Sunday, October 06, 2019

Saying Farewell to John Phillips

Two weeks ago Martha and I attended a memorial service for someone I thought would be an honored guest at mine.

By way of background, my father retired from the Air Force in February of 1958, when I was on the cusp of twelve, and we moved to Tampa. We settled into 3910 Wyoming Avenue, and were warmly greeted by our neighbors from 3912, Burt and Mary Phillips. Burt, a Gulfport, Mississippi native, worked for an oil company; Mary, who grew up on a farm near Conway, Arkansas, was a nurse. I'll confess to having had an adolescent crush on tall, auburn haired Mary.

After a couple of years, Mary became pregnant. She and my mother had become very close, and during what must have been her eighth month, Mary was at our house for a visit. She said to me, "Come here," as she lifted her shirt. Pointing to a spot on her distended belly, she said, "Put your hand here." I did, and felt movement. "That's a foot," she said. So it was that my first contact with John happened before he was born. Many years later, when I told John this story, he said, with mock horror, "You did THAT to my mother?"

As an infant, John was our next door neighbor for a couple of years, until Burt and Mary moved to a spiffier neighborhood on Tampa's north side. Nevertheless, their friendship with my parents and me remained strong, and we were frequent guests at their new house. I was a teenager; John was a little kid. Our contacts were minimal; he was often off on play dates during our visits. Indeed, I had little contact with John, other than at the occasional holiday meal and party we shared with his parents, through my high school, college, and law school years. One detail I remember, told by Mary, was of his having adopted a cat that he named Jennifer. When a vet said the cat was male, John called it "Jennifer He"; perhaps an adumbration of gender fluidity.

My friendship with John began in the 1980s when he, having graduated from Stanford, came to New York to study for an M.B.A. at New York University's Graduate School of Business Administration. We became bachelor neighbors in Greenwich Village, as he lived in a dorm a few blocks from my apartment. We had in common having taken courses at G.B.A., now called the Stern School after alum and birdseed magnate (Hartz Mountain) Leonard Stern. I introduced him to the Lion's Head. After his first visit there, when I was there alone, a woman friend asked, "When is that cute John Phillips coming back?"

Eventually, John let me know he had fallen in love with someone he met at G.B.A., Alyssa Cohen. Martha and I were together when we attended their wedding, and rode to and from it (It was in Nassau County; Alyssa's home) on something someone has called the "Gator Bus" because it was full of people from Florida.

After the wedding, Martha and I visited John and Alyssa at their apartment in Manhattan's Chelsea district. Later, they moved to suburban Larchmont. They had two daughters, Sarah and Veronica. We visited them on several occasions, sometimes with Burt and Mary up from Florida. On one of these visits, Mary, in her Arkansas patois, kept referring to Alyssa and her parents, Gabe and Ina, as the "Coynes." This made me wonder if she thought John's wife and in-laws were Irish. Of course, she would have noticed the rabbi at the wedding. On one of our visits, John, who had been working in television, told me of being fired by Lou Dobbs. He didn't seem upset by this; I thought it was a badge of honor.

We also stayed in touch through correspondence, in which John and Alyssa kept us advised of their travels, their daughters' accomplishments, and other matters. The messages we received always reflected John's bizarre sense of humor.

Martha and I were both dismayed by the news of John's death, while in his fifties, from pancreatic cancer. We attended his memorial service at an Episcopal church in Larchmont, at which the celebrant was a priest who had been John's high school classmate. There were many testimonials by high school, college, and grad school classmates, in which I learned, among other things, that he and I shared a love for the humor of Monty Python,

I wish I had known him better.