In 1995, Might Magazine published an essay by Phil Campbell about the first convention of people named Phil Campbell, which took place in Phil Campbell, Alabama. This past April the small town was hit by deadly tornadoes. Since then, people named Phil Campbell from around the world have come to Phil Campbell to help rebuild the town.
Today we’re featuring Phil Campbell’s original article about the convention. If you’d like to contribute to the relief efforts for Phil Campbell, Alabama, please visit www.imwithphil.com.
The second Phil Campbell, a real estate broker from Idaho, arrived Thursday evening after flying into the Huntsville International Airport and renting a car. I get up early to meet him for breakfast.
A short, balding man, he wears a brown collared shirt riddled with geometric designs, and from a distance I can see his chest heaving from the strain of climbing the hill along Highway 43. For the first few moments I wave to him frantically to make sure he doesn’t miss me.
“Are you Phil Campbell?” I say, grinning as he approaches.
“Well, you must be Phil Campbell,” he says, extending his hand and wheezing slightly. He pauses for a moment, then says, “I just had a pacemaker put in last week!”
Phil Campbell from Idaho and I head into Scarlet’s Restaurant in Russellville, just a few hours north of the town of Phil Campbell, Alabama. By tomorrow, twenty-two Phil Campbells—and one Phyllis Campbell—from all over the country will converge on Phil Campbell for the First Annual Phil Campbell Convention, organized by me, Phil. Campbell. In just thirty minutes, however, Idaho Phil and I have to meet the mayor of Phil Campbell to make the final preparations. We decided it would be important to have breakfast first.
Before I have a chance to contemplate how I feel to be sitting next to another person named Phil Campbell, Phil starts to tell a series unrelated stories. He tells me everything he knows about the Campbell clan, material quoted from a book he had read on the subject. He launches into an anecdote about the Speer brothers, who became one of the richest families in the United States when they developed a bullet shell that allowed for greater accuracy. He talks about how the salmon die every year traveling through the turbines of the dams near his home because the ventilation system creates too much oxygen for their respiratory systems.
“Lewiston was actually supposed to be the capital of Idaho,” he says, warming up to another anecdote, “but the people from Boise came up and stole the charter.”
“Is your wife going to make it?” I ask. It is ten minutes after ten, and we are making the mayor wait.
“She takes her time getting ready, and you can’t rush her,” he says. “You want to know how you can tell when my wife is really ready to go? The last thing she’ll do is throw two Tic Tacs in her mouth.”
Just then Barbara, Mrs. Phil B. Campbell, enters the restaurant. She moves slowly because two weeks ago she received a bunyonectomy and a hammertoe correction. About five feet tall, she has high, curly brown hair and rose-tinted glasses. One of the best Mary Kay saleswomen in Lewiston, her plentiful blush makes her a convincing advertisement for the company. While Barbara eats, Phil expands upon another story, this one about the Potlatch mill in Lewiston, the city’s largest employer. After Barbara finishes her eggs and pops a couple of Tic Tacs, we pay the bill and leave to meet the mayor.
I discovered the town of Phil Campbell two years earlier, when my college roommate and I were bored, halfdrunk and watching some guy on a Hee Haw rerun give a big howdy to the folks of Phil Campbell. Several months after that, I visited the town myself: and learned that there are only three cities in the entire country with the full name of a person: Phil Campbell, Alabama, Carol Stream, Illinois, and Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Chevy Chase, Maryland was named after an old English ballad about a border raid in Scotland, and is, therefore, immaterial.
The original Philip Campbell was a train engineer in Alabama during the 1880s. A local merchant convinced Phil to put a side track through his land and build a depot there. In exchange, the town that grew around the depot would be named after him. Phil agreed, delivered the goods and moved on. He never actually lived in Phil Campbell, but the town was his, even if by name only.
