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Screening to benefit a real ‘Phil Campbell’

After the tornado outbreak last April, many people converged on the small town of Phil Campbell to help in the recovery efforts, but there was arguably one group that stood out from among the throngs of people shuffling in and out of the city offering their aid.

The gathering of 20 different people with variations of the name “Phil Campbell” is something people in this area aren’t likely to forget any time soon.

This group of relative strangers decided to band together as they had done 16 years earlier and come to the town, only this time it wasn’t for a quirky get-together but a relief trip to help their namesake town in its darkest time of need.

The Phils – and one female Phyl – came from literally all over the world and they came ready to work. They grabbed tools and bags to clean up debris and set to work clearing out the community’s pool area, which was virtually unrecognizable after the tornado’s winds threw trees and other debris all over the town.

As they worked on clean-up projects and were treated with celebrity status (autographs were obtained from many of the Phils before they went back to their own hometowns), the story of one Phil Campbell from La Farge, Wisc., came to light.

On the outside, “Big Phil” (as he was affectionately called because of his towering stature and hearty personality) was a jolly character with a permanent smile across his rosy red cheeks. With a little more hair and a snow-white beard, Big Phil could have passed for Santa Claus had the exodus of Phil Campbells taken place in December instead of June.

He laughed and joked and made people feel like they had known him for years when they had in fact only known him for a few minutes. Big Phil felt like your neighbor from down the street instead of a stranger coming from the land of cheese and the Green Bay Packers.

But even though his infectious personality could fill up an entire room, Big Phil didn’t want to be part of the spotlight. Most of the time, he could be spotted towering in the back of the group, trying to avoid the cameras and attention that surrounded the unique gathering of like-named people.

But someone with such heart and tenacity can’t go completely unnoticed for too long.

When people in the town wanted to know more about this gentle giant, they discovered that Big Phil got to the area a few days earlier than everyone else. He had driven his van all the way from Wisconsin and had decided before he set out on the 15-hour trip that he would be calling the van home for the duration of his stay in Alabama.

But this wasn’t a way to garner attention. Big Phil said he didn’t really have money for a hotel room for as many days as he planned to be there to help out the town, but he didn’t want to let that stop him from coming.

“I didn’t’ have an itinerary when I decided to come – I just threw the mattress in the car and went from there,” Big Phil said. “I wanted to come and I wanted to help, so that’s what I did.”

Big Phil was eventually taken in by Phil Campbell resident Vick Johnson and his family, but his selfless act of putting others before himself didn’t go unnoticed.

People who knew about his generosity were surprised that a complete stranger would go so out of their way to help their town, but for Big Phil, the gesture wasn’t anything that he thought was worthy of note. He just wanted to help his adopted hometown.

Big Phil’s trek southward in June of last year wasn’t the first one he had taken. He attended the original Phil Campbell Convention in 1995 and said he really connected with the town.

“Phil Campbell isn’t much different from La Farge,” he said. “They’re about the same size and they have about the same things. I enjoyed being there and I enjoyed the people, so when I found out about all the Phils coming back, especially about coming to help the town, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

“It ended up being the best thing I ever did in my life. The people I met were just awesome and I consider them all my close friends. I hated to leave when I did because this town means a lot to me.”

After the Phils left, a documentary, which was being shot both prior to and during the “I’m with Phil” relief trip started coming together.

Local filmmaker and Phil Campbell native Andrew Reed saw the unique story created by the Phils and decided to document their story from the initial plans, through the decision to morph the event from a whimsical convention to a relief trip, through the actual event and on to individual stories.

The completed documentary, which is a feature-length professional film, won three awards and three honors at the George Lindsey Film Festival, including the festival’s top award for Best of Show.

But being a hometown guy, Reed wanted to make sure the folks he grew up with and who had been personally touched by the “I’m with Phil” campaign were given an opportunity to see his documentary of the same name before they began marketing it to major film festivals because Reed’s original intent was for the film to become something big that would raise substantial amounts of money for the tornado-ravaged town.

“The film screened at the George Lindsey Film Festival in Florence, but we decided to have a screening of the film here in the town so everyone could have a chance to see it,” Reed said. “The screening had been in the works for months and we wanted it to be a free event so everyone that wanted to come could, but we had been toying with the idea of taking up donations at the end of the screening for the Memorial Park just to continue helping out the town.”

The plans were all a go when Reed and the group of Phils found out that one of their own needed help.

“When we were discussing ways to improve the documentary, it seemed like Big Phil was everyone’s favorite ‘Phil’ but we didn’t have any individual interviews with him,” Reed said. “When I was trying to set up a time to go to Wisconsin and shoot some interviews, I found out that Big Phil’s wife, Deb, was diagnosed with lung cancer in February and that their lives pretty much were consumed with trying to fight the disease and trying to find the money to make that happen.”

After the network of Phils heard about Big Phil’s wife and the financial burden they were facing with the medical bills, Reed said in true “I’m with Phil” style, the plans started to change.

“We made the decision to make the screening a benefit for Big Phil’s wife because we wanted to give the town of Phil Campbell the opportunity to help someone who had helped them so selflessly,” Reed said. “Big Phil is a hard-working man that doesn’t expect anything from anyone, so he would have never asked us to do this, but I think that’s one reason he deserves it. He never thinks of anyone else, and it’s time for us to think about him.”

Reed said taking up donations for Big Phil’s wife after the screening would be the best thing to do because the film really gives people a sense of who he is.

“For the people that didn’t meet him, you can see his personality in this film,” Reed said. “And people almost always walk away from it feeling like they know him or like he is their ‘favorite Phil.’

“Maybe after seeing him on film and how much he did for the town, they’ll be willing to help him out as well, because really, that’s the whole philosophy of ‘I’m with Phil’ anyway: Helping people you don’t even know.”

Want to go?

What: Screening of award-winning “I’m with Phil” documentary
When: Thursday, June 14 at 7 p.m.
Where: Bevill Center at Northwest-Shoals Community College’s Phil Campbell campus
• Admission is free
• Special donation to be taken following the film for one of the Phils who helped the town of Phil Campbell