Monday, April 30, 2018

Phil Deaver 1946-2018


Phil Deaver died April 29th.  A mutual friend called me with the news.  I saw him for the last time two years ago, in the spring of 2016, when I went to visit him in Florida.    
Thinking about him, I summon up one of the sweetest men I have even known, full of good intentions and humor.  Fiction was everything to him, a religion.  He worshipped great fiction writers, especially living ones.  Ann Beattie was a good friend.  He loved Robert Stone and Richard Ford.  He was a fiction writer, to his very core.   His first book, Silent Retreats, a book of short stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in the late 1980s.  He had published a book of poems, How Men Pray, and an anthology about baseball.  I always thought he was a better poet than maybe he thought he was or wanted people to think he was.  I liked his poetry very much, and I remember how proud he was when Garrison Keillor chose one of his poems to read on The Writer’s Almanac.

He was a great friend, loyal and caring.  He was a complex man, and he wore his worries and insecurities on his sleeve.  I remember him at Spalding University, in Louisville, where we both taught, how nervous he was among people there, how insecure, wanting to be with people he knew and trusted.  He would insist on eating with just three or four people. You couldn’t help but love him and feel protective of him, he was so human. 

His father and grandfather had been killed in an automobile accident when he was 18, and that changed him forever and haunted him forever.  He told me the story of that day many times, with a matter-of-fact solemnity to it, and I often felt I was there with him when he returned home that day to hear the news from his sister.  This was the defining moment of his life, and it never was far from his mind or heart. He worshiped his father, who was a doctor in a small town in Illinois, until his life was cut short.

Phil was raised Catholic, and I don’t think he ever left his faith, despite what he might have claimed.  It was deeply there. He had a sense of Catholic guilt about him.  He told me that after his father died a group of Catholic elders from his town took him on a silent retreat.  It meant a great deal to him.  It’s not a coincidence that his first book is titled Silent Retreats.  He had a distinct way of talking, a Midwestern drawl with a slow cadence often leading to a bright punctuation of emphasis. He was rooted in the Midwest. 
I visited him twice in Florida before he became ill.  He arranged a reading for me at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he taught, and also at a local bookstore.  The bookstore reading was lightly attended, and he was mortified.  It didn’t bother me that much, having read at quite a few lightly-attended events in my time, but I know how he must have felt.  I’ve arranged readings that were sparsely attended.  You feel like you’ve let the reader down.  He hadn’t, of course.  Phil helped other writers, too.  He did everything he could through Rollins to aid writers he admired or who he felt were deserving.  I remember he brought in a young writer from New Orleans, who had been our student at Spalding, so she could meet with one of her literary heroes, Jamaica Kincaid.  This to me is what separates many writers from others.  Those who, like Phil, use whatever influence and funds they have, no to mention encouragement, to help emerging writers flourish and those who claim they will help, and don’t. When Phil pledged his help, he kept that pledge.  He was always enthusiastic about of my work, in more ways than one.
Phil (r) and me

He and I use to play a ridiculous sort of game where we posed as 1950’s TV cowboy heroes. I was the Cisco Kid, and he was Lash LaRue.  Which became simply, Cisco and Lash.  We had great fun with that.  We'd begin our letters to each other "Dear Lash" or "Dear Cisco." It meant something to us—that 1950s TV culture that helped raise us in a dull dry era.  It was some of the little romance America had back then.  We still had the Wild West.  We were intrigued by Lash.  He used a bullwhip to subdue the bad guys.  Think about it. 

He loved his children immensely and was immensely proud of them.  He went through hard times after he and his first wife divorced.  I loved to hear him tell the story of when he was absolutely broke.  I mean NO money.  He had his children for Christmas or Thanksgiving—forget which—and he didn’t have enough money to buy them a proper dinner.  He went to a gas station where they also sold fried chicken in a store run by the station.  The man who pumped the gas wouldn’t let him use his gas card to buy the chicken, so he had to return home with no food.  Imagine. And he told me the story of being arrested and going to jail for a night or two. I was jealous of that.  Phil was not a coarse man in any way.  He never talked about sex.  He rarely swore.  Baseball—he loved baseball.  A St. Louis Cardinals fan.  He would go to spring training games in Florida.  

When I heard from Susan Lilley, his wife at the time, that Phil had suffered a brain disorder, and that, as she put it, the old Phil was slipping away, I wanted to visit him before he slipped away altogether.  So, I went to Florida in the spring of 2016 to see him for a few days.  It was a sad trip.  Part of him was indeed gone, and I think that may be one of the saddest things that can happen to someone we love, to have their corporal selves there, right before you, unchanged, but to have the soul, the self, or much of the self, missing.  It didn’t make sense to me—there we were in his house where we had once laughed and bantered for hours—and I kept looking for Phil, the man with who I liked and admired so much and who was a wonderful friend, to appear, but he was not to be found. 

