ODE TO WILLIAM (“BILL”) PHILLIPS
“… I will never have it that God created any man, especially any Christian man, to be a blank, and to be a nothing. He made you for an end. Find out what that end is; find out your own niche and fill it. If it be ever so little, if it is only to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, do something in this great battle for God and truth.”
Belle Phillips called Imogene and I one morning last week to tell us that my good friend Bill Phillips had passed away, peacefully in his sleep, at 6:00 a.m.
Bill was 78 years old and had been sick for a long time.
I cannot imagine the first few years at Alice Lloyd College, located along Caney Creek, in the rural Appalachian Mountains, without Bill and Belle—and their three boys, Andy, Chris and Collin. Bill headed the Upward Bound project on campus, with his office located in the old Brown and Green Building. Upward Bound was a program designed during the LBJ “Great Society” years to encourage mountain high schoolers to attend college. Working in his office was a young lady who had just graduated from college herself, Imogene Bates.
Bill had a passion to see young people in the mountains succeed. He was, among other things: an educator, skilled communicator, a compassionate boss, an artist, a thinker, an outdoor enthusiast, an avid duck hunter, a loving husband, and a patient father. I looked at him as a mentor of sorts during those years.
He became one of my closest friends.
I will never forget him.
Bill loved football. He played on our faculty team in the ALC intermural gridiron wars waged on the college meadow. Today, it is hard to imagine the meadow the way it was in those years because of the new campus buildings. At one time, the meadow was the only flat piece of land on campus: on one end stood the small stone college library—with a flat roof where Miss June herself would occasionally watch the blood-letting on the field of play below—on the other end was the picturesque stone “Grender House.” The meadow’s boundary was marked on one side by a small stone wall running alongside the road that meandered through campus, a small road that ran next to the creek. On the other side was a sidewalk that ran in front of the campus store and a small frame house where I lived.
The field was small, but the competition was intense.
In those years, the faculty team was the campus football juggernaut.
It was supposed to be flag football.
When the faculty was involved, it always turned into hand-to-hand combat.
I remember walking into my college classroom one morning after one such contest and noticing one of my students, a big local kid named Aaron (if memory serves me correctly), sporting two puffy, swollen, black eyes.
“What happened to you?” I asked.
“What do you mean what happened to me?” Aaron said. “You did this!”
He was, of course, referring to the final play of the game late in the afternoon the day before. It was getting close to dusk and the clock was running out. The final play of the game was a quarterback sneak with me diving headlong into a pile of faculty and student flesh for the deciding touchdown.
Oh, the stories I could tell about my fellow faculty teammates over the years! There was Richard Bushong and his homemade mouthpiece, toupee-less music master Richard Kennedy, teeth-rattling blocks by Charlie Whitaker, Ken Medders (who said he played tight end at Notre Dame but my first pass plunked him in the chest), Gary Gibson (if there was no college girls’ game), Dean Wally Campbell with his comb over, an injury-prone Dr. Jerry Davis, and a thin and svelte Fred Mullinax.
A couple years ago, I met former ALC student Freddie Spears for dinner. His most vivid memory of the college experience was a football game in the meadow. He recounted a play where President Davis and Fred Mullinax, on a double-team block, drove him into and over the stone wall (he claimed it was long after the whistle had blown the play dead). He laughed while telling the story.
In the interest of time and space, I’ll tell just one more story. There are probably hundreds to tell. This one involves Bill Philipps.
Bill was rushing the passer from one end and I from the other. We shed our respective student blockers and ran—full-speed—toward the college student playing quarterback. Probably the fleet-footed Johnny Spicer. He ducked and Bill and I crashed into each other in a collision as fierce and bone-crunching as anything you’ll see on Sundays in the NFL.
The hit was so memorable that Bill and I would talk about it for years afterward. I honestly thought I had broken a bone or two. We both limped to the sidelines after the play. In all my years playing peewee, high school and military service football, I have never experienced a tackle quite like that!
And friendly fire at that!
Ah, the memories!
To visit the Philipps household—they lived in the white Anderson house across the creek—was to enjoy the very best of Caney Creek hospitality in those years. Bill Melton—also a close friend of Bill’s—told me recently that such visits were among his most enduring memories of campus life. There was a special closeness of campus faculty and staff during those years, and Bill and Belle played a large role in creating that unique atmosphere.
Ima and I spent many evenings at the Phillips’ house playing Rook (after Belle put the boys to sleep).
And we weren’t the only ones.
Bill’s wife, Belle, was a terrific cook. Whether it be a breakfast of sausage, eggs, fluffy biscuits and gravy (or homemade jelly), or just a meal she would cobble together out of a seemingly empty refrigerator, her meals were always delicious. Even now, I start drooling when I think of her strawberry shortcake. (Belle and Jane Campbell spearheaded the group of campus ladies that prepared an absolute feast in the Hunger Din the evening prior to Ima and my wedding at the Caney Creek Baptist Church).
Bill left the college after the funding for the Upward Bound program played out. He subsequently managed and opened several Western Steer steakhouses from Knoxville to Pikeville, designed and built salad bars, and, much later, owned and drove a semi-tractor trailer rig.
Over the years, we visited the Philipps in various locations. When we took a group of JBS students to visit the World Fair in Knoxville, we stayed at their lakefront home. Ima and I even considered buying the small A-frame house next door to their home near Cherokee Lake; we loved them and the boys that much. We also visited the Phillips on a handful of occasions when they moved to Bill’s final stop—and the town of his childhood years—Savannah, Tennessee.
Our last visit with Bill and Belle was on our way out West on Ima’s post-retirement grand tour this summer. At the time, Bill was in poor health and had trouble breathing. His constant companion was a breathing machine. Coughing spells made conversation difficult. Bill and Belle insisted we sleep in their bed. On the wall was a piece of artwork I did for Bill and Belle many years ago—a mountain scene with morning fog rising over a lake. The walls were also decorated with an assortment of ducks (trophies of past hunting ventures), as well as Bill’s artworks portraying various ducks in flight.
Before we left, we took a picture of the four of us (Bill was in pajamas and toting his oxygen machine).
It remains one of our most treasured photographs.
I will miss hearing Bill say “like an old chip,” whenever I called to ask him how he was doing. I’ll miss talking to him about his beloved Tennessee Volunteers and Atlanta Braves. I’ll miss the loving way he teased Belle. I’ll miss him talking about his three boys. I’ll miss hearing his viewpoints on the various woes now besetting our country. I’ll miss floating my ideas for my novel with him. I’ll miss talking to him about God’s goodness.
I’ll miss praying for him …
Farewell my friend!