Comer Phillips

This picture was made in August 2005 a few days prior to chemotherapy

Comer Phillips
June 30, 1947 - July 5, 2006

Comer loved God with all his heart.
He loved his family without limit.
He loved life and lived it to the fullest.
He cherished his friends deeply, and the class
members of ‘65 were most treasured.

I am thankful that he had all of you as his friends.

Sandy Wyatt Phillips

Comer Phillips ... A Life Remembered
By Jack Buie

I am honored to paint a brief chronicle of Comer that spans his earliest childhood to the end of days.

We lived down the street from each other on 18th while growing up. No finer person has touched my life. Comer was an unselfish childhood playmate, an active member of Cairo High School, a good citizen of Cairo, a fine engineer, a loving husband, an excellent father, and an exceptional grandfather.

If this web site extends beyond our mortality to become a time capsule, and you are a member of Comer’s bloodline, then you come from excellent, noble stock: intelligent, caring, and indomitable. Comer faced his final days battling cancer with the same attributes he exhibited all his life: dignity, courage, and with a sense of humor.

Both of his folks: George, the mild mannered accountant at the Cairo Evening Citizen, and Marie, the consummate housewife, everything clean, everything in its place - smiled a lot - but neither laughed as easily as Comer. He enjoyed witticisms, hearing and repeating ribald tales, and using self-targeted quips that endeared him with his listening audience.

I believe he inherited this trait from his grandmother. I don’t remember her name, nor which side of the family she hailed, but that woman was funny and had a bit of the devil in her.

She seemed ancient when we were kids, but she exhibited an uncommon alacrity when she’d chase Comer down to find his "tickle button." I’ve been on the receiving end of her drive-by assaults. She had a knack for "knuckling" between the ribs, where oxymoron best describes the sweet pain that made us laugh till we cried.

As children, Comer was undersized and I was oversized. Though he was three years older, I was a skosh bigger. My good fortune, because our size similarity made us best buddies until the year he went into the 7th grade.

Until that transition, I remember a near infinite number of summer days, where we’d set up extravagant war scenarios using plastic World War II army men. These were the ubiquitous green plastic soldiers that every little boy owned during the Eisenhower years.

The Great Military Tunnel Caper

We had acquired hundreds of these little soldiers, buying small bags of six or twelve, from S. H. Kress Five and Dime Store on Commercial. We had no idea, who’s was who’s, but that wasn’t important. It was our communal ambition to build the greatest plastic army to ever pillage the earth.

In the Phillips’ backyard, we built miniature dirt forts, fortifications, bunkers, and excavated a reasonably good-sized, arm’s length tunnel for our scale wars. At the end of the day, we cleaned everything up in the yard, and stored our army, and war paraphernalia in the tunnel.

Comer, ever the budding engineer, acquisitioned plywood from his dad’s workbench and cut a square piece. He used the square as a tunnel door and then camouflaged it with dirt, grass, and leaves. Comer’s excellent detail work rendered it invisible and that would create a major brouhaha to come.

Saturday was laundry day for most households in the 18th street pleasantville community. While Comer and I savored the Gem Theater matinee and air conditioning, Marie, after hanging up laundry on their outdoor clothesline, decided to walk around the backyard checking plants.

Bad timing for all concerned.

Marie’s foot found and blasted down through our tunnel like a smart bomb, her leg wedged tight. While she attempted to free herself, closer examination suggested intelligent design behind the trap, though not recognizably human. Panic began to ignite in her eyes. Then, it went from bad to worse.

We had windup, spring motor jeeps and trucks stored in the tunnel. Comer’s philosophy: an army needs to be prepared for war at all times, so they were tightly wound and ready to go.

As Marie struggled, the toy vehicles haphazardly kicked on with that characteristic clicking-whirling sound. Marie became completely unglued.

