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A Life: Sue Farrell —1957-2021 ; ‘She was a caretaker in every aspect’

  • Sue Farrell sits in a van with her daughter, Ella Farrell-Starr, in Changsha, China, in October 2000. The photograph was taken the day Farrell and her husband, Rich Starr, had adopted Ella. (Rich Starr photograph) Rich Starr photograph

  • Susan Farrell fishes with her daughter, Ella Farrell-Starr, in Venice, Fla., in February 2008. (Rich Starr photograph) Rich Starr photograph

  • Sue Farrell teaches a freshman health class at Thetford Academy in Fall 2019. Farrell was the school nurse at TA for more than 13 years. (Jennifer Gernhard photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/13/2021 8:30:11 PM
Modified: 6/15/2021 1:01:35 PM

THETFORD — When Ella Farrell-Starr brought home a pair of rabbits, her mother Sue Farrell was initially apprehensive. Then, she built them a garden.

“When I brought two rabbits home, she complained that they would pee and poop everywhere but she still made them a garden with vegetables and made a big laminated sign that said ‘Nessie and Moosey’s Garden,’ ” Farrell-Starr said of the rabbits she brought to the Thetford after leaving Florida due to the COVID-19 pandemic last March. “I filled her house with pets and she was always very gracious about it, even when I would bring home a cat with a huge umbilical hernia.”

It is also representative of two words used over and over again to describe Farrell, who died Feb. 5, 2021, at age 63 after a short battle with cancer: Compassionate and empathetic. Those characteristics extended to every aspect of Farrell’s life from her career as a nurse, volunteer work through the Thetford Community Church and the deep friendships she cultivated.

“Her whole aura was a soothing kind of light,” said Joette Hayashigawa, a long-time friend who was the school nurse at Thetford Elementary School while Farrell was the nurse at Thetford Academy. “Everything felt OK when you were talking to her about anything. It just felt like everything would be OK.”

Born in Pottstown, Penn., Farrell earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1979 and a master’s degree in nursing from University of Pennsylvania in 1986. She moved to the Upper Valley in the 1980s. She came to Thetford around 1990 and after her 1994 marriage to Rich Starr she moved to the home he had built in the 1970s.

Nancy Foote met Farrell in Hartland at a quilting guild meeting and the two quickly became friends. Together, they started working for New Hampshire doing well-child checks around the state. Then, they shared two nursing positions at two private practices in the Upper Valley.

“She was really always somebody for me that I totally trusted,” Foote said.

The two shared patients, often working together on cases that were puzzling. As a nurse, Farrell was practical and knowledgeable, able to remain centered when work got challenging. She recognized that while her patients were young, her interactions with their parents were equally important.

“Sue was just wonderful in both realms. She was really empathetic to parents and loved kids,” Foote said. “When she made the switch to school nursing she did it with such passion. She had a real sense of professional responsibility and she was very acute in her professional development.”

After working in private practices, Farrell became the school nurse at Thetford Academy where she worked for 13½ years and was working at the time of her death, in addition to one day a week at Upper Valley Pediatrics.

Siobhan Lopez, dean of students at Thetford Academy, credits Farrell with helping her get acclimated to the school when she first arrived five years ago. They were also on TA’s student support team where they discussed what they could do to better meet the emotional, financial and academic needs of students who were in crisis.

“Kids really liked her and she had a core group of kids who saw her as their main support and checked in with her daily,” Lopez said. “She was good at giving them clear information and not getting wrapped up in the emotions they were feeling.”

Farrell, who is survived by her daughter, Ella, her husband, Rich Starr, her parents and a brother and sister, was open and nonjudgmental, calm and nurturing. She went into classrooms to teach sex education, among other topics, and provided first aid, CPR and AED training to staff. Faculty often went to Farrell when they needed support and nurturing, Lopez said.

