Sunday, September 13, 2009

In Memoriam: Dr. William Earl Phillips 1939 - 2009

And a poem in honor of him, Invictus by William Ernest Henley.

by Terry Thornton

Yesterday I attended the funeral services for a childhood friend and my former college roommate, Dr. William Earl Phillips.

William Earl, as he was known locally, was born July 17, 1939. He lived with his parents Will and Lula Phillips on a farm been Mount Zion and Adley in the Hill Country of eastern Monroe County, Mississippi.

William Earl was about ten days older than I, a fact that he constantly reminded me of to establish seniority rights. In return, I liked to tease him that his name needed a comma --- William, Earl Phillips.

William Earl received his schooling in the Smithville Public School graduating there with the Class of 1957. An accomplished musician and photographer, William Earl enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a pre-med student. Devoted to his studies, William Earl was admitted to several medical schools. He graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School.

William Earl, as a teenager, began a life-long interest in photography and travel. He had a darkroom set up in one of the outbuildings at the Phillips Farm --- the first such facility in eastern Monroe County. He learned photography as a complete process --- from camera work to film developing and print processing --- William Earl mastered it all at a very early age. Also as a teenager he started his first international travels going with a student group to England.

On his travels William Earl had the amazing capacity to make friends and acquaintances with those he met in far-flung places. Many of those individuals became life-long friends. His interest in people was evident from that first trip when, a few months later, a young person he met in England came to the Phillips Farm to visit for a few weeks.

I remember that visitor who came calling on William Earl --- a young lady who was fascinated with the Hill Country idioms. Our use of the terms "over yonder" and "down yonder" and "up yonder" were just a few terms she was determined to master and use when she returned to England.

His second international trip came during the early summer of 1959 --- I had just transferred to Ole Miss and the roommate assigned to me for the first summer term didn't enroll. William Earl returned from his trip to Europe in time to register for the second summer term and we shared a dormitory room.

He was the first and only college roommate I had who maintained a pantry in the dorm room. Back in the days before microwaves and mini-refrigerators and of strict rules including no food in the dormitory, William Earl had a hearty supply of a variety of foods which he happily shared. Not only did he have ordinary food items, but he would often show up with bags of specialty foods he found on some of his rambling about.

Once he had Russian caviar and small containers of chocolate-covered grasshoppers. He seemed determined to learn as much about international foods as he could --- a practice which probably served him well in his later travels abroad. Oh, it took some time before the gang of us in the dormitory that summer ate all of the grasshoppers --- but we consumed the caviar immediately.

During the fall term, we lived in different areas of the campus but saw each other frequently. I had but one class with William Earl --- comparative anatomy. The class laboratory was in the basement of the old Biology Building at Ole Miss. There was never sufficient time in the scheduled lab periods to do the work demanded by our Professor, Young John McGahee. Many of us learned to unsecure one of the lab windows so that on weekends we could "break in" and remove the dissection specimen assigned to us. Under the cover of darkness we would take the preserved animal back to our dormitory rooms for additional study --- a practice I think even Dr. McGahee knew about. William Earl and his then current roommate (another pre-medical student), even removed their cat from the lab for more study over both the Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. We were all careful to return the specimens to the lab before dawn on Monday morning. The "raids" into and out of the lab were coordinated and well-planned and well-executed. Not once did anyone get caught breaking and entering.

My roommate at that time was a theatre major --- he never could understand why a partially dissected cat would sometimes end up in our dorm room for the weekend -- nor why sometimes other dead cats and other students would show up for a joint study session. In fact my roommate at that time couldn't believe that I could sleep with a dead cat in a plastic bag under my bed.

William Earl did most of his book work and reading in the Periodicals Department Reading Room of Williams Library at Ole Miss; he could be found there most evenings until library closing time. On the weekends, he would sit for hours in concentrated study --- and when he would tire, he would place his head on the reading table and go to sleep. The librarians in the Periodicals Reading Room were very distressed to have a sleeping student on their hands and would often wake him up to determine that he was all right. I was a student clerk in the Periodicals Department and spoke to the Head of the Department about William Earl and explained that he would sleep for a few minutes and awake refreshed and study and read for several more hours until closing time. They left him alone --- and one of the reading tables became his "home" in the library. He would spread out his books, his notes, and study for hours, taking little catnaps along to keep him going and the library staff would tiptoe around him attempting to not wake him up.

Health problems required that William Earl receive a heart transplant in 1996 --- he recovered and continued wwith his love for travel and with his research in water horticulture. An expert in the exotic fields of water lily hybridization, William Earl was international known for his primary research with those species. He maintained enclosed water gardens for the plants he collected from all over the world or had grown from seeds from the experimental work he was doing. At least one of the hybrids that William Earl successfully developed is recognized as a new species. He published in a variety of professional journals.

William Earl Phillips died September 9, 2009, in Memphis. His funeral service was conducted in Amory at the Chapel of Pickle's Funeral Home on Saturday, September 12, 2009. He was buried at New Hope Cemetery, Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi.

No doubt that William Earl Phillips would remember this short poem by the English poet, William Ernest Henley. The reason I selected a work by Henley was because once Henley wrote a memorial article about a friend and penned these lines, "He was singularly kind to me at a moment when I needed kindness even more than I needed encouragement."

Such is my memory of William Earl --- he was kind to me at a dark moment at the beginning of my days at Ole Miss, at a moment when I needed kindness more than I needed encouragement. I shall never forget his friendship.

William Ernest Henley 1849 - 1903

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from Pole to Pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Suggested reading:

Henley, William Ernest. Invictus, The Pilgrims' Way: A Little Scrip of Good Counsel for Travellors, Arthur T. Quiller-Couch. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1907, page 185.

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