Eva and Oakley Farris
By Molly Williamson
Special to KyForward
Oakley Farris will be the first to tell you that if it had not been for his wife, Eva, he would not be as successful as he is today.
Just don’t tell his wife that. The two say they are constantly at war — over the story of how they first met, over why her deviled eggs are so awful, over how much money he made per week when they first got married. And the list goes on.
But obviously something must have stuck. Together, the still-happily married Farrises have donated $3 million to Northern Kentucky University, supporting Griffin Hall; building the Oakley and Eva G. Farris Amphitheater; naming the Eva G. Farris Reading Room in Steely Library, the Eva G. Farris Special Collections and Eva G. Farris Auditorium in the Math, Education, Psychology Center; installing the Abraham Lincoln monument outside Nunn Hall; and endowing the Eva G. Farris Business Scholarship.
Unbelievably, in Covington their generosity is even more visible. They paid for two murals on the Roebling Bridge, helped remodel the Carnegie Center for the Arts, supported Covington Latin School, and gave generously to the Covington archdiocese.
In the beginning
The pair met by chance during a Florida hurricane. Oakley Farris traveled the nation by bus selling thread, pins and needles for the Harry Segal Co. Eva was returning to her Havana, Cuba, home from a year of studying business at Columbia University in New York. Her father and brother-in-law had just died, and her sister was escorting her home.
Oakley invited the ladies for a drink in the hotel bar. He gallantly ordered them each a Coke — a gesture he says was “cost-effective” versus ordering a more expensive alcoholic beverage. Soon, Eva and Oakley began dating long distance. They wrote and spoke on the phone and, after two years, married. Eva soon moved into the two-family house in Covington that Oakley bought for his parents.
“He said the only reason I am wasting my time with you is because you can’t understand a word I say,” Eva jokes.
Taking the wheel
For Eva, every day brought a new challenge. She grew up in a privileged home. Her dad was a professor and her brother a lawyer, so her family always had a maid and a cook.
“When I came here, he wanted me to iron his shirts,” Eva says. “I didn’t even know how to wash a pair of hose.”
She might not have been a great homemaker, but she was a savvy businesswoman. When Eva married Oakley, she took over the couple’s finances. She learned to drive and bought a car to surprise Oakley, who swore off driving after failed attempts to drive in the Army. She began driving him around the country on his sales calls.
Eva encouraged Oakley to turn the duplex into an apartment building and rent out the attic, living room, and two-car garage as furnished studio apartments. Soon, the two set a goal. They typed a contract that stated by a certain date they would own 20 apartments. Oakley and Eva each carried a contract and posted one on their bathroom mirror. “We breathed it day and night,” Oakley says. “It became a part of our being. We started with nothing, but before that deadline, we had more than 20 apartments.”
That type of determination was nothing new to Oakley, who began working as a small child selling produce out of a wagon. Young Oakley would sell strawberries—three boxes for 25 cents—to his neighbors.
One day, when he was stiffed of his quarter for the second week by a classmate’s mother, he heard her son say, “That Oakley will do anything to make a buck.” “That [comment] really stuck with me, but you know what? He was right,” Oakley says. “I will do anything to make a buck.”
Oakley started a candy bar business. He would buy 24 chocolate bars for 70 cents and sell them for a nickel each to farmers drying their tobacco. He earned a 50-cent profit on each batch of bars. But he knew he could make more money if he got inside the building where machines turned the tobacco into cigarettes. When he found an open door, he was greeted by a “giant of a man” who told Oakley to leave. As Oakley left, he gave the man a big smile and a candy bar. The next day, before the man could open his mouth, Oakley handed him a candy bar. The man said he could go in and sell his sweets.
Though Oakley read books about successful businessmen, he had to look no farther than his backyard for inspiration. His father was a master at bartering, trading chickens and cows for what the family needed. Oakley didn’t even realize the family was poor until a little boy let him in on the fact one day.
Oakley learned to rely on himself, and in the process, he picked up the skills that made him a successful salesman. His smile, positive attitude, and persistence became his greatest weapons. “I always relied on my personality,” Oakley says. “Even if they turn you down, don’t frown. Don’t be rude.”
Oakley continues to make deals with everyone he encounters — whether it is hitching a ride or arranging a philanthropic gift. But one item is nonnegotiable: he insists that every Oakley gift must bear Eva’s name.
“Without her,” he says, “I would still have sideburns and be taking the bus.”
This story first appeared in Northern Magazine and is reprinted with permission.