Donald R. Farnham Sr., a two-time Emmy Award-winning TV cameraman whose dogged efforts in the 1990s to open up Riverside government resulted in the creation of a model government-funded cable TV operation, died Feb. 9, 2020 at the age of 94.
“He and Doc [Dr. Robert] Novak were the first guys to invade a village board meeting with a camera,” said Steve Wojcik, Farnham’s former colleague on the Riverside TV Commission for a decade. “They forged the way for Riverside TV.”
In the mid-1990s, the Riverside Cable Commission was just a fledgling operation, having won grudging support by village government, which had been collecting cable TV franchise fees of about $20,000 a year.
The money was supposed to be earmarked for the formation of a local cable TV outlet, but no one ran with the idea until Farnham and Novak, aided by then-Village Trustee Jerry Buttimer, made their push.
In early 1997, Farnham and Novak arrived to film a village board meeting and were unceremoniously told to leave. But soon after, they began filming meetings and the commission has continued to do so, uninterrupted, for the past 23 years.
“He turned the lights on in village hall,” Buttimer said of Farnham’s dedication to broadcasting village meetings. “He helped change it in the most gentlemanly-like way.”
Farnham and Novak were founding members of the Riverside Cable Commission, and Farnham would remain a member of the commission, almost without interruption, until he was 90 years old, finally retiring in October 2016.
He mentored high school and college student volunteers and brought a level of professionalism to the operation.
“He was a network cameraman,” said Wojcik. “He told all of our interns, ‘You’re part of the press. Don’t get pushed around.’ It’s not a rinky-dink cable outfit. He said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s run it like the pros.'”
From its start as a way to document village government in action, the commission now televises meetings of the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission, Riverside Township, Riverside School District 96 and a host of village events, from Fourth of July parades to notable lectures to original programming highlighting the lives of longtime Riverside residents and businesses.
“He’s the father of Riverside TV,” said Joseph Ballerine, a former village trustee who served as the village board’s liaison to the Cable Commission. “If it wasn’t for Don, we wouldn’t have what we have.”
Farnham’s second act as one of the fathers of Riverside TV came after he retired from a 45-year career as a cameraman for ABC-TV, where he was present for everything from memorable sporting events to genuine moments of world history.
In February 1962, Farnham was aboard one of the ships in the task force sent to recover astronaut John Glenn and his space capsule from the North Atlantic Ocean after the future U.S. senator became the first human to orbit the earth.
He also was part of the U.S. television crew sent to document President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
Much of Farnham’s career as a network TV cameraman was spent covering sports. He was behind the camera at scores of Monday Night Football and Monday Night Baseball games for ABC, and he was the first technical director of ABC’s landmark series “Wide World of Sports” in 1961.
He was a cameraman for ABC’s coverage of three Olympic Games. In addition to working the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Farnham was sent to cover the Winter Olympics in 1980 in Lake Placid, New York, and in 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
Farnham recalled how, in Sarajevo, he met and befriended Vinko Bogataj, the Slovenian ski jumper whose dramatic wipeout at a German ski jumping event in 1970 served as an illustration for “the agony of defeat” during the opening credits of “Wide World of Sports.”
“Everybody thought he was dead, but he isn’t,” Farnham said during an interview filmed by Riverside TV in 2016. “He was a [downhill skiing] starter at the Olympics in Sarajevo, and we used to go out and hoist a few with him.”
For his work on the 1980 Winter Olympics, where he was flown in and out of his assignment at the downhill skiing venue by chopper daily, he won his second Emmy Award. His first came in 1959, when he was named Best Cameraman, TV Programs.
If you’d told young Don Farnham that he’d grow up to be an award-winning TV cameraman, he might not have even understood what you meant.
Farnham was born in October 1925 and was raised in Phoenix, New York, a small town northwest of Syracuse. He graduated from high school in 1943 during the midst of World War II and enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
He was one of five Farnham boys to serve in the Armed Forces during the war. All but one survived. His brother, Lynn, a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber, was killed when his plane was shot down over Regensburg, Germany in 1944.
Farnham himself served with the U.S Marines’ 3rd Joint Assault Signal Company (JASCO), a radio operator who was part of a team that directed naval gunfire from shore. He participated in the invasions of Guam and Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 22, 1945 on Iwo Jima, a mortar shell scored a direct hit on the foxhole where Farnham and three others were serving as spotters for the Navy. Farnham, then just 19 years old, was uninjured. The other three were wounded, two fatally.
The team’s commander had been wounded by a sniper earlier that day and fatally wounded by mortar fire while he was being stretchered away. Farnham would remain on Iwo Jima until mid-March 1945.
His month on the volcanic island in the Pacific was indelible, and he would return three times to Iwo Jima in his later years, the last time in 2015. He brought an American flag with him on that trip and had it flown over Mount Suribachi, where Marines had planted the U.S. flag during the heat of battle 70 years earlier. Farnham’s flag is displayed inside the Riverside Public Library.
Because he was trained as a radio man, Farnham went to DeForest Training School (later DeVry University) in Chicago and then to an advanced program in Kansas City before sending out resumes to all three networks in 1948.
ABC contacted him, and a week later he was working the sound board for radio programs. Months later, he’d be behind a camera for ABC-TV in Chicago.
That same year, he married Ann Quinlisk and the two lived in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago until moving to the longtime family home on Barrypoint Road in Riverside in 1959, raising six children there. Mrs. Farnham died in 2009 at the age of 80.
Funeral arrangements are pending.