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Sister honors brother Phil Campbell with visit to town sharing his name

A certain man named Phil Campbell had, like so many who bear the name, long talked of visiting the small town in Alabama that shared his moniker. His sister Mary Campbell can remember his assertion that the trip was on his bucket list. But at age 35 in 1989, Campbell was diagnosed with a brain tumor and passed away just three weeks later, having never visited the town he felt a connection with.

It would take 27 years, but at last his sister Mary Campbell and his widow Cathy Campbell, to whom he was married just less than a year before passing away, made the trip in his honor.

It was Cathy Campbell, who has stayed in touch with the family over the years, who at last urged the trip into a reality. She had read about the tornado of 2011 and was talking it over with Mary Campbell. “She said, ‘You know what? We should go,’” Mary Campbell recalls. It took a few more years to make it happen, but the wheels were set in motion.

In October 2016, Mary Campbell and Cathy Campbell each flew into Nashville from their respective homes in New York and Virginia and made the nearly three hour drive down to Phil Campbell – during which they had the chance to catch up and muse over what the small town would be like.

Since she had first begun to consider making the trip, “I’ve had five or six years to envision the town, and it was pretty much like I thought it might be,” said Mary Campbell, who had seen glimpses of the town through pictures of the Hoedown on social media. The two visited town hall and were toured around the municipal offices by city clerk Ann Bragwell, ending their visit by purchasing Hoedown T-shirts. They admired the train mural and eventually made their way through downtown to the high school.

“I can just imagine what it was like years ago, with all the little shops along main street,” said Mary Campbell. “(My brother) would have loved it. He would have wanted to go there and be the mayor.”

As luck – or lack of luck – would have it, the bye week meant no high school football to watch to while away the Friday evening, but the two women got to take a sneak peek inside the new high school, where the annual Dream Girls pageant was taking place.

Saturday Mary Campbell said they enjoyed lunch at the Fatty Shack and then spent the day roaming Dismals Canyon. “That was beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous.”

Two things from the trip will especially stand out for Mary Campbell. The first is the people they met. “Everyone there was so friendly. I was very impressed by how nice everyone was.” The second, of course, is the unique guidepost marker in memorial park that tells the distant homeplaces of Phil Campbells around the world. “I got all teary at that, just to see how far people came to help rebuild the town and what a bond they must have.”

But even more tears were on the way for Mary Campbell. She had been in touch with “Brooklyn Phil” over the past couple of years to share her brother’s story and express her interest in visiting. Brooklyn Phil, for his part, came up with the idea to add a special sign to the guidepost: Webster, New York (961 miles).

“I asked if she would like to honor him by us putting a sign up in memory of him,” Brooklyn Phil said. He said he found Mary Campbell and Cathy Campbell’s trip to the town inspiring. “It was really moving they would go to that length to honor the brother and husband Phil Campbell.”

But it was the generosity of Brooklyn Phil and the other Phils that Mary Campbell found most moving. “It really made me cry. It meant the world because it’s been 27 years since Phil passed way,” Mary Campbell said. Now, his memory will live on. “I just was blown away. It’s just very thoughtful of the Phils.”

Brooklyn Phil said plans are being laid now for the new sign. The Phils hope to send it on a Tour of Phils around the U.S., to let it make contact with others who bear the name before it’s officially installed in the memorial park. “Every development we have with the Phil Campbells is this new texture and nuance to a whole web of relationships,” said Brooklyn Phil, who has the Phil Campbell feature film in the works and remains very active in the Hoedown each year. “It’s a very sincere and interconnected thing now … You have these continuing connections and relationships. It’s a community that appeared out of nowhere and is now a permanent thing.”

Brooklyn Phil said Mary Campbell and Cathy Campbell are interested in coming to next Hoedown, or maybe the next “big one,” in 2021.

And so, in a small way, Webster Phil Campbell made it to the town after all. To really make their trip special, Mary Campbell and Cathy Campbell carried a picture of Webster Phil Campbell with them to photograph.

“We thought, we have to mark this somehow,” Mary Campbell said. “We put him on a stick and put him between us there. He had a great sense of humor, so we thought he would like that.”

And the fact that his life will be marked so permanently with the special addition to the signpost is something Mary Campbell will cherish.

“He was my best friend. We were very close,” she said. “Wherever he went, he lit up the room. He was just a very special person.”