When retired reporter Harry Farrell traveled to New York City as a nominee for the 1993 Edgar Allan Poe Award, he said one thought was going through his mind.
His nonfiction crime book “Swift Justice” was not going to win, he told Grace Matthews, his longtime friend who accompanied him.
Their table mate and fellow nominee, mystery writer Ann Rule, apparently didn’t have the same doubts, Matthews said. On the announcement that Farrell’s book took the award, Rule “had a total look of shock on her face,” Matthews said. “She thought she was going to win, and so did Harry.”
The prize that night was a ceramic statue of Poe, which a chuckling Farrell clutched in his hand all the way home, Matthews said.
The achievement culminated more than half a century of journalism for Farrell.
As a San Jose native and San Jose State graduate, he spent 44 years as a newspaper carrier, stringer, copy clerk, reporter, political editor and columnist at the Mercury Herald, Evening News and Mercury News, then eight years researching and writing “Swift Justice.”
Farrell first wrote about the infamous lynching at San Jose’s St. James Park in a two-part series for the Mercury News in 1983, the 50th anniversary of the crime.
In 1933 a mob charged the Santa Clara County Jail and found the two men accused of killing Brooke Hart, son of the owner of an iconic downtown department store.
The men, Jack Holmes and Thomas Thurman, were dragged from the jail and lynched in St. James Park across the street.
In 1986, three years after Farrell retired from the Mercury News, he continued researching and writing “Swift Justice,” which chronicled the story of the public lynching.
“Splendid reporting that will shake up our concepts of ourselves,” longtime news anchor Walter Cronkite said about the book in a Rose Garden Resident article.
Farrell’s notes and research for the book sat neatly in three-ring binders in a bookcase that took up half the length of his garage, said Matthews, who had known Farrell since they were classmates at the old Hester grammar school in San Jose.
“He was always so interested in what he was writing,” Matthews said. “He got to know the parents of the men who killed the Hart boy, and he protected them for the longest time before anyone even knew who they were.”
Former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery bought the rights to “Swift Justice” with designs on making it into a movie. Two other movie projects were also spurred by the publication of the book.
Besides “Swift Justice,” Farrell wrote ”Shallow Grave in Trinity County” about the killing of a teenage girl in Berkeley, as well as “San Jose and Other Famous Places,” a history.
Farrell’s determination to get to the bottom of stories, combined with his unbridled trust, helped him gain a reputation not only as a good author, but also as the most formidable reporter, political editor and columnist on the Evening News and Mercury News during his 44 years with the papers, colleagues said.
He wasn’t really famous, but many local, state and national politicians definitely knew who he was, said Wes Peyton, his friend, classmate, war buddy and Mercury News colleague.
He was so comfortable with prominent officeholders that they knew each other on a first-name basis — California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Brown’s son and California Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
His home in San Jose, Matthews said, was adorned with photos of Farrell with Nixon, Reagan, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover.
Shirley Temple Black, former actress and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, became a close friend, showing up at his retirement party. Reagan wrote a personal letter to Farrell thanking him for his objective coverage through the years, according to Farrell’s San Jose Mercury News obituary.
“He was very proud of every one of his relationships,” Matthews said.
Farrell benefited from his association with political figures, often getting invites from them to attend inner-circle events, which Farrell used as an opportunity to gain insider tidbits for his stories, Peyton said.
Farrell was a determined reporter with a friendly resolve that allowed him to excel at gathering information from people in a comforting manner, Peyton said.
“I think the one thing that made him such a great reporter was that he liked people,” Peyton said.
“He knew an essential fact about human nature. People like to talk about themselves, so if you let them talk, they will tell you everything you want to know — even things they didn’t think they were going to tell you.
“He was very tenacious,” Peyton said. “I think the one thing I remember most about him is that he never gave up. If he wanted to find something out, he would find it out. It might take a long time, and it might entail sitting and listening to nonessential stuff, but he was very patient.”
Peyton said Farrell was constantly getting offers from other newspapers, but never once thought about leaving the Mercury News — a job he had wanted since he was a kid.
“He could have gone anywhere he wanted, and done anything he wanted in journalism, but he wanted to be with the San Jose Mercury News,” Peyton said.
Farrell was born Nov. 6, 1924, and lived his entire life in San Jose.
Classmates often made fun of the tall and shy Farrell, but that all changed when he was introduced to journalism on walking into Carl Palmer’s journalism class at Hoover Junior High, Peyton said.
Palmer, who Farrell said taught him more about journalism than anyone else including teachers at San Jose High and instructors at San Jose State, was adviser for Hoover’s monthly school newspaper, “The Coordinator.”
Farrell’s class used to write a monthly column for the Evening News, which Farrell personally delivered to its offices.
This little errand paid off because he got to know Evening News managing editor Jack Wright, which led to his next endeavor.
After Palmer spoke to Wright, Farrell was offered a position at the Evening News.
As a free staffer, Farrell wrote church notices and obituaries for two or three hours a day before delivering the paper in the afternoon.
Just three years later, he was hired as a copy boy at the paper.
As a student at San Jose High in 1939, Farrell joined the student newspaper as a writer. As a low senior he became editor before moving on to become publicity agent as a high senior.
Farrell enrolled at San Jose State in 1942, but his education was interrupted when he was called to duty as a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps during World War II.
After studying at Pasadena Junior College, he became a member of 79th Infantry Division, which served on the southern flank of Patton’s 3rd Army in France in 1944 during World War II.
In 1946, he returned to SJSU where he was on the staff of the Spartan Daily while working full time at the Evening News.
“He was the best reporter I knew, and he wasn’t a bad writer either, “ Peyton said.
Farrell was married for 43 years to the former Betty Regan, an artist and San Jose State graduate whose brother, Bill, also an SJSU grad, was a chief photographer at the Mercury Herald.