Saturday, October 12, 2013

Long May You Run

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

We spent our two weeks here on the ground working at Miss Mabel's home on Cohn Street, helping Rebuilding Together wrap up her work. We kept busy building deck and porch rails, patching drywall around new windows, casing and trimming those new windows, and getting her home ready for paint, which happens after we leave for Biloxi on October 12th. This project is part of Rebuilding Together New Orleans' annual October Build project, which is funded by corporate sponsors and involves volunteers from those corporations. After the exterior paint and drywall mudding and taping and paint, this lovely 91 year-old will have her home back. She's sharp as a tack, if a bit hard of hearing. It's better that way, considering my construction-site language.

Our Friend Phil

Three days prior to our arrival, our great New Orleans friend Phil Frohnmayer finally lost his battle with a pernicious form of mesothelioma.

Phil was our pal. Our morning coffee buddy. And he fought his cancer with a vengeance. Over the years, we saw him while he was undergoing a round of chemo, and he seemed fine. We saw him in between, and he seemed fine. He always seemed fine because he was a fighter. This man loved his life and his family and his work, and he wanted more of it, as much as he could get. He never bitched, because he was always happy to wake up to a new day.

Phil's fight reminded me in so many ways of the fight so many New Orleanians we've come to know fought after Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of so much loss, they hung in to fight whatever came next, always expecting the best in the face of shitty odds against them. Suffering so much loss from a calamity they didn't cause, they refused to give in, and fought instead. All the while, they expressed gratitude for their blessings. Phil did all of that.

Flash back to early 2008. Ann and I had found a morning coffee shop home at CC's on Magazine Street. It was just a few blocks from Reggie and Mary Ellen's home, which they shared with us when we came to work. CC's felt a lot like our Olympia coffee shop/home at Batdorf & Bronson's, and we had developed a routine of hanging there before work each day.

One Sunday morning, we were engaged by a regular customer who noticed my Oregon Basketball T-shirt. "Hey there! Go Ducks. I'm Phil. My brother works at the University of Oregon."

We introduced ourselves and told Phil that we were Oregonians ourselves. We sat down, had coffee together and chatted. The next day, he was there, and we sat together again. As those coffee shop relationships go, ours grew, and over the next few trips, we became daily regulars.

On our next trip later that Spring, we ran into Phil again. To eliminate any awkwardness that comes from running into someone you are so familiar with but don't quite remember enough about, Ann said, "Hey! I'm Ann Drorbaugh. We saw you last time!"

"Phil Frohnmayer! Good to see you again!", answered Phil.


Phil Frohnmayer, brother of the guy who "worked" at the University of Oregon? David Frohnmayer was President of the University of Oregon. The David Frohnmayer who was the Attorney General of the State of Oregon and almost the Governor. Since Phil didn't say that he "taught" at the University, we figured "worked" at the University meant maybe his un-named brother was a maintenance engineer, or helped in admissions or financial aid.

Phil led the Voice Program at Loyola University in NOLA. To the music world, he was a world-class baritone and recording artist and opera star. To us, he was our buddy. Every morning when we were there, he joined us in the comfortable chairs, and we watched as person after person ran in for their morning coffee, recognized and chatted up Phil, then went on their way.

As our trips came and went, we became close pals with Phil. He always asked when we were going to be back in NOLA, and sure as the sun comes up in the morning, he was always there on our first day back. We hung some lights in his home, and fixed stuff when he or his wife Ellen asked for help. After Hurricane Gustav, we were back in NOLA before Phil and Ellen, and they asked us to check on their home. Stuff like that.

In college, Phil worked in an Oregon lumber mill. There are lots of hazardous substances in lumber mills, including asbestos back in the day. In the mid-2000's, Phil was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a persistent and aggressive form of cancer, caused by exposure to asbestos.

This after a distinguished career as an opera star with his wife Ellen, a recording artist, and a beloved professor of music at several universities, with Loyola University his last stop, where he spent over 30 years teaching and mentoring countless students, including a number of future stars.

After our last trip in April, we heard from him, and he was having some trouble with his latest round of chemo. His cancer was aggressive, and his doctors were especially attentive to his need for whatever cocktail might work. This latest round upset him, and wasn't as easily tolerated. He had a not-so-good summer, and the medicine didn't do what he hoped it would do. He died on Friday, September 27th, in the company of his wife and daughter. There are many of us here in New Orleans who dearly miss our friend. As we work here in NOLA on this trip, we think often of Phil, and how much he loved this city and its people.

As we worked for Miss Mabel, I heard Neil Young sing a song that might have been written for Phil:

Long may you run
Long may you run
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run.

Rest in peace, Phil Frohnmayer.

My love to all,


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