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Idaho Centenarian Made his Mark on the Wood River Valley
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Sunday, October 31, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

One of the Wood River Valley’s centenarians passed away Friday night.

Ret. Capt. Gilbert “Tommy” Farr, who flew 65 bombing missions during World War II and later helped raise the money for The Senior Connection, had turned 101 in October.

Farr grew up in Eureka, Ill., the self-proclaimed “pumpkin center of the world.” The son of a science teacher, he attended a one-room schoolhouse. And in 1940 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He intended to be an airplane mechanic but was encouraged to attend flight school at San Antonio, Texas. And he soon found himself tasked with bombing Normandy, piloting a Douglas A-20 Havoc with two gunners on D-Day in 1944.

After D-Day, he moved to France since the planes couldn’t carry enough fuel to strike deep into Germany from England. He flew solo with a bomber and navigator on board.

“It was a young kid’s experience,” he once told Eye on Sun Valley. “People look at these propellers on the planes today and say, ‘What is this thing?!’ ”

Serving as a bomber pilot was just a job, despite the fact that he could have lost his life any time he went up, Farr said.

“I got up every morning and wondered: Am I going to work this morning or not?” he said. “We flew six airplanes in formation and dropped one bomb a day. We had aerial photos of our targets to tell us when to drop.”

Farr was given credit for 65 bombing missions. Other times enemy fire was so heavy that he and his fellow pilots had to turn around and go home because they couldn’t see their targets.

“I got hit lots of times but never lost an engine or plane,” he said. “Guys would said, ‘I’m going to go with Tommy because he never loses anything.’ ”

After the European conflict ended on May 8, 1945, Farr was reassigned to the Pacific Theater. But first he was given 30 days leave. He led a group through France, Spain and Africa to Ascension Island, a volcanic island a thousand miles off the coast of South Africa and 1,400 miles off the coast of Brazil, before turning north over South America and back to the United States through Puerto Rico and Miami.

“Finding that volcanic cone—Ascension Island—out in the middle of the ocean may have been the toughest flight I ever undertook,” he said.

In the Pacific Theater, he was a fighter pilot fighting one-on-one with enemy aircraft.

“They let on like they were going to send me to Hawaii, but I ended up in Okinawa, instead. The dead bodies there smelled terrible,” he said, referring to the dead bodies of Japanese who had died while hiding in caves.

“Before my leave was over, they dropped the bomb on Japan. So I went back to college, flew some more and worked for the Forest Service for 27 years in Salmon and Pocatello before winding up in Ketchum.”

When he returned home, he fell in love with a college-educated lass named Janet and the two operated White Clouds Aviation, while spending summers on the Salmon River for the Forest Service.

Tommy and Janet built their dream home in Muldoon Canyon during the summer of 1980 and there Farr gained a reputation as “a wood cutting fool” who amassed firewood piles of legendary proportions. It was the third house built in Muldoon Canyon.

He copied the design for his house, he said, from “one of the lake country cabins up north at Alturas and Pettitt lakes” and gave it to architect Jim McLaughlin to turn into reality. He trimmed the doorways and hung the doors himself.

“I finished the house after John Lloyd Construction got it started for me,” said Farr, who by then was working as a district ranger for the Ketchum Ranger District.

Farr was a relatively young squirt of 50 in 1971 when a new organization called the Senior Connection started a weekly get-together for seniors over lunch at the Miner’s Hall in Hailey. That weekly luncheon turned into so much more 11 years later when Farr learned that there were grants available for “these small things called senior centers.”

He gathered a group of friends, including Leo Stavros and Pete Cantor, to apply for 501©3 status so they could go after those monies. Then in 1983 they raised $300,000 to break ground for the senior center.

Eventually, Farr became an avid user of The Senior Connection, which offers transportation for seniors to doctor’s appointments, fitness classes, activities for those dealing with various forms of dementia, Meals on Wheels, recreational activities ranging from weekly nature walks to symphony outings, minor house repairs, and even employment services for low-income adults 55 years and older.

For many years he rarely missed lunch at The Connection, where he swapped war stories with pals like Bill Brandt and showed off his latest iPhones, laptops and other technological gadgets. In December 2018 he and Brandt, who is five years his junior, even donned Top Gun uniforms to be photographed in a Senior Connection calendar putting subjects in movie settings.

In 2016 Farr and Brandt were among two dozen Idaho veterans given an Honor Flight to Washington D.C., to visit the World War II, Lincoln, Korean, Vietnam, Iwo Jima, Air Force and Navy memorials and watched the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery.

The visit was organized by Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization created to honor America’s veterans by giving them closure and the opportunity to honor their comrades.

It was Farr’s first visit to the capital of the nation he had fought to protect.

“The U.S. Air Force Memorial featured a long walkway. At one end were spires with planes performing a Missing Man Formation,” he recounted upon his return. “The most impressive thing to me was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They had people on constant patrol—back and forth, back and forth.  But all the men who have died—kind of scary.”

Two years later, Farr and others were honored with the unveiling of a plaque denoting the Tommy Farr and Founders Fireplace. He also was given a T-shirt that said, “I’m kind of a big deal.”

“We wouldn’t be standing here tonight if not for his vision,” the Senior Connection’s Executive Director Teresa Beahen Lipman told 200 celebrants

“He wasn’t an old guy when he recognized that we needed to support our seniors,” added Hailey Mayor Martha Burke. “It goes to show it’s not about the money but the vision. It’s about not losing sight of the goal and it’s about giving of yourself--that’s what Tommy did.”

Sadly, the pandemic kept Farr from getting to swap war stories with his buddies at The Senior Connection during the final months of his life.

But the former Army Air Corps pilot didn’t let the COVID pandemic keep him from celebrating Veterans Day in 2020—a month after the Bellevue Fire Department and Hailey Police led a parade past his house saluting him on his 100th birthday.

He showed up in a car driven by caretaker Olga Carrillo, wearing white gloves and a surgical face mask. He took the BBQ hamburger, potato salad and coleslaw members of Higher Ground handed him.

And he saluted.

“I always wanted to grow up to be like Tommy Farr,” said Allen Pinkerton, who worked with Farr for the Forest Service. “He flew his own plane, getting paid to look for wildfires. And he was so humble and modest--a strategic thinker.”


 

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