creatively. Barbara has edited three of Edgar’s books, and they’ve co-written two — “Leading with Character” and “Diversity in America: Visions of the Future.” They also have produced more than a dozen newspaper columns about ethnicity, diversity and other social issues.
Like a tennis ball, they bat admiration back and forth as naturally as they bounce ideas. She calls him the “visionary” of the pair; he says she’s the “wordsmith.” She challenges him to defend himself, as when he proposed a column about racial profiling. He encourages her to express herself, as when he needed a chapter for one of his books.
Edgar was dissatisfied with the contracted writer. Barbara looked at the manuscript.
“She said, ‘You’re right. This is horrible. I could do better than that,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘I know you can.’ ”
Their bond has always impressed Patricia Best, especially when she was interviewed on their local public radio and TV show, “What Matters.” She recalls an efficient team — Barbara the host with a “warm and engaging personality,” and Edgar the off-camera producer providing “calm and steady” assistance.
“They’re greater than the sum of their parts,” Best says. “Both Barbara and Edgar bring considerable skills to their work, and together, they bring themselves to a new level.”
Friends say they share much — a sense of humor, charisma, openness — but they’re not mirror images. He’s more reserved; she’s more outspoken. They express themselves differently. “Barbara is a wonderful storyteller to illustrate a point,” Best says. “And Edgar is very good at coming to the point.”
The Farmers agree they complement each other. Over the years, they’ve learned to trust the other’s viewpoint. “Even when I’m creating a message to preach, I’ll run it by Edgar,” Barbara says.
But, they say, they’re the same where it counts: values. Maybe it’s because they both grew up in large families, but they love helping people, tackling issues and striving to improve lives.
“They don’t have this kind of political bravado about them,” says Charles Garoian, a friend, fellow parishioner and Penn State art education professor. “They are interested in people who are engaged in conversation with each other, sharing each other’s differences, and at the same time, identifying a common humanity.”
Barbara and Edgar stand beside each other in academic robes, a stately tandem.
They’ll be together forever in the painting. In real life, unity isn’t guaranteed. That’s why, across their living room, they’re spending a Saturday morning relaxing on a couch, papers scattered on their laps.
Another mentor couple, Michael and Tracey Jackson, have come over to review Marriage Savers counseling material. It’s a rich, reflective conversation. At one point, the talk turns to a classic problem for spouses — cleaning up the other’s clutter.
Amusement creeps across Edgar’s face.
“I think that’s a common occurrence for couples, how to decide on the time (schedule),” he says, hesitating and turning to Barbara with a grin. “I’m trying to find the right words here.”
“I appreciate you’re trying to find the right words,” she says with a laugh.
“We’ve been through this, even after 41 years,” he tells the Jacksons.
Tracey Jackson, married 23 years, later tells her hosts they inspire other couples.
“To know you’ve seen the same things, are going through the same stuff, makes them feel not as big,” she says.
Barbara and Edgar, though, want to make something clear: They’re not saints. They don’t always click, but they’ve learned to bite their tongues. Given time, ruffles smooth themselves out, the right words get said.
Once, in the middle of writing her doctoral dissertation, Barbara came home exhausted from work. Edgar asked if he could help her writing.
“No,” she snapped.
Some men might have been angered. Edgar paused and said, “You need a nap.”
Some women might have been insulted. But Barbara heard concern, not condescension, from a love as solid as the burnished wooden statues he twice carved of her when she was pregnant.
“Next thing I know, she went upstairs and took a nap,” Edgar says. “After that, she said, ‘Do you want to help me now?’ ”