It is with a great sadness that I learned of the passing of Phil Geyelin last week. I got to know Phil over the last two years, and although our interactions were few, he left a strong impression on me. Phil, a Pulitzer prize winning editor and writer, was a strong supporter of the Insider. He and I exchanged opinion pieces in The Insider just last year. It is thus a special honor to be able to publish some reflections on Phil in this newspaper.
Phil and I wrangled on several occasions over questions of governance at the College. We talked about this on more than one occasion, and this was the topic of our op-ed pieces last year. Phil was also an active voice at the meetings of the Academic Policy Committee of the board of trustees, meetings in which I have participated as faculty moderator and later as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. Phil and I disagreed considerably on some matters. He was also at times rather strongly critical of some of the ways we run the college. But I never felt that he had anything but the utmost respect for me and, more importantly, for the work of the college.
I admire deeply the way that Phil went about voicing his opinions. He was direct, but never confrontational or disrespectful. He told you where he stood, and he listened to and thought about your response. Even when Phil was at his most critical, I always knew I was in the company of an unwavering supporter of the college. One could ask from nothing more from a trustee.
In our exchanges, I was always struck by his clear respect for my views. The effect was that I found myself with no choice but to respect his views, and to talk openly and honestly about our disagreements. This is a valuable lesson. I imagine that this respectful thoughtfulness played a large role in Phil's steering the editorial page of the Washington Post away from its stance supporting the Vietnam war. Phil had the knowledge, clarity of vision, and patience to persuade. He was incandescently articulate, forceful without being overbearing. He was a shining example of how it's possible to effect meaningful change from within a large organization.
I had the privilege on several occasions to hear Phil give a talk on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His talks were crystal clear and insightful. His knowledge of the complex historical and political issues was breath-taking and awe-inspiring. Equally impressive was the clear sense of justice and fairness that was evident in his comments. His lectures were the sort that you feel instantly wiser and more worldly for having attended.
Another of my strong memories of Phil centers around a dialog with trustees, faculty, staff, and students, at a board of trustees meeting shortly after September 11, 2001. It was an extraordinary discussion; people of all ages and backgrounds were talking and thinking and listening. Although there were some respectful differences of opinion, it was clear we were meeting with a common purpose: a deep and abiding belief in democracy (even though it can be a more elusive notion than human ecology), and a shared search for actions and ideas that can lead to a more peaceful world.
There is a small remark of Phil's that stands out: he referred to a member of the current administration as a "pip squeak." I find it hard to explain why this comment is so memorable to me. In part, it was simply funny to hear such a distinguished, senior observer of Washington speak so colloquially. More importantly, it was somehow heart-warming to hear him express his frustration with the current state of affairs. I guess his comment reminded me realize just how much we had in common. (I must confess that I have little names for presidents and cabinet members, too, some of which aren't suitable for publication.)
Phil's comment reminded me that the struggle for justice and democracy is a long one. All those great ideas upon which the U.S. was founded---democracy: government of, by and for the people; the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal---have taken centuries of work to realize. And the work is far from done. Phil's comment reminded me that we have many allies in this work, and occasionally we may find these allies in unexpected places. Phil was a Washington insider, an editor for an Establishment newspaper, a World War Two veteran, and 46 years my senior. But he certainly was a friend and ally of this far-left physics professor, and he certainly was a friend and ally of this funny college here in Maine that hopes to change the world.
We have indeed lost a great friend and trustee in Phil Geyelin. Phil touched many of our lives, and gave generously his expertise and wisdom to the College. I am saddened that future students and Phil will not have the mutual pleasures of each others' company, discussing foreign policy, journalism, or the constitution. Phil's personality and intellect had the piercing ability to stretch across boundaries: generational, political, geographical. He was a scholar, a writer, an editor, a researcher, a trustee. But above all he was a human ecologist and a respected friend whom I will miss deeply.