Aaron Farfel

Dennis D. Golden

Throughout his long and productive life, Aaron Joseph Farfel was first and foremost a humanist. He dedicated himself, not simply to philanthropy, but to pursuing the noblest of human ideals, to translating human potential into reality. Much of his life was given to the service of others through his charitable work, as well as through his dedication to the institutions and causes in which he believed so strongly.

The University of Houston was just one of many of those causes, but it clearly lay close to the heart of Aaron Farfel. When UH became a state institution in 1963, Governor John Connally appointed Mr. Farfel to the first Board of Regents. He served on the board for the next 16 years, becoming chairman in 1971 and leading the university through some of the most decisive and formative years in its history.

He was the longest serving chairman of the UH System to date, and his 16-year tenure as a regent stands as one of the greatest leadership contributions to higher education in recent times. Endowed with remarkable vision, Aaron Farfel worked tirelessly to improve the university in every conceivable way. It was he who created the policy by which a small portion of every new building's cost was dedicated to public art.

He also pioneered the concept of faculty research partnerships within the university, so that faculty members and their institution could mutually reap the benefits of their research, not only in financial terms, but in honor and reputation as well.

Farfel was born near Vilna, Lithuania, in 1906, and came to New York City in 1910. There he grew up, attending public schools and working nights while obtaining a degree in accounting from New York University. After graduating, he worked in an accounting firm before joining the IRS, which sent him to Texas in 1935. He was given a choice of cities to work in, and, after studying the Texas almanac, Mr. Farfel asked to be assigned to Houston, a city he saw as a place of personal initiative and growth.

Houston was a city of enormous potential during the Depression years, and Aaron Farfel had been quick to recognize it. Soon after moving here he met his wife Esther Susholtz, a business graduate of the University of Texas. They married in 1936. Farfel attended night school at the Houston Law School (now South Texas College of Law), and by 1940, he had passed the bar exam.

In 1943, he left the IRS to establish his own accounting firm, A.J. Farfel and Company, which he ran for seven years. By 1950, however, Farfel was ready for a change. He made a gift of the accounting firm to his two partners and chose to pursue a career in private investing. His new endeavor grew into a number of both regional and national investments, including such well-known companies as Evenflo, Spaulding, and Houston Consolidated Television Company, operators of KTRK.

His success linked him to many of the most important developments in Houston's history. It was Aaron Farfel who, along with R.E. "Bob" Smith and Roy Hofheinz, was responsible for conceiving and building the Astrodome, just as he worked to bring the first major league baseball team to the city. His far-reaching vision touched social issues as well. He took a leading role in founding important civic organizations such as the Houston Urban League and the Rice Design Alliance. He was, in fact, the unseen initiator of many of Houston's major developments. In his community service, in his zest for developing every facet of the human spirit--from aesthetics to athletics--Mr. Farfel succeeded in his quest to improve Houston throughout some of the most important years of its history.

The Esther Farfel Award was established in 1979 as the University of Houston's highest faculty award. To receive it, a professor must demonstrate excellence in teaching, research, and service. The award underscores all that was important to Aaron Farfel. Named in honor of the beloved wife whose warmth and wisdom sustained him for 48 years, and whose presence gave a personal touch to a multitude of university engagements and initiatives, the award recognizes and celebrates the gifts that enable teachers to educate and inform a new generation of citizens and scholars.