By Sue Botos
Although Robert Farling operated throughout his successful business career in a traditional “man’s world” as chairman and CEO of Centerior Energy Corporation, women’s rights were an issue close to his heart; so close, that he co-founded the Rocky River girls’ softball league and championed women’s membership in Kiawanis.
“I have five sisters, four older than me, and they were all kind of tomboys,” said Farling’s only son, Hal, of Rocky River, in a recent interview. “Little League did not allow girls to play at that time (early 1970s), even though they were good enough. My dad thought about making a legal issue of it, but it just wasn’t in his nature.”
Around that time in 1972, the elder Farling – who lived in Rocky River, then Westlake – became the first president of the Metro-West Kiawanis. Addressing an international convention in Montreal, he supported the organization’s admission of women as members.
Farling, 73, passed away on Nov. 27 at the Lutheran Home of Concord Reserve from complications of cancer.
Born in Warren and raised in Garfield Heights, Farling earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Case Institute of Technology in 1958, and a master’s degree in business from Western Reserve University in 1965. He was a 1985 graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced Managment Program.
After a brief stint as sales manager for Hertner Electric, in 1958 Farling began a 38-year career with what was then the Illuminating Company. Starting as a commercial salesman, he headed marketing services, residential energy applications, consumer services, systems operations and administrative services.
In 1986, Farling became executive vice president of Centerior, a holding organization for the Illuminating Company. Farling also became president and CEO of the Illuminating Company, later rising to chairman and chief executive of both the Cleveland and Toledo branches. After becoming Centerior’s chairman, president and CEO in 1992, he led the rise of First Energy, where he served briefly as its vice chairman before retiring in 1998.
“He achieved a lot professionally as a president and CEO,” said the younger Farling. “But more so, his family thought of him as a good father. He was a professional, but he never climbed over anyone’s back to get where he was,” he continued. Although many people had claimed to co-founding the girls’ softball league with Farling, his son said that it was most likely former Rocky River mayor Don Umerly, for whom that city’s civic center is named.
Farling was active in other local ventures, chairing the local United Way campaign in 1991, the year it raised $51 million. Although he worked hard, Farling also believed in leisure activities. He and his wife, Margaret, played bridge with the same group of friends for almost 50 years. Aside from coaching in the girls’ softball league for 15 years, he also coached basketball.
“You’ve heard of the myth of the self-made man. That was him,” said Hal Farling. “He never forgot who he was and where he came from.”
Robert Farling is survived by his wife, five of their six children, and 12 of their 13 grandchildren. Memorial contributions can be made to the Metro-West Kiwanis Foundation, c/o Donald Bisesi, 26727 Leeanders Lane, North Olmsted, OH 44070, or Youth Challenge, 800 Sharon Drive, Westlake, OH 44245.