“One of the things Sue was passionate about was paying attention to the less obvious needs some of our students have,” Lopez wrote in a follow up email. “She was instrumental in figuring out how we could get free snacks available throughout campus for all students, recognizing that some kids are just hungry, and we didn’t want to have to single out the ones who had financial needs that resulted in limited food access. She knew who needed new shoes, or a winter coat, and helped find ways to get them.”

To honor her, TA has started a fund called the Sue Farrell Fund for Equity and Access to support that work.

Last summer, Lopez and Farrell worked together on creating policies so TA could safely reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They filmed videos to explain to students what to expect when they returned to their classrooms.

“She was a good confidante for people and I think kids trusted her that way too,” said Jane Chambers, a friend of Farrell’s who retired last year as a Spanish and French teacher at TA. “They could go in and spill their guts if something wasn’t going well for them. That’s pretty special to have them reach out like that.”

Farrell was also a gifted quilter who worked on elaborate, artistic quilts. One of the quilts she made for Ella featured a beloved cat. She made quilts to hang on walls and was always eager to learn about the latest techniques and styles, said her friend Judy Russell. Farrell was drawn to bright colors, bold patterns and different textures.

“I would know when I was out shopping by myself, I would look at something and say ‘Sue would like that’,” Russell said. “You would know from the hues and styling of it that it would appeal to her.”

Russell met Farrell in the 1990s at the Post Mills Soaring Club, which both of their husbands joined. Often, they’d accompany the group on different trips, going off on their own to explore restaurants, museums and other sites. Once, they spontaneously participated in a 5K.

Their families became close, often spending holidays together if they were not traveling. Recently, Russell came across a piece of paper with notes she had taken after Farrell called to tell her that she and Starr learned they had been matched with a child in China.

“She was meant to be a mother and Ella just made that happen,” Foote said. “It was an incredibly strong and intense relationship.”

Farrell taught her daughter how to fish at Treasure Island, which was a special place for both of them.

“She would take the fish off the hook for me when I was young, but she never liked to fish herself,” Farrell-Starr said. “I think she was always a little confused about where I got it from.”

She was involved in the community, including as a member of a committee that studied Treasure Island and how to preserve it.

“She wouldn’t just complain about something,” Hayashigawa said. “She would join the committee and do the work.”

Farrell was always welcoming to the friends Ella brought home. Some friends would stay for weeks over the summer.

“She was probably the most accepting person I ever met and even though I was an only child, everyone I brought into their house was treated like family,” Farrell-Starr said.

If her friends ate all the leftovers in the refrigerator, “she would just make extra food,” Farrell-Starr said. “That’s just who she was. She was a caretaker in every aspect.”

Another testament to Farrell were the gardens she cultivated. While she liked growing vegetables best, she was also fond of flowers and trying to grow something new.

“She took a piece of land you wouldn’t normally think to garden on and she worked with the contours of the land and made it work and made into a really special garden to walk around and look at,” Russell said.

When Farrell died, the whole Thetford community mourned her, Hayashigawa said. Friends are finishing quilts Farrell was working on at the time she got sick. This spring, they gathered to wake up the garden she so lovingly put to bed last fall.

“There’s a real dearth that’s left,” she said. “After she died I felt like she was just hovering over the community for days.”

Farrell had survived cancer twice before her death. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of her friends were unable to say goodbye in person and Farrell’s memorial service took place over Zoom.

“We certainly all knew the depth of her caring and in her own way how proud she was of all of her friends and their kids and their families,” Russell said. “You take that and you just have to be grateful for that.”

Her friends are mourning the retirement she didn’t get to experience and the interests she didn’t get a chance to explore. But they are also taking comfort in the love she shared, the compassion she showed and the life she so excitedly lived.

“She was such a good person that you hope you’re kind of like them too, for the quality you respect in them,” Chambers said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

 Correction

Ella Farrell-Starr is the daughter of Richard Starr and the late Sue Farrell. Farrell-Starr's last name was rendered incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.




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