My great uncle Phil died earlier this month at the age of 94. When a co-worker here at Capstone asked me if it was an unexpected death I said, “No. Well… yes.” While it was true that Uncle Phil had been fading for weeks, he was, after all, 94. He’d been alive longer than anyone I knew, and thus when he died, it was unexpected.
As one of the six casket bearers at his funeral, I found myself more torn up about the loss of Uncle Phil than I’d expected. Part of this was due to seeing the effect of his passing upon my grandfather—Phil’s little brother. Watching my grandfather touch Phil’s casket one last time before saying, “Bye, Phil,” and then walking away wiping his eyes put my bladder near my eye. It was also sad to see the effect of the death of a long-living loved one upon Phil’s other three living siblings, nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, and great great nieces and nephews. Notice that I did not say wife, nor did I say son or grandchildren. That’s because Phil’s wife Irene died about five years back, and his only son Marc died in a car wreck out in Montana at the age of 24. When Uncle Phil died, a branch on the family tree came to its end, and that hit me hard.
One of the things we do at Capstone is publish a lot of biographies. Biographies on historical figures, war heroes, presidents, famous women, innovators, sports figures. For Fall 2014, we’re even putting out a biographical series about renowned rescue animals called Animal Heroes. These biographies are ever-popular books, and it’s not difficult to reason why. When a life is well-lived, we want to capture it for posterity. Why? Maybe we can learn something from it or compare it to our own lives or the lives of others, which fulfills a common human desire—to feel a connection with the rest of the human race. Another reason we read biographies might be even simpler: Biographies entertain us.
My Uncle Phil won’t ever have a book written about him. But I’d like to use this small space here to pass along his biography in miniature….
Phil LeBoutillier was born in Minneapolis in 1920 and was the oldest of five. Growing up he didn’t care much for school. As Phil’s younger brother Gordon said at Phil’s funeral, “Phil thought he was smarter than the teachers.” Phil didn’t like being bossed, and he sure as heck didn’t much like reading, writing, or ’rithmatic. So he left school before graduation and joined the Navy.
In the Navy, this slim, dark-haired and handsome devil found something he was good at: mechanics. So he became a mechanic for airplanes, worked on Naval bases in Florida and in the Twin Cities, and made a career of it.
He married a blonde Irish gal named Irene Straiton in 1943. Lot of fire in that gal, and anyone who knew her knew that Irene was mean. She wouldn’t be sassed by anyone, told people what she thought in no uncertain terms, and would whack Phil with her purse when he cheaped the waitress on a tip. But this biographer found out early on that a kind word—or, later, when I was brave enough, a hug or kiss on the cheek—went a long way with Irene. Turned out she liked young men—would even laugh and flirt. She was generous with money and sharp-witted as well as sharp-tongued. She proudly drove around an imposing dark blue Lincoln with a personalized “BBI” license plate that stood for Big Bad Irene. That’s a person who owns it.
Irene’s mouth seemed downturned into some permanent frown. It likely didn’t start that way but transformed, maybe, in 1971 when she and Phil lost their only son, Marc, in a car accident. Marc was raised, mostly, in the Stillwater area where Phil and Irene lived out by the St. Croix River. These years were the golden ones in Phil’s life. Marc had sass like his mother and personality to burn, wore horn-rimmed glasses, and was a budding musician who wrote a rock ‘n’ roll single called “Nowhere to Run” that made it to wax, recorded by the band, The More-Tishans. He had joined the Navy like his father. When he passed, say other family members, something bright in both Phil and Irene died, too. Which is of course.
Phil lived another 43 years after Marc’s death. He and Irene were married for more than 50 years in all before she passed in 2008, happy together maybe half of that time. Despite Irene’s barbs and what happened to Marc, Phil wasn’t a sad guy. He was upbeat, industrious, and always up for a gathering of friends. He was a lifelong ice skater who was a vibrant member of The Long Blade Skating Club into his 80s. He went skiing out in Colorado into his 70s, saying, “You know, if you’re old enough, they let you go for free!” The fashions in Phil’s wardrobe never made it out of the ’60s or ’70s, but this was a guy who could pull off butterfly collars and brown or slate blue polyester like no other. He had that Clint Eastwood glint in his eye, a grin at the ready. He spent hours in the shop he’d fashioned in his garage, retooling antique Model Ts and building boats and overhauling engines. He spent as much time as he could out at his St. Croix River Place, tooling around on an ancient tractor and generally getting his hands and clothes dirty. This is what seemed to give him the most pleasure.
Phil died on August 2, 2014. He was buried at historic Fort Snelling Cemetery, along with his wife and son before him.
It’s not the first death of a family member or person who’s been close to me. It’s not the saddest. But it is the latest, and it’s one of the things most on my mind lately, and it strikes me as odd that he’s gone, his spirit flown and his body buried underground in a casket when I can still hear his voice. I can still see his hands, slender but knobby and spotted and strong, that had cranked a thousand wrenches. I can still see him standing on the banks of the St. Croix, his white hair flapping like a flag in the breeze, a boat in the background, the water flowing on and on.
-Nate LeBoutillier, editor