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Phil Campbell changed Phil Campbells

 
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4:00 A.M. EDT June 23, 2011

There never were any palaces in Phil Campbell, Ala., to begin with. Now the empty concrete slabs where modest houses once stood look even smaller.

For a select group of diverse individuals across the United States and on other continents, the horror of what happened to Phil Campbell was personal.

One of those people was the Rev. Phil Campbell, a United Methodist pastor in Juneau, Alaska. The news footage he saw changed his plans for the immediate future. He and the other Phil Campbells throughout the world began networking on the Internet, organizing to raise money to help rebuild Phil Campbell after tornadoes destroyed half of the town and killed 26 residents.

On the weekend of June 17-18, a throng of Phil Campbells came to this tiny north-central Alabama town that shares their name. They came from Nottingham, England, and Palo Alto, Calif.; from New South Wales, Australia, and London and Birmingham, Ala.

“It felt like an obligation,” said the Rev. Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Light United Church, a United Methodist and Presbyterian Church in Juneau, explaining why he made the long and expensive journey from Alaska to be here with 18 other Phils for just a few days.


The Rev. Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Light United Methodist and Presbyterian Church in Juneau, Alaska, joins others with the same name, for volunteer work, fundraising and celebration in a small Alabama town…called Phil Campbell. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.
The Rev. Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Light United Methodist and Presbyterian Church in Juneau, Alaska, joins others with the same name, for volunteer work, fundraising and celebration in a small Alabama town…called Phil Campbell. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.
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He mused with the other Phils about that Shakespearean question, “what’s in a name,” as they worked in a persistent light rain and 90-degree Alabama summer swelter. They cleaned up the town rec center where concrete picnic benches were smashed like Styrofoam, shelters were destroyed, chain-link fencing twisted.

“Just because of my name, I could maybe do some good here in a particular way.”

As they worked, telling one another about themselves, Wisconsin Phil was ribbed about his accent and lauded for bringing useful equipment such as power saws.

“I threw my tools in the van and drove down from La Farge,” he said, and chided his new friends, “because what good is a Phil Campbell without his tools?”

Wisconsin Phil said he figured he would just sleep in his van because he couldn’t find an empty motel room in the next closest town, which was 15 miles away. Luckily a local resident came to the rescue and saved him from the van.

‘The disaster changed everything’

Before the tornado, a smaller gathering of Phils had been in the offing for this weekend to coincide with the town’s annual hoedown—a significant event this year because it is Phil Campbell’s centennial anniversary. Brooklyn Phil Campbell, the lead organizer, was already coming “just for the heck of it,” as he had done with some other Phils once before in 1995.

“But, the disaster changed everything,” said Brooklyn Phil, “for me and all the other Phils. We had to do something meaningful, tangible, not just skip in and out of town on a lark.”

After the tornado, the Phils decided to raise money to build a Habitat for Humanity house for a family wiped out by the storm. They established the website—ImWithPhil.com— to collect donations. They began soliciting corporate sponsors.


Nottingham Phil (Campbell) joins Juneau Phil (Campbell) in cleanup at the town’s rec center.
Nottingham Phil (Campbell) joins Juneau Phil (Campbell) in cleanup at the town’s rec center.
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Wherever they lived, individual Phils contacted newspapers and television, knowing that the story of their convergence in Alabama was both quirky and poignant enough to generate stories that would help their cause. By the time they arrived in Phil Campbell, they had raised almost all of the $35,000 needed to build the Habitat house.

‘Something symbolic’

Alaska Phil’s church took up a special offering and sent him to Alabama with a $5,000 check.

“I wasn’t sure the amount of money I would spend coming down here might not be better used on the rebuilding effort,” the Rev. Phil said. But, church members encouraged him to go. He decided the trip was significant. “There’s something symbolic about we Phil Campbells being here that has really buoyed the town’s sprit.”

This is evident at the town’s centennial parade. Riding in the beds of two pickup trucks as honorary parade marshals, the Phils were enthusiastically applauded and thanked by local folks.

One resident said with an almost reverent glance up as the Phils rolled by, “We haven’t had a damned thing to cheer about until just now.” The young man, grinning widely under a well-used straw cowboy hat, didn’t want to give his name “because the only name that matters ‘round here today is Phil Campbell.”


Two trucks filled with Phil Campbells ride as honorary parade marshals during the Centennial Parade down the town’s main street.
Two trucks filled with Phil Campbells ride as honorary parade marshals during the Centennial Parade down the town’s main street.
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Every one of the Phils, and one Phyl (short for Phyllis) were introduced on the hoedown stage as centennial birthday cake was passed around. Most people wore T-shirts commemorating the victims of the storm.

Children ran from one Phil to another, trying to get every one to sign their T-shirts. An 8-year-old boy needed just one more Phil to complete his autographed baseball and handed it to Glasgow Phil, who shuddered as the boy mentioned that his friend was killed on April 27. Many hugs were exchanged between strangers who didn’t know one another.

“Do you know what his name is?” Barbara Mashburn asked because she wanted to be sure her young grandson knew he was in the presence of celebrity as she encountered Nottingham Phil, the designer behind the “I’m With Phil” website.

Nottingham Phil told her he had never seen devastation like the frayed landscape all around.

Barbara, a lifelong Phil Campbell resident, said her roof blew off while she prayed in a closet. “But, I’m alive and well!” she said, dismissing the ordeal like a bad dream.

Then she took Phil’s hand and said in a soft southern accent that contrasted with Nottingham Phil’s British accent, “I’m so surprised that so many Phils went to so much trouble to come here from so far, and we’re all so grateful … Y’all have made a difference here, lettin’ people everywhere else know we even exist.”

*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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