It was a nice August morning in 2008 when the phone rang. I typically don’t answer the phone when my parents aren’t home, but for some reason, I did this morning. Peggy O’Connor Vollert was on the other end, and she conveyed to me the devastating news that her brother, Phil, had passed away over the weekend.
I shook as I sat down. My first thought was how do I tell my father that this giant of a man was no longer with us. Peggy, obviously in shock herself but sensing my reaction, asked if I was able to tell my parents. I told her I couldn’t tell my dad. She said she could, and would; and did; and told me not too worry about it. For that kindness, she holds a special place in my heart.
Phil, as we all know, was an accomplished man. He earned advanced degrees beyond his diploma at St. Ignatius; he served his country with distinction; he taught successfully for decades; and, of course, he wrote. As an aspiring writer myself, this particular activity made me not only incredibly proud to be his goddaughter, but understandably intimidated as well.
But before Phil went to college, before he served in the Army, before he traveled halfway across the country to set himself apart as an educator and a writer, Phil was one, if not the main one, of the many characters from my father’s past. Phil and my father were an unlikely pair. Phil was studious, my father was not. Phil was quiet, my father was not.
One Sunday, Phil was studying for some finals at USF. My father, having recently returned from his time in the Navy, came by Phil’s house and suggested they go get a drink. Phil resisted and told him he had to study for a big exam the next day. Phil’s mother upbraided him, and in her Irish brogue, nearly ordered him to go out with “Bobbie”, since he had just returned from the Islands. “One drink!” he said to him.
They left for the Portals with the sound of the Jackie Gleason show coming from Mrs. O’Connor’s television set. At the Portals, my father ordered Phil a beer; he also ordered four shots which he put in the beer. Before the Jackie Gleason show was over, Phil returned home. Stumbling in, he peered at his mother, “This is all your fault.” That exam, I am sure, was one of the few on which he scored poorly. Phil went on to be my father’s best man and then my godfather. So he stands out above the rest. I didn’t know Phil as a writer or great teacher, I knew Phil, albeit only from my father’s colorful stories, as a teammate, classmate and friend.
Another memorable story is when my father and Phil were driving up Junipero Serra Blvd. in Phil’s 1947 Pontiac. They were in South San Francisco retrieving my grandfather’s 240 pound St. Bernard “Duke” from Bill Harr’s house. They came to a sudden stop at the intersection at Hickey Boulevard, and Duke, who was in the back seat, flew into the driver’s seat while Phil slid onto the driver’s seat floorboard. My dad, getting up first from the passenger side floorboard, was able to see the ashen- faced old lady’s expression as she beheld Duke as the apparent driver of the vehicle next to her. She could not see my dad or Phil.
Another story, less humorous, but worthy of recounting, happened on a day at the river during Memorial Day weekend. Dinner was running late, so Phil and my dad decided to take the little boat out for a spin. There were still some folks on the river, usually the water skiers came out at dusk since the river was less crowded. A commotion was brewing around the big stump about a mile and a half up from Johnson’s Beach. Phil and my dad came upon the scene, found out what was going on, and, in no time, Phil was in the water looking for the injured skier who just crashed head-on into the stump. Phil fished the skier out from the bottom of the river, saving his life.
The stories are endless. The people are always the same: my dad, Phil, Ken Frey, Tim Treacey, Herbie Haskins, Bill Helmer, Ed Fleming and a colorful array of supporting characters. The settings usually take place at a ballgame, the river, a dance and frequently a bar. The plot always includes some drinking, some football and some fighting.
Wasn’t it yesterday, though, when it was just playing football and going to dances? Wasn’t it yesterday, too, it was working, raising families and making ends meet? Wasn’t it yesterday when the kids left, and the house quieted down? Indeed, how the grass withers and the flower fades, and the earthen vessels begin to crack and crumble. Even though Phil’s health had gradually deteriorated the year before his death, his personality was still robust and full of life. I had talked to him a couple of times during that time, and he told me of his various medical conditions. Yet over the phone, he was so exuberant; I didn’t think the end was so close.
At Phil’s memorial, his sons eulogized him as a great father, and so he was. Tributes to his writing could be found across the country. Students from Bowling Green University sent condolences to the website his son constructed in his honor. His friends at S.I. mourned yet another classmate.
Even though he was my godfather, he will always be to me my father’s best friend. When I had talked to Phil about the S.I. days, I usually got an entirely different version than my father’s. I regret not talking to him more; I wish I wasn’t so intimidated by him. The last time I talked to him, about two weeks before that August morning, I had called him to bounce a writing idea off of him. He said he was nearly finished with some projects and would like to talk more about it when he was free. I also told him about an article I had written and wondered if he wanted to look at it; but I couldn’t find my journal amidst the moving boxes. He laughed, with that deep, familiar laugh, “Donna, you are a writer!” That glib comment from this man at that time, two weeks before he died, made me think seriously about this craft of writing; he certainly left me a great example to follow.
Phil, the writer, the teacher, the father, will always be remembered by me as the fella, who sometimes against his better judgment, accompanied my father on his many antics and misadventures. So this tribute is to highlight that Phil O’Connor that may have been overlooked.