He worked behind the scenes and never drew attention to himself, but he may have had a greater impact on high school athletics in Delaware than anybody else. More than anything, Dale Farmer was a bridge between the older generations and the newer ones, and he was there when times truly did change.
Farmer, who died on Sept. 14 at age 88, served as head of the Delaware Secondary School Athletic Association for more than 20 years, from 1970-91. And it’s not just that Farmer was there for a long time – he was also there for a revolutionary time, when high school sports in Delaware changed dramatically and forever.
It was a much different world when Farmer took office in 1970, back in the days when Sussex County was truly Slower Delaware (and we mean that in the best possible way). He was part of the Sussex scene for many years prior to that, before down-state high schools consolidated. Before there was Cape Henlopen and Indian River and Lake Forest there was Rehoboth High and Lewes High and Lord Baltimore High and Bridgeville High. And before Route 1 was constructed to make travel easier (at least in theory), downstate teams hardly ever played upstate teams – it was almost like they were on different planets.
Also, there were no state tournaments in most sports before the 1970s, and girls sports were relegated to the back pages of the newspapers, if they appeared at all.
Farmer saw all of that up close and personal when he started his career in 1959 at Lord Baltimore High, which at the time was a small school in the sleepy little town of Ocean View – which, of course, is not a sleepy little town anymore, especially in the summer. And the old brick building that housed Lord Baltimore is now an elementary school, while the high school was absorbed as part of the Indian River consolidation.
But the biggest change came in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, which expanded girls sports to an unprecedented level. Farmer oversaw that change and growth, and the rapid way in which girls sports became equal partners in Delaware high school athletics came during his watch.
Farmer started his career in the Leave-it-to-Beaver days of the late 1950s, after he served in the U.S. Air Force. But he wasn’t just an administrator who sat behind a desk and issued mandates in those early years. He started his career at Lord Baltimore and coached football, basketball and baseball, and he was also the school’s athletic director, which means he didn’t have much free time. But that’s the way they did it back then, especially small schools in small towns that played against other small schools from other small towns.
After four years in Ocean View, Farmer became the football coach at Smyrna for six seasons, and he was a good one – his Eagles had an overall record of 41-20-3 and he won his conference twice. Even more telling – Farmer’s teams never had a losing record.
But it was in his role as the first czar of DSSAA (now called the DIAA, for Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association) that Farmer really made his mark. Farmer could be persnickety and he could be stubborn and sometimes he rubbed people the wrong way, but he was the pioneer, the pathfinder, the one who went ahead and set the course for everybody else to follow.
And that’s the main reason Farmer was awarded the DIAA Board of Director’s Lifetime Achievement Award just last year, and the main reason he was elected to the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. Dale Farmer was in charge when everything changed and he was one of the reasons it changed for the better.