Fiction was sacred to him.  He was haunted by his Flannery O’Connor Award, weighed down by the burden of promise that honor bestowed on him and not producing another book.  So, when he published a new book of short stories, Forty Martyrs, in 2016, a fine book, just a month or so before I visited him, he, and all his friends and admirers, were relieved and happy.  His good friend Ann Beattie loved the stories.  Phil showed me a letter from her praising the book unreservedly, and he was immensely proud of that praise, which was so clearly sincere, as he should have been.  I have an autographed copy.  The dedication to his book reads,

                                                In memory of my father,

                                                 Philip F. Deaver, M.D.

                                                        1920-1964

23 comments:

  1. Richard,
    Thanks for this. I struggled to find a way to see through his passing. He was so kind and encouraging to me at Spalding. You brought his spirit to life and shared a fitting memorial.

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  2. Thank you for writing this, Richard. I am so sad to read of Phil's death. Such a kind, good, man. May his memory be for a blessing.

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  3. Ohh, this is both sad and lovely to read. My heart is breaking - I did not know Phil was sick. My memory of Phil, at a number of Spalding residences, he was glowing. His smile, his eyes, his energy — warm and kind with friendship and support. Never a ‘professor’ to me, he was humble and fun and human, an established writer sharing his knowledge with all of us. I’m so blessed to have known him. Very sad he is gone. Again, thanks for this incredible sharing of his life and your friendship. Richard, you’re awesome. Lisa Mitzel, Spalding MFA 2006

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  4. Thanks for writing, Lisa. He did exude light. Richard

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  5. Beautiful Rich I remember you last journey to him xo Deb

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  6. Phil was a mentor to me at Spalding--always encouraging, with such a gentle patience about him. Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Richard.

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    1. Thanks, Kristin. I've been thinking of him all day. Richard

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  7. Richard, this is a lovely and tribute to Phil, who had such kindness and vulnerability to him. Thank you for sharing such sad news in such a beautiful way.

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  8. Thanks, Bonnie. It's all so sad. Richard

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  9. I attended many workshops that Phil facilitated in Winter Park. He was always supportive, a great teacher and mentor, who always encouraged other writers. In addition, his wonderful books of short stories are a fitting legacy to this kind, generous man who loved the written word. So sad to lose him. Thanks for the lively tribute.

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  10. Thanks, Lynn, very kind of you to write. It's all so sad. Richard

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  11. Phil was my teacher at Rollins College in writing courses and in the writing group First Fridays. Thank you for sharing. It was nice to read about him. I will miss him very much. He was a great teacher. He always inspired me. Thank you again.

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  12. Thanks for taking the time to write. Yes, he was a great guy.

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  13. This is in belated response to your mention of Mike Carney. My ex-wife, Sue Johnson, lives in Hamilton, Montana. For a few years, Mike and his then wife Laura lived there as well---a rather massive coincidence, since Hamilton maybe has 7,500 residents, if that. Mike and Laura had a son named Pete, named after Mike's detective father. Laura was a letter carrier for the USPS and ended up running off with a postal inspector, taking Pete with her. For a while, I socialized with Mike and Laura, and then Mike, on visits to my kids. There was a lapse, and then Kohlman and I heard that Mike returned to Michigan, perhaps Traverse City. This was circa 1991. I made a half-assed futile attempt to track him down and then Gary and I forgot about it. You have piqued my curiosity, however, so I think I will renew my effort to find Mike or at least whatever happened to him. I have great affection for Mike; but he has always had a self-destructive streak that I fear may finally have gotten the better of him.

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  14. I did not have Phil as a mentor at Spalding but he was always so gracious to me after a reading. His kindness and astute observations were deeply appreciated and it spurred me to read his work which I loved. Your words were so beautiful Richard. He certainly made the world a richer place for having been here.

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  15. Thanks very much for letting me know. Yes, a great guy.

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  16. Thanks for this remembrance, Richard. I didn't know Phil, but I loved his poetry, and I spoke with him at Spalding a couple times about that. A true gem of a man. He will be dearly missed.
    Bobbi

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  17. He will be missed. Already is. Richard

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  18. Thanks so much for writing this, Richard. Phil made many meals memorable at Spalding! A vital, ebullient man. Yes, the end was sad, but he really lived his story--and you show that. Grateful you wrote.

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