June 11, 2021

‘Young at heart’: Bill Farney refuses to slow down, setting a pace to make the most of his life, his faith

At 90, Bill Farney of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis continues to leave his mark with the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (Submitted photos)

At 90, Bill Farney of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis continues to leave his mark with the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. (Submitted photos)

By John Shaughnessy

The stories about Bill Farney keep coming—like the one about how he celebrated his 90th birthday in February by taking down one of his sleds in his garage to go sledding on a hill with some of his great-grandchildren.

There’s also the story of how he spent two recent days in May as a track official for the archdiocese’s annual Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) track meet. With his right hand raised above his head holding a starting pistol, he signaled the beginning of many of the 161 races for the 875 grade-school participants—adding to his own personal record of being involved in the CYO for nearly 60 years, a personal record that’s connected to the joy he gets from being around young people.

Then there’s the story of his faithfulness to volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Indianapolis during the COVID-19 pandemic. He resisted the pleas of his wife, his children and even his pastor to take a break from that commitment for his safety. Instead, he has kept showing up two mornings a week to fill bags of food for people in need. And once every two weeks, he drives a route to personally deliver bags of food to people.

Yes, the stories about Farney keep coming, and here’s one more—for now.

He’s involved in the lives of children with special needs at his home parish, St. Pius X in Indianapolis. He became involved because of a good friend who is blind and autistic—a friendship that started when the younger man and fellow parishioner recognized Farney’s voice from a long-ago track meet when he heard Farney give the instructions, “On your mark, get set, GO!”

And maybe here’s the most telling part about Farney. During a conversation for this story, he keeps repeating this theme, “There are people who are more deserving. Why do you want to write about me?”

For an extended answer, let’s head back to that recent CYO track meet, where Farney will eventually share a story that gets to the heart of what motivates his life and his faith.

‘I just love to watch the kids run’

Consider the wealth of experiences and achievements that Farney brought as he stepped onto the track for the two days of the CYO meet in May.

As a runner in his youth, he was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he was part of a cross country team that finished fourth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.

He has run in more than 30 Mini-Marathons in Indianapolis, earning several first-place medals in his age group, and also running that race in his 80s with three of his grandchildren.

As a starter, he still works high school and college track and cross country meets, and he officiated at the United States Track and Field Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in 1988.

And still there is no greater joy for him than spending two long days organizing, instructing and watching the third- to eighth-graders who line up to grasp a moment of glory in 161 races at the CYO meet.

At the same time, members of the CYO staff—past and present—line up to praise the longtime contributions of Farney.

“The CYO track meet is a long, long affair,” says Ed Tinder, the organization’s former executive director who served in that position for 33 years. “There have been years when it’s extremely hot or raining, and he’s there all the time. He’s just outstanding. When you’re starting a track event for third-graders, they don’t go where there supposed to go. Bill takes his time with them. And he’s always got a smile on his face. I love that guy.”

Current executive director Bruce Scifres adds that Farney is “an outstanding Christian gentleman and always conducts himself in a way that coincides with the mission of the CYO.”

And longtime CYO staff member Bernie Price completes the relay of compliments by saying, “Over the years, CYO has been very fortunate and blessed to have thousands of amazing volunteers in our program. However, Bill Farney will certainly be in the CYO history books for his longevity, expertise and simply caring about young people.”

It’s exactly the type of praise that Farney downplays and even seems to run from, preferring to describe his commitment to the CYO and children in this simple way: “I just love to watch the kids run.”

Still, there’s more than a hint of what motivates Farney—deep down—when he is asked to share his favorite moment from the recent CYO meet.

And here’s a warning to anyone who may be eating while reading this piece: Put the food aside before continuing to read.

‘Young at heart’

The favorite story that immediately comes to mind for Farney involves a girl in a middle grade of elementary school. As she stepped to the starting line for her race, she vomited, Farney says. So he let her regroup. When she approached the starting line again, she vomited again. The same cause-and-effect reaction occurred a third time. And then a fourth time.

It’s only at this point in the story that Farney begins to smile, and it’s a glorious smile as he shares what happened next: “She ran the race and won by a good distance.”

The story seems to epitomize Farney’s approach to life. Many adults would refrain from sharing that story, thinking it’s too gross to share, but even at 90 he has a childlike joy about life that leads his oldest daughter, Laura Cook, to describe her dad as “young at heart.”

And then Cook and Farney recall the years when he led the youth group at St. Pius, taking the teenagers on adventures that included swimming, camping, canoeing and sledding.

Still, his choice of the story about the girl in the race seems to reveal something even deeper about Farney. Like that girl, he has rarely let the pain, the problems or the potential pitfalls stop him from moving forward, from pursuing the goals he wants to accomplish, from the joys he wants to savor.

“His mother said he came out running,” says his wife of 66 years, Cathy. “He never slows down.”

He didn’t even slow down when he first met her.

“We met at confession, and we got engaged after a month,” Cathy says with a laugh about their time together at the University of Kansas.

‘God wants me to do this’

The adventures have continued ever since for them as the parents of five, the grandparents of nine and the

great-grandparents of nine, with another coming.

One of those adventures involves Farney continuing to volunteer at the

St. Vincent de Paul food pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardly anyone in his family was happy about his choice, but the longtime distance runner wanted to go longer, and he wasn’t ready to stop.

“Some of our kids were quite upset,” says Cathy, who wasn’t exactly thrilled at first either. “He said, ‘God wants me to do this.’

“These people he delivers to can’t get out on their own. Pretty soon, I accepted it. That’s what God wants us to do—take care of others.”

When Farney talks about his years of leading the St. Pius youth group on adventures, he says, “I wasn’t much on teaching them about religion.” His wife disputes that, but either way, there’s no doubt that Farney’s life has been all about living his faith—through the CYO, through the food pantry, through his work with the special needs children, through his being an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at St. Pius.

“It’s special,” he says about sharing the Eucharist.

So was the celebration of his 90th birthday on Feb. 13. Cards flooded into their home, many of them from young people who know him from their track and cross country meets.

“It was pretty touching,” he says. “My dad died when he was 79, so I feel lucky to still be around.”

Moments later, he’s leading a visitor into his basement, to a room filled with exercise equipment, including a stair stepper, a rowing machine and an exercise bike.

“I try to work out every day,” he says about his routine to stay in shape so he can continue as a track and cross country official. “I’m not quitting until I have to. I’m good for another year or so.”

Pausing for a moment, he adds, “I don’t want to get old.” †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!