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Phail made Duke and Durham a winner

I was an obituary writer for the Atlanta Constitution newspaper when Lewis Grizzard was a famous columnist there.

My desk sat right outside his office.

Near the end of his too-short life - he died at 47 - he wrote a column stating that "no matter how important you think you are, the number of people who show up at your funeral will be determined by the weather."

Fiddle faddle.

Phail Wynn Jr.'s funeral service at Duke Chapel was held on a rainy day and a Monday, yet the magnificent edifice was packed.

"The chapel," the Rev. Dr. Sam R. Miglarese told the family from the pulpit, "is filled to overflowing with those... who share your grief."

Miglarese, assistant vice president in the Duke office of Durham Affairs and associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Durham, could have also noted that we were there to honor how much Phail meant to Durham Tech, the city of Durham and to Duke University.

People whose names resonate throughout the halls of power sat next to people whose names may not even resonate within their own homes - if, that is, they have homes.

Such were the people whose lives were touched by Wynn during his tenure as president of Durham Tech and later as Duke's first vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs.

Wynn, 70, died July 24.

Sure, the service was, as Wynn's medal-beribboned son, Rahsaan, said, "a celebration" of Wynn's life, but "grief" was also the appropriate word and emotion.

How could there not be grief when you realize that Wynn, who'd given so much to the city, the university, the community and the country, would never get to enjoy his oft-delayed-but-finally-here retirement?

Rahsaan Wynn, Master Gunnery Sgt. in the U.S. Marine Corps, spoke of how his father and he had planned to ride Harleys together after his retirement. They never got the chance, because Wynn died less than a month after clearing the last box from his Duke office.

"Stop planning that vacation and go on it," Wynn urged the hundreds gathered for his father's service.

If you've got children, "go home and hug them... If you don't have children," your spouse and you should go home and make some, he instructed to much laughter.

The John Brown Quintet played some of Wynn's favorite tunes, marking, perhaps, the first time jazz had been played in the gothic chapel.

Duke Chapel was not defiled by the jazz music, though: it was elevated by it.

Newcomers to the Triangle might have a hard time realizing there was a time when town vs. gown wariness between the city and university threatened the fruitful existence of both, when the leadership of Duke and Durham did not view their fates as being inextricably connected, when each thought it could thrive independent of the other.

Through the work of people such as Wynn, Duke's president emeritus Richard Brodhead, his predecessor Nan Keohane and former Durham Mayor Bill Bell, the university and the city embraced the reality that their destinies were not only bound, but that they were brighter together.

Brodhead, who confessed to offering Wynn the position at Duke soon after he retired - ha ha - from Durham Tech, put it best during his remarks at the funeral: "The one thing this good man was not good at," he said, "was retirement."

One thing this good man was great at, in life and death, was bringing people together. He was, as one speaker said, a bridge-builder.

My hope is that Phail is somewhere on a looooong bridge popping a wheelie on a heavenly Harley.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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