‘Friends’ for Life
Meet the two Toms. Just about anything one does, the other does, too.
Tom Gibian and Tom Farquhar have been friends for more than 50 years. Their childhood homes in Sandy Spring were three miles apart and they attended Quaker services and Sunday schools together. Later they both played sports at Sherwood High—baseball and football for Gibian, track for Farquhar—and eventually married sisters, Tina and Mary Grady.
Today, their two families live on the same street in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, and this fall, both men are starting their fourth year as heads of Quaker schools—Gibian at Sandy Spring Friends School, Farquhar at Sidwell Friends School.
On a personal level, they reject the notion that they’re rivals. Gibian, 60, says “it’s kind of cool” having his brother-in-law in a similar role. “It’s helped me enormously; he’s been a mentor.” Farquhar, 62, expresses surprise that Gibian calls him a mentor and says, “I see him as a colleague and a source of inspiration.”
On an institutional level, however, their schools are quite different.
Sandy Spring’s rural campus sprawls across almost 150 acres in northern Montgomery County, with organic gardens supplying produce and solar panels supplying power. Gibian greets me in an open-necked sport shirt and introduces Stx, his 7-year-old yellow Lab, who has deposited strands of hair on virtually every surface of his master’s unkempt office.
Sidwell’s upper school, by contrast, squeezes onto 10 acres just blocks from the National Cathedral in downtown Washington, D.C.—its lower school is in Bethesda—and two Secret Service vehicles are parked outside Farquhar’s office, a sign that the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia, are students there. The head of school wears a dark suit and maroon Sidwell tie and not a hair, canine or otherwise, is out of place.
Sidwell is 130 years old, and the Obamas are only the latest in a long line of prominent families to send their kids there.
The names Clinton and Gore, Nixon and Roosevelt dot the alumni roster.
Gibian says Sidwell, which his two children attended, accepts only 7 percent of its applicants and he repeats an old line: The school is harder to get into than Harvard. Farquhar won’t confirm Sidwell’s exact acceptance rate (“that’s a very closely held number”), but he proudly embraces the school’s reputation for “academic intensity” and exclusivity.
“The hazard is that we could become self-satisfied with our success,” he says. “The difference with Sandy Spring is that they’re much less likely to become self-satisfied.”
Founded in 1961, Sandy Spring accepts about half its applicants. It’s “scrappier” than its older and fancier city cousin, Gibian says, and he cites the bumper sticker “Keep Austin Weird” to describe his goal: “We want to be a little quirky, we want to be a little different.”
Still the schools cooperate in several endeavors. Sidwell science students are bused out to work in Sandy Spring’s gardens. And table scraps from Sidwell dining halls are added to Sandy Spring’s compost heap, becoming “part of their circle of fertility,” Farquhar says.
The friends followed career paths that are as divergent as their campuses.
Farquhar’s middle name is Brooke, and through his mother’s family he can trace his ancestry back eight generations in Montgomery County to James Brooke, a Quaker who moved here from Union Bridge, Md., in 1720 and owned 20,000 acres at his death in 1784. The Farquhars arrived in 1820 and followed the “good strategy” of marrying into the Brooke family.
“That’s how you got farms,” Farquhar says. As a boy he followed family tradition, raising pigs in the 4-H Club and becoming a “real tractor jockey” who could “back up a hay wagon, a very specialized skill.”
After graduating from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., he convinced Sandy Spring to create a job for him running the school’s organic farm. “I wanted to do something to save the world through gardening,” he recalls.
He soon traded tractors for teaching and cycled through a series of academic posts, running Westtown School near Philadelphia for 13 years and Bullis School in Potomac for eight years before taking the Sidwell job.
Farquhar recently announced he’ll retire in two years and return to his first love, organic farming, on a “couple of acres” he still owns in Sandy Spring. But he’s still focused on his day job. “There will be plenty of time later to put in my seed order,” he tells me.
Gibian’s grandfather was a political refugee, fleeing Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazis in 1939. His father flew fighter planes out of Great Britain during World War II and after training as a scientist, moved his family here in 1963 to work at W.R. Grace, a large chemical company with a research facility in Clarksville. The elder Gibians were not raised as Quakers—Tom’s father is half-Jewish and half-Catholic; his mother, Scots-Irish Protestant—but they chose the religion for its “sense of simplicity.”
Gibian attended the College of Wooster in Ohio and worked for several years as a community organizer before veering off into business, first trading bonds on Wall Street and then raising venture capital for emerging markets in Africa.
“I remember a friend of mine saying, ‘Private equity in Africa? I think I would invest in bottled water on Venus before I’d do that,’ ” Gibian recalls. But his firm “tripled people’s money” and when he hit his mid-50s, now wealthy and a bit bored, Gibian said to himself: “There’s time to do one more important thing.”
While reading Taylor Branch’s history of the civil rights movement, he was struck by the courage and creativity of the Northerners who joined the Freedom Rides. “I thought, ‘Where’s my bus?’ ”
It turned out to be a school bus. Various Gibians had served on the board of Sandy Spring for many years, and Tom, the board’s “clerk” or chair, was heading a search committee at the time to choose a new head of school. He wound up picking himself.
Today Gibian’s office is a five-minute walk from Friends House, a retirement facility where his parents live, and many evenings after work he strolls there with Stx. “This is how you age in place,” he says.
Farquhar returns to Sandy Spring weekly for Quaker “meetings,” or religious services. “The graveyard there has all my ancestors laid out, with very modest stones all in a line,” he says, “so just being there every Sunday keeps me re-centered and refreshed.”
Half a century after their first meeting, these two friends are still sustained by the same land, the same community, the same spirit.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.