In celebration of Elaine A. Fahrner – SYF advocate, champion, friend

Contributed by J. Michael Durnil, Ph.D., President and CEO, Simon Youth Foundation

“Elaine Passed” 

The text was simple, yet
overwhelming.  These two words were not
the way I wanted to start my day, but had I allowed the message to interrupt work
at SYF, Elaine would have been disappointed. 
So I tied my orange bow tie, and
I did my best to shake off the sting of this sad news.  

On November 11, 2014, Simon Youth
Foundation lost a great friend, advocate and champion. Elaine A. Fahrner served
until 2013 as Principal at the Academy at Old Cockrill in Nashville, Tennessee.  In addition to transforming the lives of thousands
of her own students, she was instrumental in creating a strong relationship
between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and SYF that is helping thousands
more students.

Our SYF success story is still being
written in Nashville and in many other communities today because of Elaine; she
made it so that you couldn’t say “no” to her.

I remember vividly our first meeting. I
was wearing my characteristic bow tie on that day too, and saddle shoes. Upon
being introduced to each other, Elaine gave me a skeptical once over and
pronounced in her most dignified, genteel southern accent, “You aren’t from
around here are you?”  I laugh now,
because, I think, she was not posing a question as much as she was offering a

That’s what I loved most about Elaine.
She was a keen observer of human behavior and the quintessential personification
of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In her case, a big stick was a heart
as big as all get out and the desire to help every student she met, whether the
student would admit to needing help or not. You see, Elaine was one of those
“old school” teachers. She loved teaching because she believed in the transformative
power of education and the basic principle that all students can and should

I always enjoyed going to Nashville to
see Elaine in action at her Academy. On more than one occasion, I was
privileged to witness and participate in the graduation tradition hosted
gleefully by Elaine.  The moment a
student earned enough credits to graduate, activity in the halls of Old
Cockrill would stop, and students would line up against the corridor walls. 

Elaine would take her place, commanding
attention with her charm – and often an air horn – and she would introduce with
great fanfare and the newest graduate of The Academy. I loved that the other students
would erupt as if they were at a Friday night football game, and all eyes would
fall on the graduate as they made their celebratory stroll into the open arms
of Elaine and other teachers. As the graduate would strut or sashay down the
hall, Elaine’s face would light up with pride and sincere happiness. I always
thought, “I hope these students know how lucky they are to have a Principal
like her!”

Elaine had an encyclopedic knowledge of
each of her students. She knew their aspirations as well as the daily
challenges they faced. As we’d walk the halls, she would carry on conversations
with each of the students, making sure they knew that she knew. 

I was in awe.

Elaine taught me many things, from the
meaning of “meat and three” (a Nashville restaurant that serves meat with three side
dishes) to being fearless in support of her students.

Christa McAuliffe is famous for many
reasons, but her words are what resonate the most with me. She said, “I touch
the future. I teach.”  Truer words could
not be spoken about Elaine.  She touched
so many lives, including the teachers, students and colleagues she engaged on
her path.

We are all better for knowing Elaine,
and now we have the opportunity to carry forward her legacy.  I am grateful to her for trusting all of us
with it.

All I can say is now is that St. Peter
better have an air horn waiting. It’s Elaine’s graduation day, and she set a
high standard.

Elaine’s obituary from her family,

A. Fahrner, devoted friend, partner, sister, and educator-extraordinaire lost
her battle with cancer on November 11, 2014. 
Elaine was 65 years young.  She
was, as always, surrounded by friends who loved her dearly. 

was born August 2, 1949 in Rushville, Indiana to her proud parents, Charles and
Evaleah, who preceded her in death.  It
was soon apparent that Elaine was too big for that small town and she left for
Ball State after graduation – a band geek with a big future.   She knew she could change the world by
helping children believe in their potential, so she became a teacher. 

taught in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska – which was quite a feat for someone who
hated to fly – then settled in Nashville at Glendale Middle School.  Many grateful children remember her classroom
as a fun and creative place to learn. 
Elaine was often hailed in grocery stores and restaurants around
Nashville – “Ms. Fahrner!” – and she would look into their faces and see their
10 year old selves.  She would search her
memory and recall their names and their smiles, and she would congratulate them
on who they had become.  Once they walked
away, she sometimes said “that kid was a mess!” 
She obviously fixed them all.  

went on to teach at East Literature and Martha Vaught Middle School, where she
eventually became principal.   Metro
schools then made a decision that would impact the dreams and ambitions of
hundreds of Nashville students when they gave Elaine the opportunity to fulfill
her own dream of opening a non-traditional high school for Nashville
students.  The Academy at Old Cockrill
has been creating second chances for at-risk kids since 2009 by offering
inspired, and inspiring, alternative curriculum to students who have not
otherwise been able to earn a diploma. 
Elaine had found her place – and in doing so, she helped so many others
find theirs.  She gathered together other
educators who believed in her vision, and together they changed our world by
guiding their students in reaching their potential.  Ask anyone who went to Old Cockrill about Ms.
Fahrner and they will tell you that she believed in them – every single one.

she wasn’t changing lives at work, she was changing her golf score. We don’t
want to say that she shaved strokes – that would be a lie – but she did win a
lot.  She loved golf because it was a
challenge, but mostly because she got to spend time with friends and have
beverages delivered right to her cart. 
For 10 years, she and her dear friend Suzanne Bradford hosted the
Fahrford golf tournament – a coveted, invitation-only, best-ball scramble.  An invitation to the Fahrford signaled your
arrival – not necessarily to the golfing elite, but to the elite world of
special friends and extraordinary fun. 

is survived by her partner/spouse  Cindy
Dempsey, sister Juli and her partner Tammy Hope and their daughter Kati, brother
Greg and his wife Becky and their daughter Aimee Jo, her in-laws Jean and Ben
Dempsey, Cheryl Dempsey, Ben and Sarah Dempsey and their daughters Elizabeth
(Luke) and Paige.  

natural story-telling ability was well-known, with a delivery that was
deliberate, embellished and perfectly timed. 
She loved her mother’s deviled eggs made with candied dill pickles.   She loved her friends – relationships
maintained over many years and in numbers too many to mention (but you know who
you are).  Elaine never failed to
mesmerize a crowd – we were all captivated students to her knowledge and
wit.  She leaves a hole as big as her
personality and as deep as her loyalty. She will be missed beyond words.  

the end, Elaine said this: “I lived a life with no regrets.  I was able to start the school of my dreams
and I married the love of my life”.  What
more could you ask?

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