BAR Awards Profile – William W. Farmer ’77

2011 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
William W. Farmer ’77

When Bill Farmer ’77 considered a job offer with Time Warner cable 30 years ago, his brother tried to warn him away, asking, “Who would pay for TV?”

Bill ignored his brother and joined Time Warner. Not only did people pay for their favorite shows, but as fiber optic technology and broadband became options, people paid for digital cable to access the Internet. As Bill succeeded in each new market, he gained a reputation as a transformational leader.

Once Bill was ready to retire from Time Warner, United Way of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Ky., snapped him up as its president.

Tonight Bill receives the Harvey Beech Award for outstanding contributions to the community, not only for his success in furthering United Way’s mission, but for his involvement in the cities he lived in while with Time Warner. He moved eight times in 28 years, growing new markets and, as the technology developed, launching new services. In each new city, he took an interest in projects that bettered the community. His diligence to his 200 employees in Jackson, Mississippi, during Hurricane Katrina was typical.

Before the first raindrop fell, Bill had a plan in place of how to check whether employees needed help, and he made plans for them to have access to their paychecks, should power go out. When the storm hit, streets flooded; trees toppled; power lines snapped; the whole town shut down. Schools were closed, but Bill had arranged for certified child-care workers to provide daycare on site at Time Warner. He had food to distribute to employees’ families. He had relationships with other Time Warner executives that translated into tangible aid. Upon learning of the devastation Bill faced down South, the executive team from Time Warner in Memphis organized a convoy that brought two truckloads of water to the Jackson office, and enough food, grills and volunteers to host a cookout on the front lawn to keep employees going as they worked to restore cable service.

For his success in handling the crisis, Time Warner bestowed on Bill the International Leaders Award, an honor that usually goes to an office in Tokyo, London, Hong Kong or New York. His bookshelf already held the highly coveted Distinguished West Virginian Award and his induction into the National Association of Minorities in Cable Hall of Fame.

None of this surprises his mother, of course. “He was never like a child,” Retha Farmer said, “never one to joke or fool around like a lot of kids.” She remembered the time the newspaper published a letter to the editor Bill wrote about a community issue. He was in middle school at the time.

Bill and his younger brother, who died seven years ago, shouldered the responsibility of integrating their schools in Rocky Mount. “There was a higher level of expectation of those who were the first or the youngest or the darkest,” Bill said. “You knew people were watching and making assessments of others based on your performance.”

At UNC, where he majored in radio, TV and motion pictures, he was assistant manager of the varsity men’s basketball team and manager of the junior varsity team at a time when few African Americans held leadership positions in sports. He told Coach Dean Smith he did not want to be a token hire. Coach Smith replied, “William, you may be hired because you’re black, but you won’t stay in the job because of your race.”

Bill took that to heart, and every day he applies himself to his work and relationships as though he were being evaluated on whether he had earned the privilege of returning the next day: in the cable industry or nonprofit world, and as a husband, father and son.

In North Carolina, Bill was appointed to the Commission on Workforce Development and the Banking Commission. He has served on the UNC Board of Governors. Aware of the scarcity of role models when you’re first, Bill has volunteered with programs that encourage African-American teens to pursue their educations. He developed a diversity program in Charlotte that is still going years later. He demands empirical data, saying, “What gets measured gets fixed.” The results speak volumes. Bill has squeezed funding out of a tight-fisted legislature, and his programs have reduced dropout rates and violence year after year.

“That’s what Carolina graduates do,” Bill said. “We have bold goals, and we meet them.”