The hats defined her personality. Richard Stockton College defined her life.
Vera King Farris died Saturday at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus, in Galloway Township, where she was taken Friday after becoming ill.
The hospital sits on college land just off Vera King Farris Drive, which was renamed for her after her 2003 retirement as president of the college she served for 20 years.
“Vera transformed the institution, and students were always at the core,” her friend and former Stockton vice president for academic affairs Joseph Marchetti said Saturday.
Friends said Saturday that Farris was not feeling well during the week, but thought it was something minor.
Marchetti had dinner with her Tuesday and talked to her again on Thanksgiving. She had stayed home in bed rather than attend a family dinner.
“I was going to check on her over the weekend, then Friday night I heard she was in the hospital,” he said.
The exact cause of death has not been released.
An Atlantic City native, Farris was named Stockton’s third president in 1983, making her the first black woman college president in New Jersey. Stockton was just 10 years old, and with her eye-catching hats and outgoing personality Farris soon became synonymous with the growing college she raised through its adolescence.
A moment of silence was held at the college athletic center Saturday afternoon before the men’s basketball game with Brooklyn College. President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr., traveling home from a family holiday, sent a message read at the game and posted on the college Web site.
“Earlier today, the Richard S. Stockton community lost one of its treasured members with the passing of President Emeritus Dr. Vera King Farris,” the announcer said at the game. “We’d like to express our sincere condolences to Dr. Farris’ family, friends and colleagues on their loss.”
Friends and colleagues were shocked and saddened at her sudden death. But what they remembered most was her passion for life, learning, and Stockton.
Farris “had a vision for the college,” said women’s basketball coach Joe Fussner, positioned just off-court in the middle of the expansive sports arena. “And we’re basically standing in it. Prior to Dr. Farris, athletics was not on the drawing board. She saw what athletics could bring to a college, the enthusiasm and the pride.”
Farris’s death comes a year after the death of longtime athletic director and Olympian G. Larry James. Current Athletic Director Lonnie Folks said Farris and James “shared a vision of the program being one of excellence.”
Farris was a fixture at the games.
“I can remember sitting next to her during games,” Folks said. “For two hours, she wasn’t a president of a college. She was just a fan who loved basketball. From a personal aspect, those are some of the moments I’ll miss most — sitting next to her and cheering for Stockton.”
Local businessman and friend Peter Caporilli, who served as a student member on the committee that chose Farris, and later became president of the Stockton Foundation, called her both fiercely intelligent and charming, with a constant thirst for knowledge.
“She could talk to my kids about the Twilight book series as easily as talk about the latest scientific discovery,” he said.
“She was a mentor for so many of us,” said Harvey Kesselman, an alumnus and now dean of education at Stockton, who was already working there when Farris became president. “She had a tremendous love for the students and had a profound impact on the college.”
Stockton spokesman Tim Kelly, who was hired by Farris, remembers the smell of popcorn coming from her office, and what it symbolized.
“She literally had an open-door policy,” he said. “And if a student would come by to see her, the first thing she’d say is ‘Let me make some popcorn.’ If you smelled popcorn you knew she was in there helping someone.”
Her tenure at the college was dedicated to a strong belief in undergraduate teaching and the liberal arts. Among her most well-known achievements was the founding of the nationally known Holocaust Research Center at the college. In 1989 she established the Ida E. King chair in Holocaust studies in her mother’s memory. It was her mother, she said in an extensive 2003 interview with The Press of Atlantic City, who spurred her own interest in the subject because her mother found it so horrifying.
Her tenure at the college had its bumps, including a couple of lawsuits and some tenure issues with faculty. She weathered them all, accepting them as part of the job. But she was a tough opponent, and once sued a professor who criticized her.
Farris also served as a role model to minority and disadvantaged students. She grew up poor in Atlantic City, but said in the interview with The Press that she understood early on that she was smart and that education could give her a better life. She was a fierce advocate for scholarships, keeping the college affordable and having students graduate in four years.
When state aid got tight and tuition rose she jumped into fundraising with creativity and humor. She started the “Grand Idea” to sell $1,000 raffle tickets for the naming rights to the college athletic center and the $tockTen raffle, in which a $10 ticket earned the buyer a chance to win a year’s free tuition at the college. All funds went to scholarships.
“She used her outgoing personality and creativity to come up with unconventional ideas,” Caporilli said.
One topic Farris would not discuss was her age, which she never publicly revealed.
According to press and college reports, Farris graduated third in her class at Atlantic City High School in 1954, and attended Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, on scholarship. She got her degree in biology in 1959, then went on to get her master’s and doctorate degrees in zoology from the University of Massachusetts. She taught there and in the State University of New York system.
Her science background later led her to be a leader in environmental awareness through the development of Stockton’s geothermal system and as host to the summer Governor’s School on the Environment for high school students.
In 1969 she moved to the administrative side of higher education as the assistant to the vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She rose to vice provost of academic affairs there before moving to Kean University, where she served as vice president of academic affairs from 1980 to 1983, when she joined Stockton.
When she announced her retirement from Stockton, people were surprised. But she said it was time to go.
“I believe in leaving the stage while they’re still applauding,” she said. She lived in Galloway Township, not far from the college.
She also served on corporate boards. In 1993 she was named to the board of directors of the Flagstar Corporation, parent company of Denny’s restaurants. The company wanted to increase its minority representation following allegations of racial discrimination in its restaurants, and Farris played an active role on the board.
She remained active in the community after her retirement. Earlier this month she served as honorary chairwoman of the Stockton Council of Black Faculty annual fundraising dinner.
She also taught Sunday school and was a moderator at Seaview Baptist Church in Linwood, where last year she was recognized for 25 years of perfect attendance.
“She brought so many people into the church,” said the Rev. Ned Flexer, a member who has also served as interim pastor. “She had just completed a series on grace in Sunday school. People would come to the class, then join the church.”
Farris is survived by her son, King Farris, his wife, Mary Jo, and their three daughters, all of Mississippi; and two sisters, Norma and Thelma. Friends said she was also close to her niece Stephanie and grandniece Heather.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.
Staff writer Steve Lemongello contributed to this report.
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