Flowering tree with Bell Tower in background


Paving Her Own Path

How the first lady of Washburn found her place and made an impact

Susan Farley and her dog, Hershey, posing in the presidential residence

(Susan Farley and her dog, Hershey, posing in the presidential residence. Photo by Peggy Clark)

By Annie Flachsbarth

When Susan Farley’s husband, Jerry Farley, took the role of Washburn president in 1997, it took her a little time to discover her role on campus.

“I wanted to grow up and be a math teacher, which I was,” Farley said. “When we moved here, I was a little lost."

So, Farley set to work trying to figure out how she could best contribute to the cause. And she’s done just that. For 25 years, she’s not only contributed but she’s also held a crucial role in community relations for the university.

The Ultimate Hostess

A vital part of Farley’s role has been to make sure their 98-year-old home is ready for every event. Entertaining in their beautifully-maintained Westboro neighborhood home, owned by Washburn University and designated as theSusan Farley Washburn president’s residence, requires a laundry list of to-dos for Farley, including making sure the house and lawn is ready, coordinating menus, making sure furniture is set up and arranged appropriately for the anticipated number of guests, supervising catering staff, as well as engaging guests.

A multitude of events are regularly hosted at their home, including new faculty receptions, student dinner roundtables, discussion dinners, Phi Kappa Phi initiations, visiting international students, Alumni Fellows receptions, donor appreciation gatherings, Washburn Women’s Alliance luncheons and KTWU donor dinners among others.

“I am always glad to use our home to benefit Washburn,” Farley said. “It is a privilege to live in this home and serve this outstanding university.”

However, Farley’s role as hostess extends much further than entertaining at home. She regularly entertains “on the go” at Washburn University Alumni Association and Foundation events and Washburn Athletic events — in Topeka and other cities across the country — to help to strengthen relationships with attendees.

Not only that, she regularly helps to woo prospective students, and develops positive relationships with students, faculty, alumni, elected officials and community leaders to garner support for Washburn.  

"These relationships have enriched my life, and it is gratifying to think this may have inspired more interest in contributing to Washburn, whether with time, talent, or treasure,” Farley said. “I am blessed to have had the opportunity to serve the university in this way.”

Susan Farley with Washburn friends

(From left to right: Rita Carter, b ed '63, Judy Soule, ba '62, m ed '84, Susan Farley, Charlotte Adair, ba '70, Jan Nuzman)

Getting to Know Susan

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Farley graduated high school in Chattanooga and received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Tennessee. She received her master’s in education from the University of Oklahoma while completing an internship in the Teacher Corps program. She taught mathematics in Oklahoma for 26 years, including 13 years at Norman public schools and seven years at OU prior to moving to Topeka for her role as first lady.

The more Farley learned about the history of Washburn, the prouder she became. When Washburn’s archivist, Martha Imparato, shared the 125-year-old autobiography of the university’s namesake, Ichabod Washburn, she wanted to share his story. So she took it upon herself to retype it and have it re-published. The book was given to the board of regents, sold in the university bookstore, and it can be read online through Google books.

Always a student at heart, Farley has gotten to know students and faculty better while auditing classes in the 60+ audit program — taking a variety of classes including biology, chemistry, physics, kinesiology, sociology, religious studies and history. She’s also made it a point to host monthly student dinner roundtable discussions during the school year and believes she’s touched thousands of students in this personal way.

Susan Farley with Washburn students

(Susan Farley poses with students during Homecoming in 2017)

Farley enjoys those smaller, one-on-one conversations better than the larger events which explains why she also enjoys golf, tennis, bridge, scrabble and discussions with her book club.

“My husband's role has afforded many opportunities to meet wonderful people,” Farley said. “I also like to get to know people, and them to get to know me separate from what my husband does. On the other hand, it is wonderful when I can use my role to make people feel better like hospital visits, funerals, weddings and other celebrations.”

She also admits there are many perks to the job of first lady, aside from the beautiful home — including traveling with Washburn alumni on trips and representing Washburn at community events with the Chamber of Commerce, Topeka Symphony, Topeka Civic Theater, Topeka Business Hall of Fame and Kansas Day.

“No matter what I do, I have been seen as a reflection of the university,” Farley said. “This is the way I have been introduced, and the way most people interact with me. I have tried to always be mindful of this and reflect well for Washburn.”

Susan and Jerry Farley with International Students

(Susan and Jerry Farley pose with international students outside the president's residence)

Retirement and Beyond

As Jerry Farley prepares for retirement, Susan says she’s not exactly sure what to expect. She knows they’ll continue to be involved with Washburn as much as they can but looks forward to fewer evening obligations and of course, being able to spend more time with her husband.

“I know I have been blessed with so many wonderful experiences for the past 25 years," Farley said. "I will always treasure these memories. Now it’s time to take care of the little things and spend more quality time with people.”

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