There is a computer database that contains the published phone numbers and addresses of 234 Phil, Philip and Phillip Campbells living in the United States, from Roseville, California, to Seekonk, Massachusetts. Determined to assemble Phil Campbells from all over America, I went through $125 in postage and two sets of form letters before definite responses began to come in. Phyl Campbell Matteson of Schoolcraft, Michigan, wrote an eight-page letter that included blown-up photos of her deceased father, Phil. Some called me to ask how we would deal with the fact that Phil Campbell is in a dry county. Others didn’t seem to mind. “We gonna get together,” Phil Campbell from Limestone, Tennessee, told my answering machine, “and we gonna hang out in the big house!” His cousin, the other Phil Campbell of Limestone, could be heard guffawing in the background.
While the mayor is giving me a tour of the area, a seemingly endless wave of Phil Campbells begins to arrive in Russellville at the Windwood Inn. Unfortunately, sorting out the room assignments becomes an exasperating chore. The general manager of the Windwood hadn’t bothered to tell her front desk clerks that two-dozen people with reservations under the name Phil Campbell would be checking in on the exact same day.
Later that afternoon, Phil from New Hampshire stirs up some trouble with his son-in-law, Joe Graham. The two sit outside their motel room on the second floor and begin drinking, at first unaware and then indifferent to the county’s dry laws. They try to persuade a Windwood Inn employee to change the motel marquee to read, “Welcome Phil Campbell.” The worker can’t because he doesn’t have enough letters, so he uses our initials instead. “Welcome P.C.” Afterward, Phil and Joe go to the Speedy Pig restaurant, and Phil eats so much barbecued pork that he has to take a nap.
Phil and Dorothy from Los Osos, California, arrive in the afternoon, but few people actually see them. When they get into town, they can’t find a place to hook up their motor home’s electricity. Frustrated, Phil tries to get a hotel room, but the Windwood Inn is booked. They end up discreetly parking the RV in a corner of the motel parking lot, where I later find them baking in the Alabama sun.
Phil from Stuart, Florida, brings his wife and a box of T-shirts she had designed that read, HELLO, WE’VE COME TO TAKE OUR TOWN BACK on the front with the town’s name, the convention’s name and the date on the back. They sit in their hotel for a while watching CNN and are shocked to see a reporter in Bosnia interview a U.S. Air Force captain named Phil Campbell. I figure my form letters didn’t get forwarded overseas.
After having dinner with these Phils and the Phils from Thornton, Colorado, Paxinos, Pennsylvania, and Raleigh, North Carolina, we return to the Windwood Inn for a 9 p.m. meeting. All I really need to do is pass out the itinerary I had hastily printed out before dinner, but the Phils stick around to meet each other. Alexis Campbell diligently stands near the T-shirts, even though Phils are only coming in every twenty minutes. These include Phil Campbells from Anderson, South Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland. My sister Veronica, her husband, Chris, and her two children are also present. After learning the significance of the gathering, my five-year-old nephew Ben starts laughing. He runs up and down the room saying, “Hi, Phil. Hi, Phil. Hi, Phil.”
Phil Campbell from Auburn, New York, has been in town all afternoon, but he doesn’t come down to get an itinerary or to meet the other Phil Campbells. I call his room upstairs from the front desk. Our conversation is brief. “Just tell me where and when we’re meeting tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll see you then.”
On my way back from the phone, Phil Campbell from Viola, Wisconsin, grabs me. “You ain’t no long-haired weirdo with an earring,” he says joyfully. “I was worried you would be. You’re all right,” he beams, slapping me on the back with a giant paw. This Phil is heavyset; his suspenders strain mightily to reach his pants over his belly. He sports a hat he bought at the Cracker Barrel, which is covered with prearranged buttons that have little sayings on them. He is so happy to be here at this convention of newly found brethren that he grins from ear to ear regardless of whether anybody is talking to him or not.
Phil Campbell, Alabama, is so isolated from the rest of the world that it takes an hour and a half to get to Huntsville—population 151,000—the closest large city. When the federal government was pouring money into interstate highways, northwestern Alabama was ignored. It’s about fifty miles in any direction to reach a major expressway.
