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Farley Snell: An "accidental" treasure of philosophy and religion

by Julie Gros

Picture a professor of philosophy and religion at OLLI at UNC Asheville. He is an ordained Methodist minister with a masters in divinity and a PhD from the celebrated Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, for twenty-one years as well as a member of City Council there for 6 years. 

Enter Farley Snell, star-quality instructor at CFS, commanding a fan club of followers with wait-listed attendance in his classrooms that typically include 2/3 students who have taken his classes before. Confident, charming, and humble at the same time, he paints a picture of happenstance. 

"The story of my life is a series of accidents", explains Farley. "I never had a plan. Doors opened that I didn't even know existed." His rather magical life started in Eau Gallie, Florida, a very small town where his family lived without telephone, radio, or television. "Apart from the fact that I was a paper boy and delivered the newspaper every morning, I would have never known there was anything outside of there."

It was Farley's summers spent at a Methodist youth camp that had an impact on his future. There he learned that "church was a good place to go" and understood how to "feel significant" as a person. He also met girls.

At Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, he pursued his future bride-to-be, Ann, "as soon as she stepped off the bus" into her freshmen orientation. They were married two years later.

After what he describes as a mediocre yet broad undergraduate education, he chanced upon a good friend who advised him to enroll in a top seminary. So he did. "Going to Union in New York was absolutely the most important thing that ever happened to me. When I got there, I was terrified for almost a semester." Farley was exposed to "superstar" professors and scholars from all over the world at Union.

New York-living enchanted him and Ann during a golden era of Broadway that was turning out landmark productions of plays by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and others. "It was mind-blowing, a very special time."

Farley then spent nine years of serving as campus minister at the University of Miami and Indiana University. He considers this the second most important period of his life because he was "really forced out of the circle of churchliness." He essentially played the role of a social worker providing abortion counseling and refuge to teenage runaways. This work was during the 60's "when all hell was breaking loose", making for a very eventful time.

In the meantime, Farley earned his doctorate and was "waiting to teach and be smart". He certainly got the chance at Southwestern where his 27-year teaching career unfolded.

In 2008, Farley and Ann moved permanently to Asheville. In terms of values and beliefs, he recognizes that "Asheville's got everything."An important Jewish presence, a large gay and lesbian community, non-traditional churches, new-age followers, ... all make for a stimulating back-drop for the series of courses in religion Farley has taught at OLLI since 2009.

"Teaching at OLLI gives me a chance to rethink my material in a different setting. This is a very exciting thing, to be able to teach people who don't have to be here and have sought you out." Farley has "upgraded" courses he taught during his former career for the discerning OLLI audience, spending up to 100 hours per course reading and developing content.

"My years at OLLI have also allowed me to discover so much about my teaching and myself. I have my own faith but I am not that interested in religion except as a historical reality. What people say and do in a unique period of history and how they came to their religious conclusions just fascinates me."

Farley's future plans include, above all, enjoying himself. He will continue to teach for a little while longer. He quips, "One of my esteemed elder colleagues admitted to me one day that he had fallen asleep in his own lecture." No doubt, chance will step in again before he gets to that point.

Contact Information

Reuter Center CPO #5000
One University Heights
Asheville, NC 28804-8511
Office: 828.251.6140
Email:  olli@unca.edu