Jeff Farnam not only conquered his physical limitations, he embraced them for inspiration.
Farnam, whose talents and interests ranged from photography to aviation to wheelchair-design ingenuity, died April 11 in Minneapolis after a long battle with cancer. He was 64.
At 15, Farnam broke his neck when he fell out of a tree he was trimming at a church, losing the use of his legs and limiting the use of his hands. From there, it was one accomplishment after another for a man who required a wheelchair, 24-hour in-home care and faithful service dog Reggie for pursuit of his daily wants and needs.
In the late 1980s, Farnam collaborated with Mark Jensen on a photo exhibit capturing the "Faces and Facades" of Block E in Minneapolis.
The exhibit featured 15 years of capturing images of shopkeepers, street people, alleys and doorways of this enigmatic section of downtown and was displayed in the late 1980s in the public-service level of the Hennepin County Government Center.
Farnam never gave photography a thought as a career or even a hobby, given his disability. But, he said around the time of the exhibit's debut, with the help of some shutterbug friends, he bought a camera and "caught the bug."
He also flew his own planes, whether it was as a licensed pilot in the cockpit of his single-engine Cessna or from the ground guiding a remote-control aircraft.
"I never had another student like Jeff," said his flight instructor, Linda Dowdy. "When I asked him why he wanted to fly, he told me about hanging around airports and listening to pilots talk."
Dowdy said just thinking about his love of flying, "still makes me choke up. He said he just wanted some of the action."
Farnam's paralysis meant he had to be hoisted into the cockpit with a sling-type device, and he was never allowed to fly solo, she said.
Even so, "he never let it stop him," Dowdy said. "He did what he could. His attitude was phenomenal. He was an inspiration to a lot of people."
Julian Farnam said his half-brother "had just a tremendous spirit for life. He was very, very passionate in multiple areas" and was served well by having "the right sense of humor with some cynicism sprinkled in there."
Jeff Farnam's paralysis inspired him to be "kind of an amateur inventor," Julian Farnam said, noting that he held several patents for various wheelchair designs, including one with four-wheel drive.
"Initially, it may be sold to rugged individualists or people paying for it themselves [rather than third-party providers]," Jeff Farnam said in a 1992 interview with the Star Tribune.
"I don't see it as being the standard chair of tomorrow at all," he added. "But I do see a lot of people who depend on motorized wheelchairs, who go outdoors, who take the bus, drive their own vans, who would benefit from this."
Jeff Farnam graduated from Minneapolis Washburn High School in 1965 and then earned a degree in economics from the University of Minnesota. He worked as an administrative analyst in the Minneapolis city coordinator's office until he retired.
Along with his half-brother, he is survived by a sister, Laurie Farnam of San Francisco. Services are pending.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482