Pat Farrell looked for the good in each student who came through the doors of Catholic Memorial High School in recent decades, many agree.
Shortly after his last day in a 40-year-career at Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha, Pat Farrell stands outside the school where he spent 25 years as an English teacher and coach and 15 more in administrative roles. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)
“He was kind of like the Fr. Flanagan of Catholic Memorial – ‘There is no bad kid,’” said John Gabelbauer, a social studies teacher.

Fr. Edward Flanagan was founder of Boys Town, made famous by the 1938 movie of the same name for which Spencer Tracy won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Farrell concluded a 40-year career at the Waukesha school in December, retiring as assistant principal of student life. He spent 25 years as an English teacher and coach, and 15 more in administrative roles helping students who struggled with themselves, their families, their classmates, their studies or their teachers.

“He was really good for kids. Anyone who was in trouble found themselves in his office. He would walk with them, he would not abandon them,” said Gabelbauer, who graduated from Catholic Memorial and returned to teach around the time Farrell was hired.

“The biggest thing that I took away from him was, be fair. Try to look at every single side and angle to a story that you can. Listen to the kids, too – don’t just lecture them. Listen to what they have to say,” Gabelbauer said.

Teens more driven, accepting,
says 40-year educator

Kathleen McGillis
Special to your Catholic Herald

     High school is a struggle of who you are and who you want to be, retired Catholic Memorial administrator Pat Farrell said.
     That hasn’t changed during his 40 years in a high school setting. In four short years, the newly minted 8th grader evolves into an 18-year-old young adult, he noted.
     But Farrell has seen these changes – some of which mirror societal and educational shifts – across the decades at Catholic Memorial:

  • Students are more serious about their education.
  • They are more driven. “They really work hard.”
  • “They’re much more accepting of each other.”
  • At the same time, most want to follow a similar path. 
  • They are generally more thoughtful.
  • They are more receptive to being helped if there is a problem.

     His best advice to parents of teenagers? “Hold them firmly like a bird – loosely enough so that they can fly away,” he said.
     Parents set a powerful example of what is important by what they do as well as in what they say. Kids typically do want to please their parents and teachers, Farrell said, and parents should invest in them emotionally and spiritually.
     At the same time, he said, “You’ve got to realize that they’re sometimes going to make mistakes. As long as they grow from it, it’s of value.”

Bob Hall, principal at Catholic Memorial, said Farrell, 65, has been a role model for him.

“We’ve got something at Catholic Memorial called the Memorial Way. I think he embodies our school values in a significant way over a long period of time,” Hall said.

With the Memorial Way, the school’s staff and students are expected to model the values of faith, trust, respect, inclusiveness, professionalism, excellence, charity in all things and school pride.

“I know he inspires me,” Hall added.

“Pat is the champion for every kid. He was great at it,” said Kathy Mueller of Hartland. Mueller and her husband, Pete, share their Memorial alumni status with twin daughters who graduated last spring. Their youngest is now a sophomore.

Pete Mueller coached basketball with Farrell in the early 1980s – before Farrell coached the 1987 team that won a state championship. Kathy Mueller recalled that Farrell kept athletics in perspective and recognized that winning wasn’t everything.

Hall, in his fourth year as principal at Catholic Memorial, met Farrell as a coach when Hall attended a Milwaukee Bucks basketball clinic at Carroll University – as a fourth-grader.

“I just remembered his mustache. He’s kind of hard to forget,” Hall said.

In fact, when the school declared Dec. 18 as Pat Farrell Day, students all wore white paper handlebar mustaches around the cafeteria in a surprise tribute during his last lunchtime there.

Farrell spent a lot of time in the cafeteria – still a communication hub of any high school – so it was a fitting setting for a “Farrell Farewell” event attended by hundreds in December.

At the farewell, Farrell received a personal 40-year Catholic Memorial Farrell yearbook of sorts – a book full of stories and photographs, signed by fans.

In discussing his career recently, Farrell did not draw attention to those tributes.

Instead, he told the story of a girl who had some difficulties, but who eventually graduated from Memorial. On that occasion, she gave him a clock that he kept in his office.

“Thanks for taking the time and believing in me,” the clock’s inscription reads.

“I’ve always cherished that clock,” Farrell said.

Why did he stay at Catholic Memorial for his entire career?

“All of us have the same goal – we’re Catholic, we have a vision of what we’d like the world to be,” he said.

“It becomes so much a family,” Farrell said. “You start making a real core of friendships – both from a student level and a parent level.”

Farrell and his wife, Peg, an art professor at nearby Carroll University, also sent their son, Jack, and daughter, now Jamie Farrell O’Toole, to Catholic Memorial.

As someone whose main job was to build relationships with and among the Catholic Memorial  students, families and staff, Farrell added it was important that he felt welcomed at Catholic Memorial. Kids also want to feel they are in a safe place emotionally as well as physically – that they belong. He hopes one of the last projects with which he was involved – an Academic Learning Center created in the library – helps students more easily get help with specific subjects when they need it.

“You have to build that culture. Maybe that’s why I stayed there,” he said.

Born in Milwaukee, Farrell moved around a lot growing up, so he knew his way around trying to fit in at school. He also was pleased to be given a chance at Memorial to move into administration after he earned a master’s degree from Aurora University while a teacher.

In retirement, Farrell looks forward to more time for traveling, reading, golfing and gardening.

“We’re going to miss him. He was good for our high school,” Gabelbauer said.

To no one’s surprise, Farrell plans to volunteer at Catholic Memorial, which is just three quarters of a mile from his home.