The tiny burg of Phil Campbell has no real economy to speak of: unless you count the Chat n’ Chew diner, the florist, the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, and the small storefront studio dedicated to teaching the art of tae kwan do. Most of Phil Campbell’s 1,500 residents earn their living in the factories of neighboring cities, making pants, furniture, or mobile homes. Others work on the outskirts of Phil Campbell farming cotton and corn fields.
Phil Campbell Mayor Ted Murray knows all this and thinks the Phil Campbell convention can help the town’s situation. The assumption is that we will bring reporters, photographers and TV cameras, and, hopefully, a few column-inches or a little air time devoted to the beauty of the region. Tourists—both Phil Campbells and non-Phil Campbells—would then and give a leg up to local economy.
That’s why Murray doesn’t mind waiting for me. That’s why he orders Phil Campbell Police Chief Larry Swindle to drive me around in the city’s brand-new unmarked police car. That’s why, when I ask him about the nearby William B. Bankhead Forest, he calls another mayor in a town closer to the forest to arrange for a tour. That’s why he gives me his home phone number and tells me to call if I any problems whatsoever.
He also tells Swindle to get some minimum-security prisoners at Hamilton Work-Release to rip limits sign out of the ground along Highway and put it anywhere I want. “If we don’t give them something to do, they just sit around and drink their Cokes,” Chief Swindle says. I have them put it in a grassy area near the public pool so I can organize the group photo shoot. The prisoners also clean up after us, Murray tells me later.
Saturday morning rolls around. There is nothing planned until 11 :30 a.m., and the Phil Campbells are restless. scatter themselves across the four-square-mile town, shooting photos of themselves in front of anything they can find that has their name on it—towers, churches, the high school, police cars, the city limits sign. The post office is an especially popular place, because anybody who has a letter can get the town name postmarked on it.
That’s where Phil from California and his wife, Dorothy, run into Phil from New York and his parents. Eddie and Victoria Campbell are outside of the car, but Phil from New York is still in the driver’s seat. In the spirit of things, Dorothy walks over to Phil from NewYork and if she can get a picture of him and her husband in front of the Phil Campbell post office.
“Won’t you come out here?”she asks.
“No, I don’t want to go out,” he replies. Later, instead of coming to the day’s planned activities—the primary functions of the entire convention—Phil from New York opts for a drive down Highway 24, heading west. He stops and turns around only when he realizes that crossed the Mississippi state line.
By noon, city hall, a natural gathering place in the center of town, is packed with people. Our numbers reach into the sixties because most Phils have come with family members. Teresa, the assistant city clerk, herds everyone into a meeting room, and they wait for directions on how to get to the convention site. There is a general, uncomfortable silence while they wait, broken only by the occasional joke Florida Phil tells. This is the first time all the Phils have been gathered, but introductions are, of course, unnecessary.
After we all get in our cars, Mayor Murray leads us by caravan to convention at the Phil Campbell public pool and pavilion, which is about a minute-and-a-half away. By now we have eighteen Phil Campbells, including two father-son Phils from Tennessee, one of whom is just six old. The Associated Press reporter who has dropped by is satisfied with a count of seventeen, but throughout the day more Phils pull in. The two Rev. Phil Campbells arrive in the afternoon. Rev. Phil from Denver didn’t think he’d even be able to come, but at last moment he stumbled onto a standby to Atlanta and rented a car. Rev. Phil from Iowa drives up just as the three o’clock group photo session is ending.
The convention itself goes smoothly. Phil from Baltimore joins my sister at the barbecue to help prepare the food, and Phil Jr. from Hernitage, Tennessee and Phil from Etowah, Tennessee, and his wife, Kathy, get into the beach volleyball games that have formed. Most Phils and their wives, however, are content to sit underneath the pavilion and talk. Several people have brought camcorders and they sometimes get in each other’s way scanning the picnic benches, the frolicking kids and the little pods of Phils eating barbecued chicken and corn on the cob by pool. Phil from Thornton, Colorado, and New Hampshire Phil share the JR cigars New Hampshire Phil had ordered from North Carolina.
