The sad news came Thursday morning in a phone call from Jill Bowling, the daughter of Phil Schmidt, longtime photographer at The Chattanooga Times – for years he served as chief of the department – had passed away minutes earlier at TriStar-Centennial Hospital in Nashville.
Through Jill’s tears she said, “Daddy died this morning.”
It was a phone call I didn’t want to get and Jill didn’t want to make.
Two weeks earlier, the silent text from Phil’s wife, Joan, struck like a lightning bolt out of the blue that Phil had suffered a brain hemorrhrage and was in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. He had been bouncing back from health problems and seemed on his way to a nice recovery. I spoke with him on the phone three days earlier and he sounded strong and like his old self.
So, the fact that Philip, 74, had died was like a punch to the gut.
Joan and Jill and her husband, Bo, and their sons Philip and Andrew, and brother Porter Binks and cousin Richard Doyle – among many others in the extended family – were even more devastated. In the early morning hours of Tuesday, the family knew that Phil's condition had worsened. The fight had been fought. He was in God's hands.
While Phil’s passing is heartbreaking – he was my best friend and, as the late author and humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote about his friend, Weyman C. Wannamaker, Jr., a great American -- I have spent the hours since getting Jill’s call thinking about everything I enjoyed having known and worked with Phil over a span of 40-plus years.
Colleagues for the first 19 years of my tenure at The Times, the last 11 developed into a deep admiration and respect for Phil as a man.
During the fall of each of those 11 years we spent our weekends covering University of Tennessee football. Where the Vols went – from Boston to Los Angeles, Chicago to Dallas, and New York to Miami, plus varied points in between – we went.
Sometimes we flew, most of the time we drove. But we made all those trips and despite several all-nighters driving back to Chattanooga from Dallas, Miami, Gainesville and out of the rugged Ozarks in Arkansas, we enjoyed every one of them.
Spend that much time with a fellow worker and you learn a lot more about the man than can be told simply as an award-winning photographer – he took five of the most meaningful pictures I have displayed on the wall of my home office. One was a group picture with his brother William P. Banks, Jr., Joan, Phil and me and my son Dustin on a sun-splashed day at Daytona Beach, Fla.
Those Phil Schmidt pictures mean more to me than the ones I had made with New York Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.
Phil and I started our collective assignment of covering UT football during a time the newspaper business was trying to escape the dinosaur age and giving way to the digital technology showing up on the horizon.
Phil was MacGyver-like when it came to constructing homemade dark rooms in the hotels where we stayed. Upon arrival, his first objective was to turn a bathroom into a functioning dark room and duct tape was a big part of that process.
In just a few minutes, Phil was up and running and the bathroom became his workplace.
Some of our best road trips were to New York, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Notre Dame, Ind.
A plane trip to Phoenix, Ariz., didn’t go so well. A car rental agency at the airport told us at the counter that our car, which had been reserved a month or more in advance, was not available. Apparently, reservations were worthless in Phoenix. For two days we had no transportation of our own and that ruined a planned drive up to the Grand Canyon. A manager of the dysfunctional car rental company sent a letter several weeks later with a discount offer on a vehicle for our next trip to Phoenix, which never happened. Thanks anyway.
And once, we planned a day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but mechanical problems with the plane delayed our departure for Syracuse a full day and the Cooperstown trip was grounded as well. We left the following day and began trailing the Vols on their way to a national championship season.
Obviously, several items were necessary to make any trip – typewriter and later a computer – were my work essentials. With Phil, it was his cameras and other related gadgets. The most important item in Phil’s travel bag was his Bible. A man rooted deep in his unwavering faith, Phil never left home without it.
After his work was completed on any particular day and while I was still trying to finish up a story or an interview, Phil would read his Bible or work on a Sunday school lesson. That’s what I respected most about him. He lived life the right way, the Christian way. Phil’s way.
He set the bar high for honesty and integrity. Nobody I know on this planet disliked Phil Schmidt. I never heard him speak a disparaging word about anyone, either.
Colleagues have always spoken in glowing terms of Phil and that outpouring of admiration and love has continues today.
Phil earned every ounce of praise by how he walked with the Lord in his daily life.
I have tried to pattern my life after the example Phil set, but admit I never came close to his extraordinary standards, and that’s how he set himself apart from the ordinary souls among us.
His moral compass was pointed toward at much higher place.
When Phil and Joan moved to Gallatin to be closer to Jill, Bo, Phillip and Andrew, we stayed in constant contact. I’ll miss seeing him, talking to him on the phone and just knowing he was there.
We will gather this weekend in Gallatin to honor Phil’s wonderful life. Folks will laugh and cry and talk about his insane collection of baseball caps and model trains. But the overall theme of this time together will be more obvious. There was a bond between Phil and his friends and family that was mostly perpetuated by him.
There were times when Phil and Joan opened their hearts and home to me and for that I’m eternally grateful. Joan will remain a wonderful friend and Phil will never really be gone. While he has been fast-tracked on streets of gold in a much better place, he’ll forever be in my heart and mind – a wonderful, remarkable memory.
Because, as Jill said Thursday, “Daddy was such a good man.”
For this close pal, her Daddy was good to the bone.
Age 74 of Gallatin, formerly Chattanooga, went home to be with his Lord and Savior on Thursday, July 31, 2014.
Memorial Service will be Sunday, Aug. 3 at 2 p.m., from the chapel of Alexander Funeral Home, with Dr. Larry Yarborough officiating.
Honorary Pallbearers will be Scotty Golston, Jeremy Golston, Tyler Hancock, Roger Layne, Wyman Griffith, Fred Joseph, Brian Griffith, Butch Sewell, Randy Funderburk, M.D., Ed Collier, Joel Hancock, Larry Fleming, Buck Johnson, Bud Ford, Don Pierce, John Freeman, Richard Doyle and Herb Broadwater.
Visitation will be Saturday, Aug. 2, from 4-8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 3, from 11 a.m. until time of service.
Mr. Schmidt was born May 12, 1940 in Chattanooga, TN, son of the late Craig Z. Schmidt and Sula Maie Binks. In addition to his parents, he is preceded in death by grandparents, Granddaddy Doyle & MeMaw; sister, Betty Kimbrough; brothers, William P. Binks, Jr. and Craig Schmidt.
He is survived by wife of 48 years, Joan Schmidt of Gallatin; Jill Bowling and husband Bo of Gallatin; brother, Porter Binks of New York City, NY; grandchildren, Philip Bowling and Andrew Bowling; many nieces and nephews.)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)