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A TRIBUTE TO MR. RAY PHILLIPS
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
Given at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Ileana and I spent last Friday night in Solano Beach, near San Diego, and the next day we went to the church Ray Phillips attended for twenty-five years. It was crowded with hundreds of people. Just before the service I met the deacon who would deliver the eulogy, telling about Ray’s life. I told him that Ray had been my teacher, both in Junior High and High School, and that he was the best one I ever had, bar none. Though I went on to earn three graduate degrees after college, no teacher ever made the impression on my life that Ray did.
The deacon was a friendly man and listened to me attentively. I wish I could have had a few minutes more to tell him the whole story, but the funeral was beginning, and we all went in, and I did not have the opportunity to speak with him afterward. So I will give you the story now, as I wish I could have given it to him.
My parents were separated, which was far more unusual then than it is today. As a thirteen-year-old boy I was deeply saddened by it, with lingering melancholy, aggravated by the fact that I was forced by circumstances to live with other relatives. They were kind to me, but I never really felt welcome in their home in Bell, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
I remember the morning, more than fifty-five years ago, that I first went to Bell High School, which was then a combined Junior and Senior High. I was a seventh-grader in a new school with no friends. It was a little bit scary. I took several classes, but the one that made me feel at home was the Junior Drama class I took from Ray. He told me and another fellow to prepare an act to give in the class. It was nothing much, just a little skit. I played an old man. But I’ll never forget what happened after we performed it. Ray came over to me and said he wanted me to come back to his classroom after school and read a part for a Senior High play he was directing. He said he was having a hard time casting the main part and he wanted to see if I could do it. The entire cast was composed of students in the twelfth grade. There I was, a seventh-grader, reading the part of Grandpa Vanderhof in “You Can’t Take It With You,” the part played by Lionel Barrymore in the 1938 movie version, with Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, Spring Byington, Mischa Auer, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Donald Meek, and Harry Davenport playing supporting roles. It’s a wonderful movie, directed by Frank Capra, adapted from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, about an old man, Grandpa, and his eccentric but blissfully happy family during the Great Depression. It’s a wonderful, clean, heartwarming old comedy. I hope you’ll get the DVD from Amazon.com and watch it some evening. It will give you an idea of how much sheer fun I had playing the role that Lionel Barrymore created in the film.
Yes, Ray had to pull some strings to get the school to allow a 7th grade student like me to play the lead in the Senior Drama! But he got the principal to agree, and my mother, always my advocate and supporter, signed the paper allowing me to participate in the play. What a time we had! I worked hard preparing the makeup to appear as an eighty-year-old man – and me just a boy of thirteen! I even wore a bald-headed wig, with just a fringe of hair around my head. I have two photos, taken from the back, in the High School yearbook, hunched over, in an old man’s suit, bald headed, with glasses halfway down my nose. My sons were startled when they saw it. One of them said, “Papa, you looked just like you do now!” “Yes,” I said, “it’s taken me fifty-five years to grow into the part!”
What a great time we all had in that play – especially me, a thirteen-year-old seventh grader playing the grandfather of all those high school kids who were in the 12th grade! My whole family, aunts, uncles, my father, my mother, and several cousins came to see the play. Thanks to Ray’s superb direction, it was a big hit at the school.
Thus I entered into a very special friendship with Ray Phillips. I appeared, as I recall, in six more senior plays he directed, always in character roles, usually as an old man. I played Oliver Hardy, of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, in two of those plays. I first took the part of the comedian in a play written by Klair Bybee called “Cottonwood Corners.” It was a Western and “Laurel and Hardy” appeared as comic relief in a couple of scenes. The second play was specially written for us by Ray himself. It was called “Around the World in a Daze with Laurel and Hardy,” loosely based on the hit movie of the time, “Around the World in Eighty Days” – which starred David Niven and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas. But Ray replaced the roles done by Niven and Cantinflas with my friend Bryan Walker and me as Laurel and Hardy. Ray shot some scenes of the two of us that were shown on a movie screen during part of the play. To prepare for these parts Bryan and I even visited Stan Laurel at his apartment in Santa Monica. As I write this, I am looking at a framed photograph we took with Stan Laurel that day. The seven or eight plays I appeared in under Ray’s direction were the high point of my days in Junior High and High School. We really had a great time – unforgettable, rare, over the top!
But I took several other classes from Ray, English and speech classes. Ray taught me how to write and how to speak. Having become a Baptist minister whose sermons appear word-for-word on my website in 11 languages, and having authored fifteen books, I can only say that any ability I may have in writing and public speaking comes directly from what I learned more than fifty years ago from my greatest teacher, Ray Phillips. He, more than any other teacher, turned me from a melancholy, lonely school boy into an actor, public speaker and author. All praise to you, Ray Phillips. God used you to teach me many things that laid the groundwork for me to become a minister.
I went back to Bell High to see Ray a couple of times in the years that followed, but I lost contact with him after that. Then one day, just a few years ago, I called Bell High and asked someone in the office if they knew where Ray and his wife Mary lived. I was surprised how easy it was to find them.
We had two reunions at our house with students who had been in Ray’s drama and speech classes, both held at Christmas time. Ray and Mary were the honored guests. Ileana prepared wonderful meals and over 25 students came to the two reunions, some of them flying in from as far away as Colorado for the events. We even got Neil Losey away from his herd of cattle up in Bishop, California for the second one! Those two Christmas reunions with Ray and Mary are cherished memories to me, my wife, and our boys – who are now both college graduates, by the way!
Ray Phillips never became a major actor or director. He was just a school teacher and a faithful member of his church. But he raised six children, and all of them looked pretty good when I saw them at the service. His many grandchildren also looked like fine young people to me, sitting attentively at their grandfather’s funeral. To have such a lovely family is a real tribute to the character of Ray and his wife Mary. The fact that several hundred people attended the service made it evident to me that Ray had influenced many other lives as well.
I wish Ileana and I could have attended the reception at the home of Ray’s daughter. But I was just too tired to make it, with two Sunday services coming up the next day. Perhaps some time, when Mary and her children are having a family reunion, they will ask my wife and me to tag along, just so we can meet them when they are all together. That would especially please Ileana.
Ray and Mary will always be treasured friends in our hearts. And I will always be thankful for the best teacher I ever had, bar none – Mr. Raymond W. Phillips – a man who loved young people, and a man who loved God.
I wish I had been able to tell the whole story to that deacon, the one who gave Ray’s eulogy. But now I have given it to you all, and that is even better. As commentator Paul Harvey would have said, “That’s the rest of the story.”
In Memory of
Raymond W. Phillips
October 5, 1926
July 1, 2009.
(END OF TRIBUTE)
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