A Tribute to Phil Allen by Tom Cochrun
The man behind me poked me in the back and said “So you’re from Indianapolis huh?”
“You know Indianapolis is very famous in this town.”
“Is that right?” I said, expecting a comment about the Indianapolis 500.
“Yea. We’ve got an oncologist out here who sends his worst patients to Indianapolis, because it’ll be the longest year in their life.”
And that is how I met Phil Allen 14 years ago. We were prospecting a post retirement move to Cambria and that chance meeting led a great friendship. In fact Phil and Nan became our California “mentors” helpful in countless ways as we awaited retirement, decided on making the move, purchased a home and then beginning the life changing odyssey.
Early on Phil invited Lana and me to join him and Ed Simonsen on Saturday mornings for coffee and crepes at Lilly’s. Ed, 90 at the time, ran the Drop In Tennis play. He and Phil convinced this longtime basketball player to take up a new sport. Phil loaned me a racquet and kept after me to take up the game. He invited this rank novice into play in his regularly scheduled foursomes and thus my love affair with the game began.
As Phil rounded 80 his game began to slow and a chronic back problem began to take its toll. Before he finally hung it up he’d limp onto the court and if the shot was anywhere within reach he’d slap a backhand or snap a forehand at you, or at your feet, or toward the alley. He loved tennis and years later when hobbled by other health issues he’d remind those of us playing how lucky we were.
“Even a bad game of tennis is a great day.”
He also loved jokes, cigars and friends. On that first chance meeting he invited us back to his house for coffee. I noticed a cigar in the ashtray on his deck overlooking the Pacific. That led to an invitation to join the “prayer group” a group of his buddies who’d gather on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons for a cup of coffee, tell jokes and enjoy a cigar. Not everyone smoked a cigar, but Phil did so with relish. The “prayer group” was religious about enjoying life, inquiring about the well being of friends and even pausing for a prayerful moment when someone was having trouble. Nan called it “Smoke and Joke,” in fact a more appropriate name. There’d be days I couldn’t make it and Phil would remind me I needed to get “my priorities straight.” For more than 20 years that circle of friends added to the zest for life he enjoyed. And from time to time a few “younger guys” like me, were invited in. We called ourselves the youth movement, but Phil, Reg, John and Paul were young at heart.
Phil used to say “It doesn’t get any better than this” and he’d flash his thumbs up signature. It could be on a deck with the old boys, or having coffee with the tennis crowd or relishing a meal out.
We used to joke about Phil’s endless supply of jokes. He always took pride in saying he “could tell his jokes in any crowd,” and for the most part that was true. One night a few years ago he went to an open mic night at the Lodge and between musical acts trotted out some of his best stuff in a short stand up routine.
Phil was a lot more than a jester. He was a brilliant mind with a great curiosity forever recommending history books or documentaries. He had worked for an engineering company and had a grasp of technology and numbers that was off the chart. Some of his greatest understanding of math was the stock market. He’d begun investing when he was 12 or 13 and a newspaper boy. Phil retired before most people, giving him some 30 years in our village. When Phil spoke, people listened. I guess there was a time when he applied his knowledge to horse racing. In the last years he of spoke about wanting to get back for a day at the track.
He was a great pie maker and analytical about the taste of the fruit and the need for a lack of need for sugar. He had a penchant for rhubarb saying the Midwest variety was superior to California’s. There was a particular kind of apple or a specific type of lemon he needed before making his pies.
The last few years have been tough but in many ways illuminating. Phil’s back required extensive surgery and rehabilitation. A stroke robbed the strength of his right leg. He still harbored a hope he could get back to tennis, but that was not to be. He still got to coffee, the prayer group, though he had to forgo his beloved cigar. He enjoyed dinner with friends. He hated the idea of using a walker and undertook a regime of practice so he could walk with just a cane.
Many of us marveled at his determination and he was rightfully proud. It scared the heck out of us, but he’d park the walker or the cane and walk around to show us his improvement and seemed to be moving that right leg and foot by the force of will power. Then a few months ago when we were enjoying one of our early rains, Phil, with walker snuck out on to his sloped driveway to wash his car. A mid 80’s man, with a walker on a steep angle, washing his car in a cold rain.
“I saved 10 dollars” he said a couple of weeks later after recovering. Guys used to kid him about changing his own oil, something he gave up only a few years ago.
Phil was a philanthropist and many groups have benefited. He was a straight spoken guy. You knew in a moment where you stood with him and he pulled no punches. He went to the leader of a group he thought was ruining the organization. He told him he was “racing a bus down hill with no breaks and he needed to go.” He even offered to help the guy leave.
He had a zest for life and an enthusiasm that was exemplary. Despite the recent medical adversities he enjoyed the gusto of being alive.
Phil departed this world on Valentine’s Day. Lana and I were fortunate to spend time with him the evening before and he reacted with delight when Lana mentioned she was baking him a loaf of bread.
We were more fortunate to have been befriended by Phil all those years ago. The “Prayer Group,” Lilly’s and Cambria will seem emptier. We will miss him.
As those of us of the boomer generation continue coming into our senior years, a rascal like Phil is a great example of living fully to the last breath and always appreciating the blessings of family, friends and a good laugh.
Phil, we saw this coming. Guess we should have gotten you a ticket to Indianapolis.