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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Phil Heldrich: A Good Friend

Phil Heldrich, a friend of mine, died last year at age 45, leaving behind a wife and daughter. Unfortunately, he and I had not been as close during the past few years, after he moved to Tacoma, Washington. Most of our communication during the last few years had only been an annual Christmas card.

I first met Phil when he was walking through Morrill Hall at Oklahoma State before the start of classes in 1993. Phil had recently moved down from Manhattan, Kansas where he had completed his MA at Kansas State University. We both were graduates of Kansas State. I had completed my MA about a year before Phil started his. Once we discovered that common lineage, Phil wanted to learn everything possible about the PhD program at Oklahoma State—the professors and their quirks and the structure of certain classes. We ended up talking for several hours that afternoon. I don’t remember what kind of experiences he had that first year in his Intro to Graduate Studies class or his other classes.

My wife and I learned of her pregnancy that fall, and what free time we had was spent going through birthing classes and commuting to Oklahoma City for the gestational diabetes clinic at University Hospital. Phil and Chris occasionally visited us as my wife and I struggled with raising an infant and then a toddler while earning our PhD’s. They invited us to their duplex apartment on occasion but seemed overwhelmed by the chaos and demands for attention that our child made.

One summer night, we took Phil and Chris out past Lake Carl Blackwell to watch for the Perseid meteor shower, and that experience, although somewhat altered, appeared in Good Friday, his book of poems. A couple of the poems in that book were created for the poetry workshop that we took together one semester.

Most of all, I remember how passionately he approached his studies and his drive to publish. That passion showed in his approach to his coursework as he arrived on campus early every morning and spent the day attending classes, teaching his own classes, or studying, writing, and grading in the library, not leaving campus until Chris got off from work. Phil ended up defending his dissertation and going through graduation a semester before I did. He was already teaching at Emporia State when I completed my dissertation. That same intensity Phil devoted to his studies was present in his thriftiness. He once told me that he supported two people on his graduate assistant salary in Manhattan and did the same in Stillwater until Chris started working. Unlike me, I don’t think that Phil ever took out student loans while going through his PhD.

When I was struggling with quitting smoking during my wife’s pregnancy, Phil told me about his own efforts at quitting smoking without any other aids than his own determination. He emphasized how he always kept two cigarettes in the glovebox of his car just in case the craving became too much for him. Following his example, I kept two cigarettes in the glovebox of my car, too, and eventually had to rely on them before my transformation into a nonsmoker was complete.

Once my wife and I moved to northeastern Kansas, Phil called me up to find out whether I would be willing to read manuscripts for the Bluestem Poetry Award. That phone call started a four year relationship with the press as I read through a couple of hundred manuscripts before making an annual selection of three semi-finalists. Phil and I had been editors at Cimarron Review, and he seemed surprised how quickly I could get through a pile of manuscripts. As the editor of Flint Hills Review, Phil accepted some of my poems over a period of several years. Phil was one of my biggest fans. He once encouraged me to submit my manuscript when he was on the board of Woodley Press. It was something I would have done if I had been more confident of my full-length collection.

Up until Phil and Chris moved to Tacoma, we managed to get together about once a year. Whenever my wife and I drove to her home in southcentral Kansas, we stopped in Emporia to visit Phil and Chris, sometimes having dinner at Carlos O’Kelly’s. We got to see Alexandria a few times after she was born. She took a liking to my son’s Hedwig one year and tried to keep that stuffed owl for herself. I was happy to hear that Phil finally bought a house in Emporia after having rented that upstairs apartment for so many years. Knowing Phil, he would have gone over every last detail with the previous owner and his realtor before he finally signed the paperwork. That’s why I was surprised to hear that Phil and Chris were moving to Tacoma. They seemed to have had their house for only six months or so. I thought that his collection of nonfiction and its emphasis on place would be an indication that Phil would remain in this part of the country. He probably would have published more if he had remained at Emporia.

Phil and Chris invited us to Washington on several occasions. It’s unfortunate that we never got to see each other again. At first, we exchanged Christmas cards and recent photos of our kids. Phil’s cards kept coming while I stopped writing. He was a good friend. I’m going to miss him, and I wish Chris and Alexa the very best. His wife lost a husband and his daughter, a father. I lost a friend. And we all lost a poet and a nonfiction writer. Most of all, we lost the fiction—his preferred genre—that Phil never published in book form during his lifetime.

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