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tribute: remembering Philip– Tony Whedon


Suzanne and I were both, separately, thinking about Phil this weekend, missing him even though we didn’t know he’d already left us. Sadness doesn’t describe how I feel about the loss of one of my dearest old friends. 


• We began hanging out in Atlanta – where I taught at Morehouse and Phil at Spelman colleges — and continued to do so intermittently the next twenty-odd years. He was, gently, homespun-ly brilliant – a German scholar, a woodcut artist, for a while an actor, and in his bellbottoms and Beatles-esque shirt, something of a dandy. (The only white actor in a student play put on at Spelman College in 1968, he was accidentally stabbed in the groin onstage. “I’ve been stabbed!” he shouted, and the actors and audience thought it was part of the play.) A visiting Fullbright scholar, he’d just returned from studying at the Goethe Institute in Germany. Though academically trained, he was staunchly anti-establishment. Loved playing Frizbee, later the recorder. Dated and finally married a student named Curman (I wonder if she’s been told of his death?)

• Phil & Curman, Suzanne & I, left the States for Europe around in 1970 and didn’t return for several years. Phil got a teaching gig at the University of Bonn, Suz and I lived first in Mallorca Spain – then Paris & Greece. Phil stayed with us in Mallorca for around a month and later visited us in Madrid. I can’t recall when he began taking writing seriously – it came into full bloom in the mid-to-late ‘70’s. In 1973, I visited Phil in Bonn for a month. Our wives had both returned to the States to continue their studies (so they said, but actually they were leaving us!) and we were batching it. Our friendship grew through a mutually shared sense of humor and irony focused on uptight Germans. I went with Phil one morning to a coffee shoppe where the management asked me to leave as I hadn’t ordered anything and was “using their heat.” Phil thought this outrageous and fired off  an uproariously funny rant in German to a Bonn newspaper about the incident. A while later, I was having breakfast with Phil when a telegram from Curman arrived telling Phil her brother had been stabbed to death in a card game in Alabama the night before. A weird scary time.

• We both returned to the states, me to Vermont, Phil – after a stint as a watchman at a soybean plant in Kansas—to Boston. He began his novel “Harvesting Ballads” on his watchman job and learned Spanish by reading “A Hundred Years of Solitude” in the original. We visited back & forth between Vermont & Boston into the late-‘eighties. In 1978, despondently out of work,  I spent six weeks sleeping on Phil’s floor in Boston, substitute teaching, while Phil taught remedial writing at a junior college. I went over the first drafts of HB with him, amazed at how beautifully he broke grammar rules and got away with it. The summer before, I’d introduced him to some well-known writers at a writers conference at Johnson State College. The writer George Garrett took Phil under his wing and promoted this new talent after hearing him give a reading. Not long after that, he sold that wonderful book.
So much more I might say– but that would be a book I’ve yet to write.
Thank you Jennifer for marrying Phil, having his children and giving him a beautiful life.

Tony Whedon

 September 25, 2014

PS   While we were in Mallorca, Suz and I began doing séances. Phil thought them foolish – he was a firm atheist, the spirit world repelled him.

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