Robert Earl Farris went to be with the Lord November 27, 2013, at his home in Erwin. Bob was born in Etowah, Tenn., on March 7, 1928, the son of Col. Garvin B. Farris, a 32-year retired veteran of the US Army, and Edna Earle Phillips Farris. He was a man filled with grace and wisdom who lived a self-less life of service to others.
He is survived by his devoted wife of 65 years, Dorothy Ann Wright Farris; two children, Julia Ann Farris Seward and husband John E. Seward Jr. of Elizabethton, and Robert E. Farris Jr. of Greenville, S.C.; four grandchildren, John Evans Seward III and wife Wendi of Gray; Elizabeth Seward Collins and husband Hiatt of Nashville; Julia Seward O’Daniel and husband Gideon of Raleigh, N.C.; and Mary Seward of Elizabethton; and two great-grandchildren, John Seward IV and Caroline Seward.
Bob graduated from East High School in Nashville. On his eighteenth birthday, he volunteered to serve in the United States Marine Corps where he served on active duty in 1946, the final year of World War II. In 1950, he was activated to serve during the Korean Conflict and was honorably discharged in 1952.
Beginning his business career as a salesman, Bob received the Nashville Rotary Club Salesman of the Year award. He later became a field representative for the Gillette Company and eventually Assistant Sales Promotion Manager at company headquarters in Chicago.
In 1960, Bob’s desire to have his own business prompted him to return to Tennessee and form Management Services Company, a construction business and a developer of swim club facilities for subdivision developers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Then in order to supply the uniform and equipment needs of local swim teams, he contacted Speedo in Australia, the largest competitive swim wear manufacturer, and subsequently created The Swim Shop, a catalogue and retail business which ultimately became the largest Speedo retailer in the country, filling orders from as far away as Saudi Arabia. The Swim Shop had the first 800-number in Tennessee, and one day the burst of orders jammed the lines of the new 800-network.
His interest in civic affairs led him to become active in the American Red Cross where he held many leadership posts and was the building committee chairman for the construction of one of the largest Chapter/Blood Centers in the Southeast. He was a 15-gallon blood donor and served as a Red Cross Volunteer for over 17 years.
Bob served as chairman of a committee which helped solve the long-term retirement obligations of the newly formed Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. Later the mayor appointed him to the Nashville Electric Power Board, one of the largest publically owned utilities in the nation, where he served four years as vice chairman.
Bob was an active leader in the local Methodist Church, first at Waverly Place Methodist Church which later became Forest Hills United Methodist Church in Nashville, and most recently at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Greenville, S.C. He held nearly every major leadership position and served as building committee chairman for major construction projects including two sanctuaries, and a fellowship hall and dining facility. He taught Sunday school for 57 years and was a certified lay speaker.
Soon after his return to Nashville in 1960, he became active in the Tennessee Republican Party and was labeled by the press as one of the “Young Turks” for the group’s efforts to strengthen the party so that Tennessee might become a competitive two-party state. In 1964, he was the first Nashville Republican to seek the office of State Senator since the Civil War, but like their party’s presidential nominee, he and most other Republicans lost. However, the party grew in vitality, and in 1966, Bob worked to elect Howard Baker, the first popularly-elected Republican senator in the state’s history. Bob then served as Executive Director for the State Party, managed the Tennessee campaign for Richard Nixon and was the party’s 1970 nominee for State Treasurer. In less than a decade, the Party had elected a governor; another U.S. Senator; the majority of the Tennessee Members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and elected the first Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives in 100 years; thus becoming a vibrant two-party state.
In 1980, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander, appointed Bob Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. During his term he created an innovative bridge- building program that led the State to replace over 1,500 deficient bridges in just two years. He created a funding process that was used by other states and ultimately adopted by the US Congress. He also led the Department in designating a 2700-mile Scenic Parkway which is marked with the sign of the mockingbird.
In 1986, Bob was appointed by President Reagan to serve on the National Council on Public Works, this council which was charged with evaluating the condition of the nation’s infrastructure elected Bob as its first chairman. The president then asked Bob to join his administration as the Deputy Federal Highway Administrator, and in 1988 he became the Administrator. During his term he implemented the requirement that all commercial truck and bus drivers obtain a Commercial Drivers’ License. This license replaced the need to obtain and carry multiple licenses for each state. Under his leadership the establishment of roadside weight and safety inspection facilities more than doubled.
Following his federal service, Bob served as counselor to the president of the American Trucking Association and vice president in charge of construction and engineering. Afterwards, he traveled extensively as a transportation consultant meeting with state and local governments as an advocate for creative means of financing the construction and reconstruction of the nation’s infrastructure. Bob was the lead developer of the team that built and financed the Southern Connector in Greenville, S.C., an innovative public/private project. Under his supervision the project was completed three months early and under budget.
Bob was a member of the International Road Federation, serving as vice chairman. His duties took him to various foreign lands including Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and numerous European countries. He and Dorothy were members of a team that was sponsored by the Eisenhower’s People to People program and visited China.
In Greenville, S.C., he helped organize the establishment of the Owens/Kennemore Detachment of the Marine Corps League. This is an organization for Marines who are retired or who are no longer on active duty. He had the honor of serving as the group’s Commandant. He was the recipient of numerous awards including Marine of the Year.
In 2006, Bob and a longtime friend, former business partner and geologist, John Jewell, formed TANASI Oil and Gas, Inc., an exploration and drilling company operating in the Cumberland Plateau Region of Tennessee. Bob served as president until his death.
The family wishes to express their very great appreciation for the amazing love and care received from the nurses and staff of Governor’s Bend Assisted Living Facility in Erwin, and the Hospice Team from Amedysis, Inc. You have so richly blessed our lives!
A memorial service will be conducted at 3 p.m. at Munsey United Methodist Church, Sunday, December 1, 2013, with Bishop Richard Looney officiating. Music will be under the direction of The Reverend Doug Grove-DeJarnett. The eulogy will be provided by Mr. John E. Seward Jr., son-in-law. The family will receive friends from 1:30 until 2:45 p.m. at the church. The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be sent to: Holston United Methodist Home for Children, 404 Holston Drive, Greeneville, TN 37743.
Memories and condolences may be shared with the family and viewed at www.tetrickfuneralhome.com. Arrangements for the Farris family are in the care of Tetrick Funeral & Cremation Services, 3001 Peoples St., Johnson City, TN 37604. (423) 610-7171.
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