In fact, New Hampshire Phil formed a small clique of sorts. He organizes small parties on the second-floor balcony of motel. His son-in-law Joe, Florida couple Phil and Alexis, California couple Phil and Dorothy, my sister and her husband, Chris, gather there to drink beer until the wee hours. New Hampshire Phil and Joe enforce the one strict rule at the parties: No one goes to bed until all the Miller Lite is gone from the Styrofoam cooler.
No one knows where Phil from New York is but the rumors about him have been circulating since the morning. Needless to say, he misses the group photo session.
“I saw Phil from New York outside the motel,” Alexis Campbell of Florida tells me in a hushed tone later that evening. “He’s kind of strange.” She theorizes that he is a fugitive running from the law.
Her husband looks at her strangely. “Why then,” he asks, “would he come to this convention?”
I drop by his motel room before going to dinner the mayor is throwing for us. I find him in his parents’ room. I had seen him briefly before, but this time I take a good look at him. He is about five feet nine inches tall and has wavy, dirty blond hair. His eyes continually move back and forth. He starts to apologize for missing the barbecue, but then parents see us.
“Come in, come in,” Victoria urges me. She turns to her son. “He’s kind of weird. We’re a little off our rockers.” She sits on the far bed, constantly adjusting weight to get comfortable.
“Sit down. Come in.” Phil’s father Eddie is lying on bed.
“He’s in, Dad.”
“Phil’s a lawyer. So watch out,” Victoria says.
After a little small talk, Phil excuses himself from parents and walks me to my car. “I’ll get them straightened out for dinner,” he reassures me.
True to his word, Phil does show up for dinner, but he and his parents abruptly after eating, without saying anything. I decide later to meet him privately that night.
It’s cooling down outside, but Phil has the air conditioner on. He wears jeans and a blue-collared shirt with a white T-shirt underneath. He has been reading a book, but when I enter he turns it on its spine and offers me a beer. I sit close to the window in the corner of the room and he retreats with his Budweiser to sit by the pillow of the far bed.
There are several awkward silences.
“Tell you about myself? I don’t know. I’m a child of the ’60s. I went to Woodstock,” he says. “My wife died a year and a half ago, and I’ve been at loose ends ever since.”
Phil is forty-five years old, and his parents dragged him to Alabama for this. “When I first saw your letter, I thought it was cute. I didn’t intend to do anything. But then my dad said, ‘Well, we’re going to go, goddamnit.’” He pauses. "I don’t know why the people here are so grateful to us. I mean, I didn’t contribute anything to the local economy.
“I didn’t come down for the photos because, a) I think I’m kind of shy by nature, and b) I think it’s kind of stupid. The town will always be here, and I will always have the same name. If you ask my dad that, he’ll say, ’I’m coming back next year.’”
He then turns to what’s on his mind, what apparently, always on his mind: Christine Campbell, his wife of twenty years. He gets up once to show me her picture, a black and white photo taken years ago. She has very white skin and blond hair tied up in a bun. After I give the photo back he returns to his side of the room. “She was an angel,” he says.
On a late September morning she started to complain about not feeling well, so she stayed inside and rested. Around 8:30 p.m., she grabbed her chest and said, “Oh, my God!”
“I looked at her and she wasn’t breathing,” Phil says. “I did CPR, called the hospital, all that fun stuff.” She died on Oct. 3, 1993 from brain damage, after being in a coma for sixteen days.
Worried about his ability to cope, Phil’s parents made him move from Florida to their home in Auburn, New York. Living so close to his parents at age forty-five has been a trying experience, though. They have a few idiosyncrasies that took time to adjust to. For example, when they are traveling, Victoria sometimes wakes up around midnight, showers, dresses and insists that they continue on their way. She is adamant, and Eddie and Phil have no choice but to leave while most people are still sound asleep.
