Thursday, December 19, 2013

Phipps

I have been thinking a lot about Phipps the last couple of days. He is receiving a posthumous award and they asked me to write something short for him.  I don’t know how they found me but they did. I’m glad. I wrote something short about him but here’s something a little longer.

When I was a junior in college I found an ad in the Daily Illini; a post for a research assistant in the psychology department.  It said. “Must know how to write.” I applied not thinking much about it. When I was in college I had to work to stay there, so I served beer in a pizza place, did food service, and tutored. I needed a steadier job or else I was going to have to go home.  One day I came back from class and one of my house mates, Sean, said you got a call today. Someone named Phipps Arabie wants to meet with you. “I said “You’re kidding.”  “No. Today at 3:00.”  It was 2:30.  I said “Shit.” And went to clean myself up then beat it across campus.   

I met with Phipps in his office. He was an odd bird.  He had stringy hair and a full beard. He wore clothes that went out of style in the seventies; Beatle boots.  We talked for a bit and then we walked up to the next floor.  “This will be your office,” he said.  “You will share it with Anthony but you’ll never see him.” He smiled. “He is my programmer, and he is a vampire.  He only works at night.”  I looked around and I liked what I saw.  I said “Professor Arabie, does this mean I have a job?”  He said, “Yes, you do. You answered a question about books correctly. Make yourself at home. Call me Phipps. I’ll have assignments for you tomorrow.”  He gave a wave that almost looked like a “Heil Hitler!” and walked out. Thus began a three-year, and even longer, relationship with Phipps.

Phipps was a brilliant statistician.  He created a thing called “clustering” that is still used today. He edited an academic periodical called the Journal of Classification. My job was mostly to do fact checking, citations, edit and do whatever else he asked me to do. I would go into his main office to get questions answered and I would find him drawing circles on an old Light-Brite.  He was scanning for patterns, for elusive answers to questions in his head.  I never had a conversation with him that wasn’t interesting.

Phipps never judged me. One day I came in with a black-eye after an unfortunate incident in a bar. My eyes were watering.  He reached and got a tissue for me and just kept talking about what we had to get done that day. He never asked why his assistant was beat up.  One time I screwed the main copy machine up royally as I was putting together paper presentation copies for him.  He came in and saw the mess I had made. He sighed and said, “We have time. Just figure it out.”  My friend, Mindy, who once lived in the dorms with the girl who would one day become my wife, said, “I can help you.” She did. She fixed the copier and showed me how to use the collating machine. When I took the copies to Phipps he just smiled and said, “Well done, T.S. I knew I could count on you.”  I never let him down again.

The last year when I was in school, after everyone else had graduated and gone on to their lives, and after I had started dating Karen, Phipps knew I was still struggling financially.  I was working for him, serving as the superintendent in my apartment building so I could get cheap rent, still doing food service and acting as a substitute bartender at Murphy’s across the street when they needed me.  In those days I would pretty much do just about anything for money.  Phipps got me a job proctoring exams and a research associate’s job in the biopsychology department.  My job there was to cut a membrane in rabbits’ brains and then time how long it took before they could blink again.  It was supposed to teach us something about brain injury recovery. When I was working with them I used to keep my rabbits in the pockets of my lab coat.  One day I was meeting with Phipps on his floor and he nonchalantly said, “I think you might have brought something home from the office.”  There was a baby bunny crawling out of my pocket that I had missed when I was putting them back in their cubbies.  He laughed. I immediately took her back upstairs. They told us not to name or identify with our subjects, but after that I always called that baby bunny, “Phipps.”

When Karen would come and visit me at school she did not like coming to my office because I would have to go upstairs and check on the rabbits. We would go up the back stairs where only faculty and staff were allowed.  It was red brick and all the stairwells were fenced in so no one would get the notion to end it all and throw themselves down, which happened at least once.  She never made it up to the lab because she couldn’t stand the sound of the dogs we had, barking.  I tried to reassure her that they were well-taken care of, but, understandably, it creeped her out.  She knew what I did to rabbits.

One night when Karen was visiting my apartment, we were lying on the couch watching TV and Phipps came to the door with some things he needed me to look at over the weekend. I had him come in and we sat at the kitchen table talking.  I could tell he was nervous. It was so strange for us to be in my world. He talked fast and left with that “Heil Hitler” wave of his.

A week later he came to visit me in my office. He said, “You probably know this but I am going to be married.” I shook my head and laughed. “Damn. No, I do not know this, Phipps. Who are you marrying?”   A few months before this a woman from Ireland, named Francesca, had started working in the psych department and occasionally she would borrow the other desk in my office.  I liked her a lot and we shared some good laughs. This is who Phipps was marrying.  He said, “I’m sorry but it is going to be a small ceremony at the courthouse and then a party at my house. I have only invited colleagues.  You’re not offended are you?”   I said, “No, not at all. “

 The day of the wedding I found Phipps in his office. I said, “What the hell are you doing here?”  He, panicked, said “I have to find something or this isn’t going to happen.”  I said “Relax. It’s right here. “He took a deep breath and said, “Thank you, T.S.” He was wearing a nice suit. He had a seashell as a clip.  I straightened his tie for him.  I said, “You look good. I’ll see you next week. Congratulations.” A smile, a weird wave and then he was gone. “Lock up,” he shouted over his shoulder.

 Near the end of my last year in school Phipps came to me in my office and told me that he and Francesca needed to go to Ireland until she could get her green card. He was taking the journal overseas and I was not invited to come along. “I don’t know what to give you as a going-away gift but I figure a man like you use some cash.  Bill the grant twice more than you worked.” That ended not only my career with him but my career at Illinois. I accepted degrees and went home, which I had been thinking about doing anyway. I wanted to be with Karen.

Phipps and I stayed in touch.  He helped me get my first good job in publishing. He said I needed to have good shoes to be successful and so he sent me some nice black ones with tassels.  Later on he called me and asked me to help him in dealing with his stepson.  I said, “Just do what you did with me. Listen, talk and don’t judge.”  He said, “OK, I will.” He asked me how I was doing. I said, “I am good.” I laughed. “I could use some money to pay off the balance on Karen’s engagement ring, but that will happen in time. Otherwise I’m good. ” He laughed too and said good-bye.  It was the last time I talked to him live. A week after that conversation I received a letter and a check in the mail. The note said, “Thank you, T.S. Marry that girl. Phipps.” The check was for $500 dollars, just what I needed to get Karen her ring. Phipps was not always the most expressive man, but he was always kind. 

Phipps was an odd bird but one of my favorites. He was someone who launched me on my life. Rest in peace, dear friend.