He actually asked my parents if he could adopt me.
It had nothing to do with my parents, who are great, and didn’t need the help. Maybe he was joking, maybe he was serious. It was an odd thing to say, for sure.
But it was Phil’s unique way of giving me the biggest seal of approval he could, his way of expounding on the many compliments he had paid me over the years.
It was his way of saying he loved me like a son, I think, when saying that was maybe too much. He liked to use it as a compliment in conversation — “I asked his parents if I could adopt him and they said, ‘No thanks, we like him!’” he would always joke.
Phil was a friend, a fraternity brother and a guy whose heart was in the right place, even if his jokes weren’t. He passed away unexpectedly last week, of an illness we all saw happening but he didn’t talk about.
Phil was my fraternity brother, but I joined 35 years after he did. We met when I was a freshman, new to Fiji. I eventually figured out that Phil cared about the fraternity deeply, from giving money and time to keep it afloat when there were fewer than 10 members in 2000 to flying out three times a year from Arizona to help us out. And even when guys told him they didn’t like him, or he wasn’t wanted, he tried to reason with them and make an impact.
I talked to Phil on the phone frequently throughout the year I was leading the chapter, since he was the top graduate advisor. Those conversations would be about chapter business (events, meetings, finances, big issues), and also about life (Phil was concerned I wasn’t having enough fun, and he was very happy when I met Christine). It could be hard to get Phil off the phone, but he became an ally for me. When we had an incident, Phil stood by me, and trusted me to make the right decisions in dealing with it. It was a powerful learning experience.
After I finished being president, Phil remained a friend. We’d still talk on the phone about the latest crisis or personal issue. He happened to be in town one night when Christine’s parents were visiting campus, so he bought them drinks, and sang my praises. He came to my wedding two years ago, getting rowdy pretty quickly and calling it an early night.
Phil did things his own way. Two hours on the phone to solve a simple issue about painting the brotherhood room may not have been efficient, but it was how he wanted to solve it. He would call people who worked at DePauw and offer his opinion, looking to enrich a place he loved. He did that at Fiji, too. No, they didn’t all like hearing from him, but it came from a place of deep, deep love for these places and these people.
Behind the scenes, Phil helped guys in the chapter out, finding money so they could pay their dues, paying for plane tickets to fraternity conferences and offering advice and support when things were tough. He would write checks to those who needed them, and ask the recipients not to tell. Whenever he visited DePauw, he took as many people as he could out to dinner, all on him.
The shock of Phil’s death comes because I always imagined I’d see him every April at Pig Dinner, nursing a glass and trying to get a rise out of people and deliver laughs. He’d be there, probably at the front table, heckling the speakers, buying drinks and plotting the future of Lambda Fiji. He’s part of a group of grads who are always there — making the same jokes and laughing the same laughs as every year. Without him, there’s a gap. Something missing.
A bunch of us found out Sunday night, through a series of texts, phone calls and forwarded emails. Phil asked for no funeral, so for now all I could do was get a few beers with one of my good friends to digest it. We talked about Phil, including the sides of him that he didn’t always reveal: his work, his personal life, his sickness.
And we told old fraternity stories, a mix of funny, bittersweet and weird stories Phil would’ve loved. Like the time Phil made an awkward joke about Christine in a chapter meeting. Like the time Phil bought a room of 30 people shots of Maker’s Mark after our fraternity brother’s funeral.
Like the time that, as president, I stood up to speak at Pig Dinner, and Phil spoke too.
“Hi, I’m Matt Welch, and I’m the president of the Lambda Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta,” I said, beaming, wearing a Fiji-purple dress shirt and tie.
“And he’s going on a diet tomorrow!” Phil blurted out.
I turned bright red. The crowd laughed.
(I’ve seen pictures of that day. I needed to go on a diet.)
To remember Phil, we told old fraternity stories, like that one, and we laughed and smiled.
When I moved to Chicago last summer, I called Phil to let him know about the new job and the master’s program I’m in. He got excited, because he has a master’s in communication from Northwestern. “You’re following in my footsteps,” he said into the phone, before bursting out into hearty laughter mixed with a cough or two.
He mentioned that he’d been in the hospital after a fall, but played it off as nothing. He was fine, he said. Phil was never into sharing too much. (I had to Google him to find out about the amazing career in law and business he once had.)
And then he expressed something I’d heard him say many times to many people.
“I’m very pleased to hear that. It sounds like you’re doing great.”
For Phil, it was always about other people. That was pretty awesome, and we’ll miss it.
Perge ad astra, brother.