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Phil’s great-grandfather Phil

March 23, 2009

My son Phil is named after my mother’s late father, Philip George Eckert. When my son is older, he will wonder about his namesake. What was he like? What did he do? How did he change the lives of those around him?

As a preemptive answer to these questions, I asked my relatives to submit stories about Phil Eckert, which I compiled into a “booklet.” I hope my son will eventually find it interesting despite its lack of illustrations. In any case, this fun project will help us preserve some fond memories that would otherwise fade away.

I won’t post the entire booklet here, but below are the two stories I contributed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

THE ECONOMICAL COACH

All of us who knew Phil well were struck by his frugality, his interest in sports, and his engineer’s mindset. These traits collided in somewhat comical fashion during one childhood visit to South Carolina, when he tried to teach me how to play golf. This in and of itself was generous and appropriate, since I wanted to learn the game and Phil was a skilled player. But, Phil being Phil, he decided that his grandson should have goals beyond mere mastery of the basic golf swing. He decided that I, a lefty, should learn to play right-handed.

Phil offered two reasons for this assignment. First, he had a theory that, if you led the club with your stronger arm, you could control the swing better. I can’t remember the details, but he cited certain left-handed pros who golfed right-handed. Most likely these players had not had access to left-handed equipment while growing up, which brings us to Phil’s second reason. Since I was just getting started, why not learn to use the cheaper and more abundant right-handed clubs?

Somehow the difficulty of learning golf, and the possibility that learning it right-handed might add to the difficulty, never entered into Phil’s calculations.

I displayed no enthusiasm in trying the right-handed swing, but Phil was not easily discouraged. He found much to praise in my unimpressive shots, noting my admirable aim when the ball dribbled straight ahead along the fairway. Eventually, he recognized that I was not happy being a guinea pig in his experiment, and he let me use a left-handed club, even after my shotmaking proved equally shaky from the other side of the ball. In fact, he later spent a summer visiting every garage sale within a 25-mile radius of his home in order to assemble a nearly complete set of lefty clubs for me.

I never got very good at golf, but I do enjoy the game to this day, and Phil deserves credit for that.

THE ANALYTICAL ACTOR

Some people have such a knack for telling stories that it’s easy to imagine them performing on-stage. Phil was not one of those people. As a storyteller, he tended to focus on details of limited interest to his audience, rather than offering a compelling buildup to a satisfying punchline. And yet his many hobbies included community theatre.

I never saw him perform, but I recall a visit to South Carolina during which Phil was rehearsing the comedic play You Can’t Take It With You. Not only had Phil been unable to attend the first six weeks of rehearsals, he had been cast as Donald, an African American man in his 30s. This seemed like a recipe for comedy of the unintended sort, yet Phil was eager to rise to the challenge.

Phil saw that pretending to be African American was not a feasible option, so he adapted the part to reflect his Caucasian heritage. I remember him struggling with a scene in which some of the other characters are discussing the Russian Revolution of 1917. One character excitedly says, “Sure! And the Czar, and the Cossacks!” And in the original script, Donald, being a man of limited education and not recognizing the historical context, adds, “And the freeing of the slaves?”

Phil thought it would be odd for that particular line to come out of his mouth, so he challenged himself to identify an event whose significance to white people was precisely equivalent to what the freeing of the slaves meant to black people. It was acting reduced to a logic puzzle – something he could solve with research and reasoning.

As I recall, Phil worked intermittently on this problematic line during our entire vacation. I don’t know what the final decision was; in retrospect, I doubt that a sensible answer to the ethnic analogy problem even exists. But I’ll always admire the way Phil pursued it just as he pursued so many of life’s other challenges: hungry for an elegant solution, and confident that diligence and intelligence would lead him to it.

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