“How come you don’t give no ink to Tennessee sports in this paper of yours?” For years, that was our running joke and the greeting I received from my friend Earl Phillips when I joined his McDonald’s Coffee Club group for a visit. When I would get word that Mr. Earl was there, I regularly stopped by to see him. I was executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger then, and his group was my weekly sounding board on the issues of the day. They gave me advice whether I wanted it or not. When Mr. Earl was there, they yielded the floor to him and laughter would erupt as he told one funny after another.
I wasn’t alone. Many politicians would visit the McDonald’s coffee group because they knew they could count on one of two things, support or the truth. The group is not for the faint of heart and Mr. Earl, even as his health began to fail him, was the core. He was the jokester. He was careful when he picked his chance to talk, but when he spoke, everyone around the table listened. He was Bob Hope-funny and every bit a gentleman – even when he leveled harmless shots at all around him, sparing no one. I spent my share in the crosshairs of those barbs, which I considered a badge of honor.
My friendship with Mr. Earl goes back 12 years and surpassed my newspaper days and extended to my job here at Mississippi Public Broadcasting. During those years, we laughed a lot on a range of topics except one: He was a proud member of the U.S. Marines and had served in the South Pacific during World War II. He was a mere boy when he served, but when he returned home, the native Tennessean was a decorated war veteran. On occasion, he would bring his medals for the coffee club to see. If there was anything that was off limits in our humor sphere, it was any inference that he did not earn those medals. He loved the Marines and often sported a bright red hat bearing the Marine emblem to prove it.
It is hard for me to accept that Mr. Earl is no longer with us. He passed away in early April after repeated hospitalizations for various ailments. He cheated death so many times that I told him once that the medical staff was growing weary of seeing him at the hospital. Each time when the coffee club crew would tell me that Mr. Earl wasn’t doing so good it would only be a few weeks and he’d be right back in his familiar spot. That went on for years. Several months ago, things changed. Mr. Earl suffered a setback and never recovered. He was 92, and a living, breathing example of the pride the men of his generation had in serving God and country.
It is a fundamental truth that it’s after death that you learn things about people, even ones you consider friends. In all the time we spent together, I never asked Mr. Earl what brought him to Mississippi. His obituary filled in details of his life that I would have felt uncomfortable asking. He moved to Madison years after the death of his wife and lived with a daughter. Without fail, his daughter Sylvia would bring her daddy to McDonald’s so he could sit with his pals. I also never knew that Mr. Earl was in possession of culinary skills and as a younger man put those on display at Northside Market, where his specialty was sage dressing. Son of a gun, I wish I could have tasted it.
My memories of Mr. Earl make this a story that is difficult to end. He was family to me. Even through his humor, he showed me how to honor and respect others. And though it was unspoken, though he never verbalized it, I knew that he considered me a close friend. I also know that when a person reaches 92 he has beaten the odds. Mr. Earl spend a lifetime doing that. He didn’t leave this earth until he was good and darn ready to, whispering, I’m told, in his daughter Sylvia’s ear that he was tired and ready to go on. And then he did, on his terms. Had he chosen to continue his fight, I seriously believe he would have once again cheated death. This time, he didn’t want to. This time, without a hint of sadness, he wanted to join his late wife and the Marines who fought beside him, the ones often called the greatest generation.
I never had a chance to say goodbye to Mr. Earl, which means there has been no closure. That makes me happy in a sense. It keeps Mr. Earl alive. Each time I pass by that McDonald’s store I fully expect him to be there, smiling and making everyone feel good. If I ever find myself in Milan, Tenn., I am going to visit the place where Mr. Earl is taking his final rest. It will not be sad. Mr. Earl, one of the happiest men I ever knew, a smile permanently planted on his face, would not appreciate my tears. He was a Marine, a proud Marine. He would much rather I focus on the life he lived. His only request would be that I find a way to get his beloved Tennessee Volunteers just a little more ink in the daily newspaper.