When I finally leave Phil’s room an hour later, I see that Florida Phil has joined New Hampshire Phil, his son-in-law Joe Graham, my sister and her husband on the second floor of the motel. They had been joking and carrying on about what we were doing inside New York Phil’s room. I sit down with them, but I am unable and unwilling to answer their jocular questions.
At the Mayor’s dinner that evening—a buffet banquet back at City Hall—the other Phils are considerably more festive than Phil from New York. Phil and Kathy Campbell from Douds, Iowa, have their picture taken with Phil and Kathy Campbell of Etowah, Tennessee. Phil from North Carolina and his wife, Bonnie, have changed out of the convention T-shirts and into matching shirts of their own. Bonnie’s shirt says, WHO THE HECK IS PHIL CAMPBELL? Phil’s shirt pronounces, I AM. A loyal customer of his auto repair shop made them for him.
Teresa, the assistant to the city clerk, passes out Phil Campbell Police hats along with key chains and other souvenirs, compliments of the two banks in town. The mayor picks names out of a hat (our addresses are included) to choose which Phil Campbell will be the honorary mayor, police chief, and so on. Everyone stands to applaud six-year-old Phil Campbell Jr. from Tennessee when he is named honorary fire chief.
The mayor supplies everyone with a mailing list with all our addresses on it. He wants to host the convention again next year and the year after that, with more Phil Campbells and more media coming each time. Some of the wives of Phils decide they want to go further. They want to assign each attending Phil Campbell some Phil Campbells from the original mailing list I used. They want to include photos from this convention and a personal letter to each—perhaps that will persuade the 211 Phil Campbells that didn’t make it here to come in 1996.
“We should have a convention based on middle names,” Rev. Phil from Denver suggests. “My middle name’s Elston.”
“Mine’s Gerard,” I say.
“Kendle,” says Phil Sr. from Tennessee. The idea doesn’t go very far.
I approach Chief Swindle as the other Phils finish eating. “Hey, Larry, do you think we can get a police escort to the Dismals?” Dismals Canyon is a series of gullies and rock formations that boast the presence of the dismalites: small, rare glow worms that locals boast can only be found in Phil Campbell, Alabama. It’s also the place where Aaron Burr reportedly hid out for three days after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
“Sure. John Cheek will take you out,” Swindle says immediately.
Sixteen cars line up behind Officer Cheek as he turns on the flashing blue lights of his squad car and leads us slowly through town. People who have houses along the road come out to their porches to see the spectacle. Other residents watch the parade from the beds of their trucks along the road. Phil from North Carolina admonishes his wife. “Put your Coke down, sit up and stop laughing. They think we’re in a funeral procession.”
As the caravan advances in the evening half-light through the stops signs of Phil Campbell, the cars are full of noisy chatter. Tomorrow, the conference attendees will disperse to their own personal corners of the country. But tonight, as the procession rolls out of town onto Route 43, one thing is undeniably true: It’s good to be Phil Campbell.
If you’d like to contribute to the relief efforts in Phil Campbell, Alabama please visit www.imwithphil.com. A $50 donation to the Habitat projects the organization is supporting in the town gets you an “I’m with Phil” T-shirt.
SUGGESTED READSDispatches From a Real McSweeney: So You Think McSweeney’s Is Eccentric
by Timothy McSweeney (12/16/2004)
The Long Walk: A Column About Washington: We Own This Country
by Alec Bings (9/6/2012)
The Needling And The Damage Not Done
by Michelle Orange (3/1/2001)
RECENTLYTips for Managing Your Student Loans
by Pete Reynolds (1/23/2015)
Open Letters: An Open Letter to People I Hardly Know But Who Hug Me Anyway
by Susan Gilbert Guerrant (1/23/2015)
My Signed Comedy LPs: One Comedy Nerd’s Obsessive Journey: Jonathan Winters, Part I
by Dan Pasternack (1/23/2015)
POPULARJamie and Jeff’s Birth Plan
by Paul William Davies (12/26/2012)
Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean
by Joyce Miller (12/31/2014)
An Honest Letter from Your I.T. Department
by Greg Edwards (1/7/2015)