She wailed blood curdling screams that brought George, and the grandmother, bounding from the house, and Mrs. Hughes on a run from next door. Though Marie was incoherent, they all recognized "snakes and pit" intertwined in her shrieks.

They, too, heard the clicking-whirling noises coming from the earth. Everyone panicked, fearful that Marie was, indeed, trapped in a den of writhing water moccasins, rattle snakes, and copperheads.

It had to be similar to a Three Stooges movie: they were shouting and bumping into each other, changing directions with each collision, attempting to get weapons, and shovels.

While George dug Marie’s foot and leg out, the grandmother and Mrs. Hughes were on the ready with garden hoes and butcher knifes to chop the vipers into sushi. As excavation progressed, George deduced the true situation as he shoveled out army men by the pound.

Marie free, George held up one of the still clicking-whirling jeeps for all to see.

What happened next saved us: Comer’s grandmother burst into laughter. She couldn’t stop. She infected everyone else, including Marie, with her contagious hysterical laughter, and none of them could stop. They flopped around on the ground, gasping for air, like freshly caught bluegill at the Horseshoe Lake spillway.

Still, I heard most of this story from my mom, Catherine. She received the story in a phone call and wasn’t nearly as amused. Mom marched me down to apologize to Marie for my part in "The Great Military Tunnel Caper" that nearly gave her a heart attack from fright, and practically caused her to stroke-out from laughter.

Talk about mixed signals. I had never been admonished by adults that couldn’t keep straight faces and erupted into belly laughs between scolding sentences. Comer’s sign to me, across the room, said it all. He shrugged his shoulders and did the finger circles around his ear insinuating madness.

The next week, George built a terrific sandbox under their open, back porch for Comer and friends.

Comer, ever rambunctious, knocked out and enlarged a knothole in a back porch floorboard. The hole was perfect for aerial bombing the troops in the sandbox below with marbles, fishing-line weights, and the "mother of all bombs" a steel ball-bearing the size of a baseball from some giant machine.

When Marie discovered the knothole, she became upset, but again, it turned out okay. Comer was a master at dealing with problems, and his mother. After all, as Comer explained, the hole was not in the middle of the floor, and his comic book stack would continue to cover it nicely.

George enlarged the hole the next evening, making it a true circle, then fashioned and painted a wedged plug that fit the hole flush with the floor, but wouldn’t fall through. He added two recessed cabinet door finger grips, so we could easily remove it when it was time for a bombing run. The Phillips’ were resourceful, clever people.

Of all the things to miss that summer, I wish I had been there to witness the surprise and horror that must have washed across Marie’s face, when she discovered Comer’s ingenious method to keep neighborhood cats out of his sandbox. But that’s another story ....

Comer intellectually and socially outgrew me when he went into the 7th grade. We no longer played together. That social status wouldn’t change until my first day as a freshman at Cairo High.

The Envelope Please ...

Comer, a senior, came down to the lowly freshman basement lockers to find me. It was great. He made me laugh and feel welcomed in my new environment. He gave me an orientation as we sauntered around the school.

It seemed like old times, except for one thing - he was no longer Comer. A popular television show ruled the airways called GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C., and Comer's peers transformed him into "GOMER." He was so good natured, it didn’t bother him at all. Within the week, we both capitalized on his great, new name recognition.

He asked me what I planned to get involved with in high school. I said the usual things: football, basketball, track, and run for student council. Comer said he always wanted to do that, and decided right then, to also run. He suggested that we pool our resources.

Comer, an industrial arts major, asked Paul Qualls, the teacher in that field, if he could let us into the school office, after hours, to use the AB Dick Mimeograph machine. I was surprised when Mr. Qualls said yes. He gave us a couple of Mimeograph sheets, a package of paper, let us into the office, and said we had thirty minutes. I found out later, Comer had done after hours work before, with this machine, for Mr. Quall’s projects, so it was quid pro quo.

We brainstormed our election sheet as Comer typed it. We both discovered I had a flair for this end of it - dictating the right words and phrases to make it both funny and informative. His appreciative chortles gifted me equality.

