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Walter Farmer, 1943 - 2001
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Walter Farmer, a man known for his positive outlook, his soulful blue eyes, and his willingness to pet-sit neighborhood dogs while their owners ran errands on 24th Street, passed from this world on Feb. 23, a week shy of his 58th birthday. The cause of death was renal kidney failure, brought on by diabetes.
The bearded, baseball cap-wearing Farmer spent a great portion of the last few years of his life on the streets of Noe Valley, sitting in his wheelchair on the sidewalk in front of Bell Market or near the post office on 24th Street. He kept a paper cup by his side in which friends and passersby often dropped spare change.
"I always saw him around the neighborhood when I was walking my dog, and he always had a gentle smile on his face," recalls Lynnea Key, who lives on 26th Street. "He had a face that was full of compassion. He would often watch my dog when I went inside the post office."
"He was part of Noe Valley's extended family, and I talked to him all the time," remembers Coral Reiff, a Noe Valley resident for the past 30 years. "A few days before he died, I spoke to him at great length. It was clear he was suffering, but he was very stoic. Walt never complained."
Steve Hebert, a Street Sheet vendor who can be found most mornings sitting on a crate near the news racks in front of the post office, has been gradually spreading word of Farmer's death to the many people who have inquired over the past few months.
"I was his brother," says Hebert. "We were as close as could be, even more than brothers related by blood. We never argued, we got along fabulously. He was a good guy, and I really miss him a lot."
It was Hebert who took Farmer to San Francisco General on Feb. 20 because Farmer was having difficulty breathing. Hebert also was at Farmer's hospital bedside when he died three days later.
"Walter had been sick for a while," says Hebert. "But he never let on how badly he was feeling. He'd been in the hospital a few times in the last year for dehydration and high blood sugar from his diabetes, but he always came out.
"This last time, I knew it was bad, but I was still hoping he would come out of it. His heart stopped twice. They put him on dialysis for his kidneys, but he didn't respond. I knew Walter wouldn't have wanted to be a vegetable and have no quality of life. He was sedated and comfortable when he passed on."
Hebert recalls that the days prior to Farmer's passing had been rainy, windy, and cold. But on the day he died, the weather turned sunny. "I liked knowing that it was sunny on that first day of Walter's new life," he says.
Hebert and Farmer met three and a half years ago in Nevada, and together made their way to San Francisco. They were constant companions once they hit the city, living in an old Volkswagen van that Hebert purchased for $400.
Because Farmer was a very private person, Hebert knows he wouldn't have wanted the details of his life made public, but he did share with the Voice that Farmer was born in Washington state on March 3, 1943, was a Baptist minister, and that Farmer had been confined to a wheelchair since losing his right leg in a logging accident many, many years ago.
"He was a God-fearing man. Put that in bring print," says Hebert. "That makes dealing with his passing a lot easier because I know where he's at. For Walter, there's no more sickness, no more being out in the cold. He was quite a man. He should be judged by the type of person he was, not by his possessions.
"For his position in life, he touched a lot of people," continues Hebert. "He had nothing bad to say about anybody. Walter's cup was never half empty. It was always half full. He was always optimistic. He was always saying it doesn't matter what you don't have, it's what you have that's important. He never counted his shortcomings; he was always looking at his blessings, and he always brought me up when I was feeling down."
Coral Reiff was so touched by Farmer that when she learned of his death, she decided to create a small memorial tribute to him -- a photograph of Farmer and text she composed while looking at the photo-- which both Beyond the Sea on Castro Street and the Wooden Heel on 24th Street placed in their front windows.
"A member of the Noe Valley family has passed on," she writes. "Our friend Walt died the last week in February. What a very full life he had! Unfortunately, because of his diabetic condition and exposure to all kinds of weather conditions due to his homelessness, he left us way too early. We will miss him and we can honor his memory by working for the elimination of homelessness in our beautiful city. We send you white light for an easy journey."
The note is signed, "'Kiddo' and other friends of your Noe Valley family." "Kiddo" was Farmer's term of endearment for Reiff.
"Lots of people have stopped by and commented on how nice the tribute is, and that they're glad it's there so they can know about Walter's death," says Thomas Wilske, owner of Wooden Heel.
"I really felt like Walt should be acknowledged," explains Reiff. "In a way, he was a metaphor for homeless people everywhere. He was a constant presence. People just gravitated toward him. He was never a threat to anyone. A lot of people in the neighborhood knew him, and they all had something good to say about him. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Walt. There was a reason he passed through our lives."
Adds Hebert, "He was not proud of what he did, panhandling, but he did what he had to do. It means a lot to me that the neighborhood made Walter feel part of it and welcome. Walter liked Noe Valley better than any other part of San Francisco. Noe Valley is like its own little utopia in San Francisco. People are very easygoing. It's a very safe neighborhood."
Besides 24th Street in Noe Valley, Farmer and Hebert were also fixtures in the Mission, at the corner of 21st and Valencia, where Hebert still sells Street Sheets many afternoons.
In reporting Farmer's death in the April issue of the New Mission News, columnist Jane Dixon recalls, "Walter had the clearest, lightest blue eyes in the Mission. The kind of eyes which I've always associated with clean living and clear consciences."
"Walter's eyes truly were the window to his soul," says Hebert. "He had very comforting eyes. Everybody always talked about Walter's eyes."
Following his death, Farmer was cremated, and Hebert and a good friend from the neighborhood, Susan, held a memorial service -- just the two of them -- at Mission Dolores. "Susan was an important part of his life. Walter talked about her all the time. At Mission Dolores, Susan and I lit candles and remembered Walter. Susan and I miss him so much. We miss him with all our hearts. He made an amazing impact on our lives."
The two friends also celebrated that Farmer got his last wish, after so many difficult years on the streets.
"Walter didn't want to die alone," says Hebert, "and he didn't die alone. No matter how much he'd sinned, I'm sure he went to heaven. I like to think that he's running around in paradise now with two legs and no pain or sorrow or stress. He's complete. He's made the transition. He's no longer a caterpillar. He's a butterfly."