THAT WAS DONNIE
Remembering a true character, and a life in constant motion
By Kevin Gross
The Donnie Project
Donald James Farrell III’s life started fast. From there, he never stopped moving.
“He was what is called a precipitous birth,” said Kathy Farrell, his mom. “He came out too fast. And then that was the rest of his life. That’s exactly how he was.”
He didn’t talk until he was three — then began speaking in full sentences and never stopped, she said. As he grew, Donnie became the kind of child who could hold conversations with adults but drew other kids to him, a social connector with a big smile and a wavy blond hair.
Don Farrell said he noticed it when Donnie was maybe six, dropping him off at school one day.
“When Donnie hit the schoolyard, these kids just charged at him,” the elder Farrell said. “Who wanted to talk to him, who wanted to just be his pal — and he didn’t notice that as different, which is kind of strange to me. But anyway, what I noticed that day was, he’s talking to all these kids, I mean every single kid ran off the first grade line to him.”
Donnie was just like that, perhaps not even aware of how his outgoing personality created connections, some perhaps more long-lasting than he even knew.
“There was one student who went to high school and grammar school with him and spoke at his [funeral] and said because she had a lot of psychological troubles, always picked on outside of class,” his sister Aimee said, “and she said because Donnie would say hello to her in the hallways she knew she would be OK. And he would write letters to her when nobody would ever speak to her because of her troubles.”
“You don’t know the one act of kindness, one thing you do, one decision you make can change somebody,” Mr. Farrell said. “And then afterwards you see those stories coming out that somebody’s on the verge of suicide and you changed their day. You don’t know. So life’s fragile.”
He chose his own ways and stuck with them — a stubborn Yankee devotee in a house full of Mets fans.
“He made it look like fun. You know, he’s a little kid,” Don Farrell said. “To the point where I said, Donnie, I got tickets for the Mets…Do you want to go? He’s five years old, he says, No…I’ll go if you take me to two Yankee games.”
So they went.
“The left fielder comes over to him and tosses him a ball, he wouldn’t touch it. I mean that’s the kind of kid, he wouldn’t touch it. Went to a Yankee game, someone gave him a Yankee ball… and he took it,” Farrell said, laughing at the memory.
There is pain on Don Farrell’s face as he recounts this story, but also the joy of remembering the smiling blond kid who inherited his name.
An athlete, Donnie also played baseball, excelled at lacrosse, and was a straight-A student in high school. He was smart, if sometimes a smart aleck, but determined. He worked hard, and put as much time as he could into a job at the Deer Lake Club in Boonton. He was close to the club’s owners, Ken and Lynn Geiman, becoming a right-hand man to the couple while working maintenance.
“He would always be at the lake,” said Kathy Farrell. “In the summer he would come home from work, shower, and go back to the lake to hang out with his friends or to camp there.”
In a heartfelt essay Geiman included in the Deer Lake Club’s newsletter, he wrote, “What I value the most from my relationship with him was the life lessons we shared. I really valued what he had to say. His thoughts on life were based on solid family values, a hard work ethic, and kindness to all he came in contact with.”
At home, the Farrell family — North Jersey by way of Staten Island, where Donnie was born — grew fast, too: Donnie and his older sister, Aimee, were joined by another sister, Caitlin, and brother Luke.
Luke, now 19 and a darker-haired image of his brother, described living with Donnie – and especially sharing a bedroom with him.
“There was a good balance in between of fighting and getting along,” he said. “There were definitely some battles… but most of the time we got along.” Luke, now in college in North Carolina, said the two became close the summer before Donnie’s death. During a fight after a party near campus, Donnie’s jaw was broken and he spent a lot of that summer close to home.
“Kids aren’t perfect. Donnie certainly wasn’t,” Don said. “He got mischievous . . . My mother, the only thing that she remembers about Donnie is when we lived in Staten Island, he would answer the door, go ‘Hi Grandma,’ she’d go ‘Hi Donnie, how are you doing?’ He’d go, I’ve got to go upstairs, I’m punished.”
Jacklin Hordes, a friend of Donnie’s from Boonton who was with him the night of the attack, remembers that summer well. Before then, she knew Donnie as “this tiny guy with glasses and a big blond ‘fro that a hat could never quite sit right on.” They spent time that summer hanging out with a group of friends, Donnie smiling at the wheel of his black truck, going to see his favorite band, the jam-funk group 311 and drinking milkshakes — a major food group for someone with his jaw wired shut.
“In our group of friends he was always super outgoing, super funny, could get the whole room cracking up,” Jacklin said. “And I don’t want to say he was an entertainer but he had this way where we could be sitting around doing absolutely nothing then look back at it later in the night and think ‘Oh my gosh, tonight was so much fun.’”
The 311 concerts were an all-day event, with a barbecue that started hours before. Donnie liked them so much that today, his mom, siblings and Hordes all have tattoos of the band’s logo in his memory.
Hordes remembered one concert in particular — it’s one of those Donnie stories his friends and family love to tell.
“He turned and said, ‘Jackie, this is where we part ways. I’ll see you after the show.’ I was so confused, I barely had time to realize what was going on until I saw Donnie jump the divider fence to the assigned seats. He later told me that he made it to the front row and spent the whole night dancing with anyone who would join him, having the best time ever for his all-time favorite band.”
After his death, the Farrells received cards and letters, dozens of them, by people who were affected by Donnie at one time or another.
His family is left to wonder what he’d be doing today, whether he’d have married his pretty high school sweetheart. Where he’d be living, what he’d do for a living. Hoboken, maybe, working with his uncle at a trading company in Manhattan. They’ll never know.
Kevin Gross is a senior majoring in journalism and a staff writer for the Arts and Entertainment section of The Whit.