Comer typed my name at the top of the sheet and hand cranked 75 copies. Then, cut my name off, retyped his name on the new top and cranked another 75 copies. I folded them, and went around the school pushing his through the air vents of the senior lockers, and mine into the freshmen lockers. I tacked the remainder on every bulletin board.

Comer thought it would be best if we represented each other to our classmates. That way, it would be an endorsement rather than an egotistical plea for our own votes. So, I asked the seniors to vote for "GOMER" terrific name recognition, and Gomer asked the freshmen to vote for me - a definite clout advantage over competition.

But would it work?

The envelope please ...

We both won.

We had the best time that year. I became embolden for a freshman, because I had the support of Gomer, and Comer could count on my assistance for his crusades. By a narrow margin of only two votes, we missed putting Comer in charge of the entire student body.

Neither one of us had any idea that Miss Fitts would have the group elect a president that first student council meeting. I nominated Gomer, of course, but Mike Mescher, a fine fellow, an excellent athlete, and certainly deserving of the position - won.

Make no mistake, if we had known in advance, we would have prepared a campaign that could have made GOMER the 1965 student body president.

Later, in a style of grandiosity developed in our childhood, we laughed and theorized that under Gomer’s regime, we would have raised great sums of money for the school. Every month would have been a different theme: a New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, a Roman bacchanalian feast, a Rio de Janeiro Carnivale, where parades of classmates and Cairoites, in costume, would dance down 8th street to a driving musical beat. Now THAT would have been a fun year.

Grandchildren and Bridges

After graduation, Comer went to school at Northern Illinois University and majored in Civil Engineering and Construction. He came back to Southern Illinois and went to work as an engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation, District 9.

A young, attractive girl, Sandy Wyatt, from Grand Chain, worked in Mounds. A friend asked her to go on a blind date. Sandy hesitated. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to date, much less be seen with, someone named "GOMER." She relented, and March 15th, 1968 marked their first date. That date went so well, each totally mesmerized by the other, they exchanged wedding nuptials on October 18, 1968.

The success of this wonderful paring brought a daughter, Cherie, on August 13, 1973. Then, Cherie Phillips became Cherie Phillips Pitcher and beget three lovely grandchildren - Scott, Emily, and Alyssa - to become the highlight and pride of Comer’s life.

It came as no surprise to me that Comer won accolades and awards during his years as an engineer.

The most visible was his contribution on earthquake proofing bridges. Comer helped develop a method of construction, the geometry, and the material composition of micropiles to hold bridges together during seismic activity.

This important work helped to retrofit the I-57 bridges in case of any future rumbles from the New Madrid Fault. His work has become part of an engineering curriculum on bridge construction.

Comer - the quintessence of an Irish proverb

Dance as if no one is watching
Laugh as if you have no cares
Love as if it will last forever

I’m thankful for the Mega Reunion in September of 2005. At the main dinner, Comer and I set a time to meet at his childhood home on 18th, and walk through it together the next day.

Strange, revisiting his empty house was as if we were exploring ancient Mayan ruins. It was over grown with vines, underbrush, and vegetation, and protected not by ingenious pitfalls, and traps of doom, but by loose floorboards, rotting beams, and shaky stairs. We both became Indiana Jones, explorers for lost artifacts, seeking a great treasure, the jewel of reminiscence, and we found it.

For that shared moment, we were transported back to when our families and friends were still with us: our footfalls and voices reverberated in empty rooms, enmeshed with the imaginary cacophony of moms’ calling us home for dinner, friends knocking on the door to come play, cannonball splashes at the Cairo swimming pool, Converse All Stars running in the cool evenings under street lamps, and squeals of delight as we dodged the reaching "tag hand" with a dart left.

I was blessed that day to be with Comer. There is no greater reward, for in the end, that’s all we have: God and our memories.