My wife and I met Phil in about 1961 when he first came to PNG. We had been there for about three years and had watched a number of new members come into the Branch. I knew at once that Phil was not of the standard mold. He could build houses, he learned Tok Pisin very quickly, and he had a sense of humor much like my own—dry and quirky. During 1961 and 62 and for a few years afterward, the Branch had a spurt of members and needed housing. The directors decided that “minimal units” would speed up the process. These were small houses, shaped much like a large chicken coop and on house posts about 3 feet high. Wycliffe US had come up with the slogan “Two thousand tribes to go” referring to those “tribes” who still did not have the Bible. Phil and his helpers quickly adapted the slogan to “Two thousand posts to go” and with his usual humor and vigor a number of such units were completed.
Phil and four other single men were our neighbors and we would frequently send them some food. It was not that they needed it—except for breakfast and some other meals, they either had a roster of who was responsible for the meal or they individually cooked their own. Phil had four or five large cast iron skillets that he hung on the woven cane wall near the kitchen. He assured everyone that skillets should never be washed, so the fat dripped out and ran down the wall. No one seemed to mind, especially the rats.
Lori and Phil were married in a double ceremony at the SIL center at Ukarumpa about a year after Phil arrived. Lori had come later with her wedding dress. After some time at the center, they decided to work with a group of people called the Iatmul, who lived along the Sepik River. Over the next many years they had four boys, learned the language, wrote linguistic papers, and translated the NT. For a period they even lived in a houseboat that Phil and his uncle Joe had built.
They were still living in their village house when I gave them their language exam, probably in about 1965. I could tell in a short time that Phil was very fluent in the language and with his anthropological background (from Northwestern U.) he was an astute observer and interpreter of the culture of the people.
Phil was chairman of the Branch Executive Committee for a number of years so I worked with him as a colleague in that capacity as well. We also performed skits together—I’m not sure who was the fall guy, but we fed off each other and enjoyed skits at Branch and international conferences.
It was Phil who first decided that SIL needed regional centers so he and other Sepik members contacted people at Wayambage, near Maprik, south of Wewak and started building. Over the years a number of homes were built—at one time there was even a school, children’s home and helicopter stationed there. But it was not entirely successful. As Phil would say, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm [Wayambange] after they have seen Pareé [Ukarumpa]?”
When the family needed to be in the States Phil was appointed as the Vice President of Finance for SIL International, a post he enjoyed and held for several years. Later he decided to attend UTA for a PhD and took the GRE, in which he scored highly. However, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and any academic work was cut short. He underwent radiation and chemo and lived with the results for the next 26 years. The treatment pretty well destroyed his hearing in one ear, damaged the other, and affected his balance and recall of certain words.
A few years ago I began to visit Phil regularly—they were living in a trailer at the Dallas center and I was working there. I had many conversations, prayers and laughs with Phil. He said things that I will never forget (especially because I wrote them down when I got home). Here are a few:
“I have been praying more to Jesus and the Holy Spirit—we didn’t do that in my church growing up. I don’t bother the Father too much—I reckon he has got a lot of things to do.”
“I can remember once when the Lord spoke to me very clearly.” My response, “What did he say?” Phil: “Shut up.”
“I was out walking (with his walker) and I heard someone call ‘Phil’. I didn’t answer and I heard it again. And the voice said, ‘You are going to trip and fall down.’ I said I know who you are Satan, so keep quiet. Then I just started singing some songs and kept on walking. It was a good walk.”
“I know that God has a plan for me—I just don’t know what it is.”
“I wish they would let me quit taking all this stuff and die. I would just go to heaven—they say that shouldn’t be too bad.”
I recently asked him if he remembered a colleague who had been here a year ago when we had lunch together. “Yes,” he said, “But I don’t remember what we ate.”
Phil never complained and was very thankful for the care he had from his wife Lori. He would always ask for prayer for his boys and grandchildren. Needless to say, I will miss him.
May 31, 2012