Lorie Farkas is the assistant general manager for customer relations and marketing for Albany’s Water, Gas & Light Commission.
For nearly 27 years, Lorie Farkas has been the face of the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission. Whether it’s orchestrating the utility’s annual Festival of Lights parade or putting together a tribute to the troops during the first Gulf War, Farkas has been the go-to marketing specialist.
And yet the Albany native, who is the descendant of several generations of Albany businessmen, is much more than that. She’s also an artist, a writer, a student of psychology.
In a recent interview with Herald reporter J.D. Sumner, Farkas talked about a broad spectrum of topics from her role as the assistant general manager for community relations and marketing to her time at the University Miami and her love of O. Henry.
For more of the interview, watch the video at albanyherald.com
Q: What was your first job?
A: I have two first jobs. My very first job was at 12. My best friend, Dr. Hollis’ daughter Carol, and I started a summer day care. We had 10 small children every day. One week we’d be at my parent’s house, the next week — and she lived around the corner — we’d be at her parent’s house. We did all kinds of art projects and craft projects; we fed them lunch and, gratefully, their parents came and got them after lunch. So, I don’t know how we came up with that idea and why our parents approved it. You’d never think of that today. We probably had 10 or 12 children everyday in our little daycare. But the job that I really loved was teaching art for four years all through high school at at the junior museum, which we don’t have anymore, over on Residence.
NAME: Lorie Farkas
JOB: Assistant General Manager for Community Relations and Marketing for the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission.
YEARS ON THE JOB: 26
PERSONAL: Married with two adult children and four grandchildren.
Q: Talk a little bit about your educational background.
A: When I was five, my grandparents took me to the University of Miami to see my cousin in a diving exposition and they did a water ballet before the diving. I saw these girls in these beautiful floral caps doing all these beautiful moves in the pool and I said I’m going to the University of Miami when I graduate; when I grow up. I got accepted at Georgia, which my whole family went to. The University of Georgia still uses my great-grand daddy’s will as the most perfect trust for their law students. So my whole family went to Georgia. I, on the other hand, said I was going to the University of Miami, and that’s where I went. I didn’t finish. I married a doctor and moved to Toronto, Canada. So, I didn’t complete my education there, but I did major in psychology and I minored in art.
Q: How did you find yourself in your business?
A: The city commission, the mayor and the Water, Gas and Light commission came to me. I was looking for a PR job after I had retired from the bank for two years and had been offered to be second in charge of public relations at Phoebe Putney. There was no public relations department at Phoebe in 1987, that’s hard to believe today. Tina Harden was going to be the director and I met with Duncan Moore, who was the Joel Wernick of that day, and the job started in January and this is September. So I knew I had a job and I wasn’t in any rush to get a job. Financially I was fine, and in September or the early part of October, the city commission, this commission and the mayor came to me and “we’d really like to look at your resume, we understand you’re looking for a PR job.” In a small town, people die in their public relations jobs because if that’s what your personality is, you love what you’re doing and you just have it forever. So when this came up, I said I’m going to try this. I fell in love with the hands-on, dealing with people, being given the latitude to come up with programs that have won national attention, national awards. That’s the community you love, and then you create something that’s accepted and recognized nationally, it makes you feel good. That you’ve done something for your community. And I love this community.
Q: What advice would you have for a young person who is on the cusp of entering your field?
A: I do a lot of career counseling and I say this; if you have these three things in alignment you will never work a day in your life: Find something that you love to do, find something that you’re good at and find something that you can make a living at. I love to sing. I can’t sing a note. I can’t make a living singing. I love to needlepoint/crosstitch. I’m real good at it. I can’t make a living doing it. So if you get those three things in alignment — something you love, something you’re good at and something you can make a living at — you won’t ever want to retire. We are seeing, as baby boomers, we’re all going to have to work longer and longer —into our 80s — and so your generation really needs to think long-term. We’re told people change careers 10 times in their lives. Not jobs, but careers.
I’ve been fortunate. The majority of my career has all been in dealing with the public and because my family has lived here for so many generations I’m interwoven and networked with so many people that when somebody calls and needs something, I know who to call.
Q: If you could have lunch with anyone, living or dead, real or imaginary, who would it be and why?
