Phil Griffin 1925-2008

My stepdad passed away on October 9th. He was 83 years old and in good health before a bypass surgery that was supposed to be fairly routine but turned out not to be after the fact. Phil had 5 kids, some of whom I met for the first time at my mom’s house earlier this month. They all knew him as a very different person than I did. They were raised by a rule-bound Quaker minister who graduated from Bob Jones University (yes, that one, though he did get kicked out at one point for arguing with a teacher about some minor point of interpretation) and who didn’t believe in spending money on Sundays or dancing, at least until the mid 1960s when he began to have a crisis of faith. We met in 1987. I knew a radical secular humanist retired philosophy professor (with a specialization in comparative religion) who fought the encroachment of creationism into Minnesota’s public schools. So you can imagine that there were stories to swap, since I’d only really ever spoken with one of his children at length.

As I write below, Phil was one of the least materialistic people I’ve ever known (I would say the same about my mom) and I worry that as the depression-era generation passes on, the living memory of a social world not oriented around things will gradually fade for many people, at least in the middle classes where I dwell. Sure, the New York Times is running stories on frugality now, but if and when the market is back up, it’ll be back to lampshades, pants, coffee, or whatever other luxury goods they can hawk. Consumerism is a given for my generation for so many reasons and in so many ways — from the personal to the political and to the intellectual. It is perhaps the part of myself that I like least even as I give in to it often enough. That’s as far as my thoughts go for now but I feel there is much more to say.

Here’s what Carrie and I wrote for the memorial service.

I’m going to speak for both Carrie and I today since it wasn’t too long after I met Phil that she met him, and that was just about 20 years ago now.

Phil–and I’d say my mom has done this as well– Phil solved a problem that occupied existentialist philosophers for most of the last century: how to be at peace with the finitude of one’s own life. He lived well and separated what matters in life from what does not. With a few important and sometimes spectacular exceptions–like hats, books and magazines–Phil was one of the least materialistic people I have ever known. His is an example some people of my generation might wish to emulate but most will ultimately fail to live up to. He cared much more about people and ideas than things, and when he did care about things, it was at least initially motivated by some higher purpose, like protecting himself from the sun, reminding himself of a moment or relationship with someone, or, more audaciously, trying to invent a new secular American religion.

Growing up, I thought my family read a lot, but after Phil moved in, the house was filled with more printed matter than I ever thought possible. As they covered an impossibly wide array of flat surfaces at our home, Phil’s books, magazines, newsletters and pamphlets also covered an impossibly wide array of topics: politics, history, religion, philosophy, psychology, human relationships, fiction.

You could discuss just about anything with Phil, so long as you were willing to listen for awhile. Both Carrie and I have experiences of talking with him about things we haven’t spoken about with anyone else; he was willing to ponder with us the gamut of human experience, from desire to grief and everything in-between. He was a tremendously empathic man. I’ve known Phil through every transition in my adult life, and he always had a kind word. He counseled confidence, patience and care, but also service to others. When at dinner a couple years ago I once worried out loud about assuming the chair of my department, he said that I should do it because that was the time of your career when you really got to nuture others. Every year when we saw him in Washington DC, he took special pleasure in his visits to lobby congresspeople on issues he cared about.

Phil really loved food, or at least certain kinds. We enjoyed finding new ways to satisfy his love for meatballs even if we could not quite comprehend it. Carrie shared in–enabled might be a better word–his love for hot sauce, crab cakes and baked goods.

More than anything, Carrie will always be thankful for the ways Phil and Muriel welcomed her into the family from the moment she started seeing Jonathan in 1990. Phil took Carrie aside at our wedding in 1999 to tell her how happy he was that she was now in the family, only he’d communicated that through thought and action many years prior. Both she and Phil communicated vicariously through books they read in common, particularly on topics of a feminist origin. We will miss sharing with him his passion for ideas, teaching and questioning. We will miss him as a person and a companion, but we will also miss his search for knowledge, understanding and social change, not the least because he helped us so often in our own.

6 replies on “Phil Griffin 1925-2008”

  1. My sincere condolences to you and Carrie. From your words, it is apparent that the world is short one incredible person.

  2. Thanks for all your good wishes. As one of his friends said, he would have loved to live long enough to see America’s first black president.

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