The Fowler boys say goodbye to their hero, Phillip Fowler.
PLYMOUTH -- As they said goodbye to their hero, their idol, their rock and their conscience, the Fowler boys did what their father had taught them.
To be champions, even in the most trying of times.
Phillip Fowler, a beloved school teacher at Litchfield High School for 44 years, passed suddenly Saturday, May 14. Just the day before he had been doing what he loved to do for all those decades, he was inspiring young minds to follow their dreams and to succeed.
I had met Mr. Fowler a few times over the years when I would cover Dennis Fowler and the Lewis Mills girls basketball team. It was clear family was also front and center. Before talking to anybody else, Dennis, one of my best friends in the business, would make his way into the stands to say hello to all of his family members in attendance.
What I remember most about Mr. Fowler was the constant smile and look of absolute pride he displayed as he soaked in the moment watching his sons, Dennis and Mark, coach with the same passion he taught him as he grew up.
It was a shock, a punch in the gut, a moment in time that was so, so hard to deal with when I heard the news Saturday morning from Rob Andrulis, a longtime friend and coach for the Cowboys.
What I also knew, from knowing the Fowler boys (Dennis, Mark and Jeff), was that the young men left behind by their father's passing would figure out a way to say goodbye in a proper way.
This would be their toughest challenge. Harder than any game they played or coached at any time. But I knew they would pull it off.
After a wake Tuesday night that sent lines all the way to heaven and back, it was time to say farewell at a service held at a packed St. Casimir Church in Plymouth, a place Mr. Fowler loved.
They say a measure of a man is in the friends he leaves behind and in the influence he has had on them. In that case, Mr. Fowler stood as a giant beyond measure to the thousands of lives he impacted throughout his years as an educator.
After most of the mass was over, the boys, Mark first, Dennis next and then Jeff, put on their best game faces and honored their father.
Mark spoke eloquently about how the brothers struggled Sunday to come up with a eulogy fit for their father. Here are parts of that eulogy ...
“As the night came to a close and our friends and families made their way back to their homes with tears in their eyes,” Mark Fowler said. “My brothers and I gathered with my mom to think of a way we would like to remember dad.”
“Dad would want you guys to do the eulogy,” their mother, Joan said. Joan and Phillip had been married a remarkable 47 years and were inseparable.
“We set out to put pen to paper that night and pay the ultimate tribute to our dad,” Mark Fowler said. “And as we looked at old pictures and reminisced, not a word was written. We laughed and mostly cried. As the evening came to a close, all of our pages were blank. We would have to try again tomorrow.”
Sometimes you just need a little help from a voice that had spoken to you countless times during a time of struggle and once again, Phillip Fowler was there for his son, Mark.
“It was early the next morning, the sun was not quite up when I wrestled in my bed and a thought popped in my head about what we could say in the speech about my dad and I thought, `That’s great. I’ll have to remember that,''' Mark Fowler said. “As I tried to settle back to sleep, more and more words came to my mind, so many that I needed to write them down. Someone had taught me that if you want to remember something the best way is to write it down. So I reached for my phone near the bed. And I noticed the time. It was 5:18. Today’s date, my dad’s birthday. I began to write those thoughts down and from there, word after word, sentence after sentence flowed as if a gentle voice was whispering them in my ear.”
His father, who would have been 69 years old on this day, had once again been there for Mark as he struggled. Nothing new there. He was always there when his family needed him.
From there, Dennis spoke in glowing terms of how his father had always been there for him as well, be it putting up cones in the driveway one spring so the future star on the hardwood could work on getting his left hand better. Or to simply being a positive force that guided him along every day of his life.
Jeff reminded the gathering that, first and foremost, the Fowler family did things together. Always.
Dinners at the table every night. Vacations throughout the region together. Even in retirement, Mr. Fowler made sure he kept in constant contact with his boys when he settled in Florida three years ago.
Pictures and memories flowed on social media, allowing those whose lives were made better and brighter because of this man to send messages of love and support to the family.
The mantle that Mr. Phillip Fowler built for his family and for his community is deeply rooted in a foundation that will never crack or leak.
It’s up to the boys now. Jeff, Dennis and Mark will be tasked with carrying forward the legacy their father left behind.
If you have ever had the privilege of knowing any of these gentlemen over time, though, you know the lessons Philip Fowler taught his sons have already been in play for decades.
These are men who have had and continue to have positive influences on the people fortunate enough to cross their paths every moment of every day. These guys know just one way. They know how to win in the game we call life.
An expression once said by, of all characters, Winnie the Pooh, summed up how so many of us felt knowing Mr. Phillip Fowler.
“How lucky are we … to have something that made saying goodbye so hard.”