‘The real deal’

Mike Farmer remembered as faithful Catholic, effective lobbyist


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jean Farmer was sitting beside her husband’s hospital bed, holding his hand, soon after they learned that his death was imminent.

“Mike,” she said, “I don’t want you to leave me.”

“Jean,” he answered, “I don’t want to leave you.

“But, you know, we had a great ride.” There are many who would agree that Mike Farmer’s whole life was “a great ride” — as a faithful Catholic, husband, father, professional, parish minister, pro-life activist, state legislator, and lobbyist.

Farmer, 59, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, died of leukemia on Nov. 7 at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Although his last days were difficult, his final hours were peaceful and quiet, said his wife Jean.

“He loved me and the children as much, I believe, as any husband and father could,” she said. “He was not perfect…but he did the best he could. We always talked about how we as a couple had to help each other get to heaven.”

His funeral was held on Nov. 15 at his parish, All Saints Church in Wichita, followed by burial at Calvary Cemetery.

“Mike Farmer was an extraordinary leader for the Kansas Catholic Conference,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. “I relied upon his wisdom and counsel in guiding the work of the conference. He was the perfect individual to represent the church in the halls of government.

“As a former legislator, Mike had earned the respect of its members for his knowledge of government and the legislative process. Even more, he was admired for his honesty and integrity.”

Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, called the low-key Farmer “a gentle giant” in terms of his impact in the Statehouse.

“He gave people every benefit of the doubt, and he understood things from a representative’s perspective,” said Culp. “He was never impolite or strident, or held a grudge. Yet, he was very effective, and he was really respected by state legislators — and everybody.”

She also called him “the real deal” with regard to his pro-life credentials, from his grass-roots organizing, to his legislating, to his lobbying. Farmer was even arrested once at a protest in front of Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita.

Farmer and David Gittrich had been friends since childhood. Farmer hadn’t sought a legislative career, but when no one would step forward to be the pro-life candidate, Farmer did.

Farmer’s greatest hour, said Gittrich, came when he brought an end to abortions being performed and taught at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

In 1997, KU wanted the Legislature to relinquish control to an independent hospital authority. Farmer, however, stalled the legislation in committee until KU agreed to an abortion ban.

“Well-known, famous visitors came to his office to convince him to support KU’s effort and forget this thing on abortion,” said Gittrich.

“Well, Mike took a tremendous amount of pressure, but he wouldn’t change his mind. KU thought they should get everything they wanted with no strings attached, but Mike would not cave in,” he added.

Farmer held the line, by himself, for two years. In the end, KU caved.

He also showed moral courage by voting against the death penalty, even after he was “taken to the woodshed” by the House leadership, said Jean Farmer.

Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, served with Farmer in the Legislature, and called him “my best friend.” Landwehr, a convert to the Catholic faith, would often discuss with Farmer the relationship between faith, governance, and politics. Farmer, she said, was instrumental in starting the dialogue between legislators and the bishops of Kansas.

His best work was usually conducted under the radar, Landwehr continued. Often, he was the calm voice in any storm. There wasn’t a legislator that he wouldn’t or couldn’t talk to, and when he came to someone with an issue, it was from his heart.

“Mike would do things on such a subtle basis,” said Landwehr. “Mike didn’t do what he did for the press. Mike did things because it was the right thing to do, and many times he did it very quietly.”

Farmer could have risen in the Legislature, but he decided to work instead in the service of the church and was as effective a lobbyist as a legislator, said Beatrice Swoopes, associate director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

“His word was something that you could really count on, and I think that was something that really impressed legislators,” said Swoopes.

“He was truly put in this position for a reason, because he did it so well,” she added. “He brought the conference into the 21st century as far as technology [goes], and he expanded our means to communicate. He had so many innovative ideas.”

Farmer, said Swoopes, “had so much more to give,” and was excited about plans for the upcoming legislative session. Despite being ill, there wasn’t a conference project this year that he did not have a hand in. He even teleconferenced to the October meeting of the conference from his hospital bed.

To the end, that was Mike — giving it a good run.

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