Mad Phil: Requiem

My buddy Mad Phil’s obituary will read that he died from “complications of ALS“. In his case, he lived nearly three weeks after his swallowing reflex failed, whereupon he quietly and deliberately stopped eating and drinking. He slipped into intermittent unconsciousness last week, departed from consensus reality, and died of dehydration yesterday.

It’s not starvation, because you can survive for much longer than a month without food, but not even the correct name makes it prettier. The rule of thumb for death by dehydration gives you a week or two, tops, but early on I told him that he’d survive for a month on sheer cussedness. For reasons I’ll describe in a few days, I know from personal experience that he was still up and running after seven days. He slowed down a bit during the second week, but still held court from his bed 15 days after entering final approach.

We met, decades ago, at a locally important company whose name cannot be mentioned (but whose initials are IBM, if that helps), where he taught me a good deal of what I know about hardware construction and debugging. He was known as Mad Phil, not because he was crazy, but because when something important needed doing, he could get it done and you did not get between him and his goal.

Here’s how that worked, once upon a time:

Mad Phil and a bunch of techs are returning from a trip to a vendor in Massachusetts. Some of the guys plan to visit a favorite fishing hole on the way home, so they stop at a deli in a small town for provisions. Being young guys, they simply slam to a stop in a no-parking zone. A tech hops out of the back seat and runs into the deli.

Mad Phil sits in the passenger seat of the other car, a Chrysler Cordoba rental pimpmobile, with a tech named Guido at the wheel; Guido looks exactly like you’d expect, dressed to impress right down to the open shirt and gold chain. Phil, being the responsible engineer in charge of the trip, is (uncharacteristically) wearing a suit. There being no parking, Guido makes loops around the traffic circle at the center of town. They spot a local police car near the deli, so Guido drives carefully.

After a few loops, the tech runs out of the deli with two large brown bags and waves at Guido, who pulls up between the police car and the deli. In quick succession, the policeman gets out of the patrol car, the tech tosses one bag into Guido’s lap, hops into the other car, and pulls out with unseemly haste.

The policeman studies Guido, Phil, the bag, and the Cordoba. Phil powers down his window, smiles, and asks “May we be of assistance, officer?” The policeman looks at both of them again, meets Phil’s gaze, and says “There’s no point, you’d be out of jail in fifteen minutes.” Phil replies “Thank you, officer, we appreciate your cooperation” and nods at Guido, who gently backs the car out, and they drive off in a stately manner.

He was obviously that guy you did not mess with.

Over the course of the last two years, after being diagnosed with ALS, he quietly and efficiently got his affairs in order, selling and donating his extensive collection of tools, equipment, and parts: putting his stuff where it would do the most good. He gave many tools to a local group that builds and repairs houses, helped stock the local hackerspace, gave me a wide assortment of doodads (some of which you’ve seen here), and was far more generous than anyone really should be.

Go in peace, old friend. You’ve earned it.

Memo to Self: Do like he did.

6 thoughts on “Mad Phil: Requiem

  1. Goodby Phil>
    I knew Phil, and was one of the young engineers that got to work with him.
    He was a great engineer and a good teacher, I learned a lot from him.
    He will be missed.


  2. I just lost a good, young (mid 30’s) friend to pancreatic cancer. He also died of dehydration as the rest of his body shut down. Only one week earlier he was still coming to work, doing his job. Powering through the pain, refusing to let a little thing like a terminal disease get between him and what he was after: life.

    Here is a story about him: We have “standup meetings” every morning (as prescribed in Patrick Lencioni’s “Death By Meeting”). Sometimes the boss would request something needed fixed, and he would say: “It will be done before you get back to your desk.” Very often it would be. Partly because he was really that good, partly because the boss had a poor record of getting back to her desk quickly :)

    As much as telling stories helps, the emotional pain is still raw. We miss him every day. My condolences on your loss of a good friend.

  3. I lived and worked on the wrong coast to know him, but there are many like Mad Phil in this world. They make the world a far better place and their passing leaves a hole. My sympathies for those he left behind, family and friends.

    Rest in peace, sir.

    1. They make the world a far better place

      He taught me that one need not accept bureaucratic stupidity as an answer, but I lack his tenacity: if his Kenmore washer drum failed, he’d have a replacement installed in a few days, no questions asked, and no service charge.

      I wish I could have bottled some of that and applied it, very sparingly, only when absolutely necessary…

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