How One CEO Made His Dream Come True

Thomas F. Farrell is not your ordinary Fortune 500 CEO.

Or maybe he is.

He runs Dominion Resources, Number 212 on Fortune’s 2014 list. It’s one of the country’s biggest utility companies with more than $13 billion in sales, more than 15,000 employees and operations in well over a dozen states.

But that’s not all. Like many CEOs, Farrell is perpetually – no, mind-bogglingly – in motion. He’s the presiding director of Altria, the global tobacco company. He is on the board of the Edison Electric Institute, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. He’s chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education, the Richmond Performing Arts Center, the Virginia Business Council and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He formerly served on and led the board of visitors of the University of Virginia, where Tom and I met (eegads!) 40 years ago.

Oh yeah. He also just co-wrote, produced and had a cameo role in a movie now in theaters in about 20 cities nationwide. It’s a Civil War drama called Field of Lost Shoes, and it’s worth seeing.

Where does a guy like Farrell find the time for all he does? Beats me. When does he sleep? Evidently never. How does he manage to show up at most Virginia home football games on fall Saturdays? I’ve got no idea.

In these ways, I suspect Farrell is like a lot of American CEOs. There’s just not enough time in the day for them to do all they want to. And yet they seem to find it. Sitting still is not an option.

It may be fashionable in some quarters to bash business or put down CEOs as greedy, selfish economic plutocrats. But to my observation, most American CEOs – and I’ve met or interviewed quite a few – are dedicated, incredibly hard-working, largely public spirited polymaths. Like Farrell, they’ve got broad interests and deep passions, and they deplore being bored almost as much as they do a bad earnings report.

For Farrell, the son of a long line of Army officers, that passion for the better part of 30 years has been military history. Some CEOs love opera or the arts; others, golf or sailing. Tom’s thing is the military, especially the Army.

About 30 years ago, says Farrell, he went on what he calls his “Civil War binge.” If you live in Virginia, as he does, and if you like military history, the Civil War is a good binge to go on. It’s how he came upon the narrative that turned into Field of Lost Shoes, a project Farrell got serious about roughly ten years ago.

The film tells the story of 250 cadets from Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. In May of 1864, as Union forces bore down through the Shenandoah Valley, the schoolboys marched north 90 miles over 4 ½ days, though torrential rains, called up to reinforce a fraying Confederate line.

The stakes could not have been higher. Hold the Valley and the South’s critical breadbasket would be secure. Lose it and not only would food supplies vanish for Gen. Lee’s troops but the Union would have a clear path to his western flank at Richmond.

After their sodden march, the cadets ended up in a field – Bushong’s Farm — near the small town of New Market. As Farrell says, the boys “were good at parade. But these were not hardened veterans.” The men opposing them, by contrast, were.

Everyone knew a pivotal battle was coming. On May 15, 1864, it did.

The fighting began midmorning, under leaden skies. The Confederates, under Kentucky Gen. John C. Breckenridge, a former vice president of the United States, were outnumbered two to one. What’s more, the Union troops commanded the high ground at the crest of a long, gradually rising, recently planted wheat field.

Early on, the battle was not going Breckenridge’s way. He took heavy casualties. The Union artillery blew a hole in his forward line. “He was out of men,” says Farrell. He had no choice but to bring the untested cadets forward and throw them into battle.

And that’s what he did. In the film’s most dramatic moment – documented word for word by contemporary accounts of the battle – Breckenridge gives the order: “Send the boys in. May God forgive me.”

Farrell takes it from there. “The cadets led the charge,” he says. “They led it up the hill.” Heavy artillery and musket fire quickly turned into fierce hand-to-hand combat, made all the more desperate by something the schoolboys could never have counted on: the mud.

After days of rain, says Farrell, “The mud was so deep it sucked the shoes off their feet. Many of them ran up the hill barefoot.”

The cadets fought hard and well. At the end of the day, ten of them were dead or mortally wounded. But they plugged the hole in Breckenridge’s line. Though outmanned and outgunned, the Confederates prevailed that day, postponing the inevitable at least for a while.

After the battle, says Farrell, there amidst the dead and the dying were “hundreds of shoes. That’s where the name of the movie and the legend comes from, the Field of Lost Shoes.”

Farrell now says he’s “going to go back to my job.” In truth, of course, this very busy guy never left it. He did the work in his spare time, 10 to 15 hours a week for years. “That’s what nights and weekends are for,” he says.

For Tom Farrell, and for dozens of CEOs like him, sitting still is not an option.

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