A: I thought about this a lot. And my very first thought was Rosa Parks because this tiny little woman who had been oppressed all her life, that day some fire in her made her do such an outlandish, outrageous thing that nobody would’ve ever thought she did it. That was going to be my first choice. But I quote Helen Keller all the time. Here is a person who couldn’t see, couldn’t hear; was locked in her own world until she was 10 or 12 until Annie Sullivan came along, who became so well known in the entire world. My favorite quote by her is “I’m only one person, I cannot do everything. But there is a something that I can do. I shall not say no to the thing that I can do.” I see so many people at water, gas and light who are squandering their lives. Young people that come in here that can’t pay their bill because their priorities are in the wrong place and I think so often of that quote.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing this community?
A: The biggest challenge ... and I hate when people keep saying education. It is education, but it’s education in the household. I don’t know when it got OK to have children out of wedlock. I don’t know when it got OK to wear pajamas into a public building. Because everybody has their rights, we, as a society, even though we know certain things are not morally or ethically right, we turn away from them. The biggest thing I see in working here everyday and talking to hundreds of people a week maybe, is that our priorities are all in the wrong place. Everyone has their hand out and nobody has their hand to help pull someone up. You’ve got to get at least your high school education. You’ve got to go for higher learning. We have too many service jobs; working at McDonalds; working at Burger King; those are great first jobs. I deal a lot with customers who say there is nothing I can do and I say God gave everybody a talent. I think our challenge in Albany, because we’re an indigent care center, and I just said this this morning, if Albany was just taking care of Albany’s poor, we wouldn’t have a problem in the world. But because we’re the center of 14 counties, anybody who is in those 14 counties who is impoverished moves to Albany to get free service. And so now, Albanians are taking care of 15 counties worth of poor people. That is a huge burden. So I see that as the worst thing that is happening in this community and the best way to fix that is to have two-parent households, only have children that you can afford, and then make sure your children are read to, make sure your children go to school and get their education.
Q: What three items would you like to have if you were stranded on an island?
A: First of all, my mother raised me that, if you have a love for reading, you will never be bored, and I’ve instilled that into my children. So I would take all of my favorite authors, O. Henry is my favorite, so I would take my books. I would take my family photographs because, at the end of your life, all you have are your memories and your memories are documented in photographs. And then I would take a journal and I would document how I got into this misadventure and I would turn it into an adventure book, so I would write the adventure of my misadventure.
Q: What’s the one trait people need to be successful?
A: Passion. There’s got to be passion. No matter what you’re doing, whether you’re making microchips or doing neurosurgery, you have to have a passion for what you’re doing. If you have a passion for what you do, you’re going to make sure that you do it well.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: It’s knowing that you have a set of policies, which we all have to have, but when you’re dealing with individuals there’s always a different twist. And so when I make a decision, I have to be really careful to know that I have to treat everybody the same and yet when I get a customer who has had something horrendous happen in their life that was no fault of their own, I feel for this person and I’m going to do everything I can to help her get what she needs.
Q: Is there a particular thing you’ve done that you’re most proud of in your professional career?
A: There really is. In Desert Storm in 1990, the city attorney called me and said that no one planned anything for the troop sendoff. They were leaving at 7 in the morning and could only stop for a certain number of moments. Quickly, I had schoolchildren lined up where ever the troops were going to be, holding little yellow ribbons, it was going to be at the civic center and everyone had to be there at 7 in the morning because the convoy could only stop at 7 for a certain number of minutes. I had Miss Albany, who was going to present the captain, who I think was Captain Paul Joiner, with a dozen roses; I had doves at the end that would fly off. I had someone from each military group and each department of the city stand up and salute as they passed by. I had a World War 1 vet in his original uniform stand up next to last — they were sitting on bleachers — and salute.
And the very last thing, I had a mom in her apron and handkerchief, she cried and waved them off. I had 10,000 people at six o’clock in the morning at the civic center. And the second thing would probably be during the flood. We had three days to prepare and nobody thought about getting any of our employees tetanus shots so I arranged for all of our employees — city and Water, Gas and Light — to get tetanus shots. We met with Phoebe and they graciously fed every city, county and government employee — anybody who was working on flood related things — they fed for the duration. I’m really proud of that.
I always say that in our worst time we show our best selves.