On December 19, 2012, my friend and former Ranch neighbor Phil Schneider passed into spirit at the illustrious age of 93. Today I am heading to the Coast to attend a celebration of Phil’s life at The Woods, a senior community where Phil lived with his wife Nancy.
I met Phil and Nancy during our second week at the Ranch when they brought us a home-baked peach pie to welcome us to the “neighborhood.” Either Ron was in the shower when they came by and I was driving Yael to the bus stop for school, or it was the other way around (Ron driving, I showering); but whichever way it happened, it was left to 4-year-old Akili and our newly acquired 2-year-old Australian Shepherd Juno to greet Phil and Nancy, who petted the dog, conversed with the child, and went back to their home across the road from ours. I met them in person when I returned the pie pan a few days later. They lived in a beautiful house they had built themselves on top of a high hill (with gorgeous view), surrounded by Nancy’s gardens and fruit trees. Aging lifelong Lefties, they instantly became our most cherished neighbors at the Ranch.
After we had been at the Ranch for a few weeks, and before Sudi was born (October 1991), we hosted a camp-out weekend for our friends from the Bay Area. That first camp-out evolved into our annual Labor Day bash, which we started the following year and have held ever since. Phil and Nancy came to our house for the Saturday night barbecue. While sitting next to me on our deck that evening, Phil said something like “This is exactly what this property was made for—this kind of gathering. Beautiful children. Families coming together. Delicious food. Music. Lots of laughs. And all beneath the gaze of these tall, tall trees.” The previous owner of our property had been rather reclusive. Phil loved the fact that we opened our home and our land often for others to enjoy its beauty. He and Nancy did the same with their place.
Phil was tickled when I gave birth to Sudi at home, and he referred to Sudi as a genuine Ranch native. He and Nancy (who is a former schoolteacher) enjoyed our children, who viewed them as a spare set of grandparents. One year, after we took the children trick-or-treating in nearby Hopland, we drove up to Phil and Nancy’s before returning home so that the children could show them their costumes. I had called Phil and Nancy that afternoon to give them a heads up that we would be paying them a Halloween visit. Upon arrival we discovered that they had baked an apple pie for us. They served it up (still warm) with scoops of ice cream on top for the children, while the candy bags stood idly by the door. Phil had a wedge of sharp cheddar with his pie and it looked so tasty that Ron and I followed suit, going for the cheddar instead of ice cream. How old-fashioned, how British, how Phil. He surrounded himself with the simple things that made life good: good food, good wine, good people, good conversation.
I wish I could remember the many things that Phil said (with that characteristic twinkle) that made me laugh. Here is one I can recall off the top of my head. I was talking with Nancy about cookbooks one time and I said, “You know, Joy of Cooking has recipes for everything in it. I even noticed a recipe in there for cooking opossum!” Phil interjected something like “Nancy and I wouldn’t have much use for that recipe – we try to avoid opossum as a rule.”
Phil was sensible and knowledgeable. He knew how to do everything. He was resourceful, well-read, and a deep thinker. He had incredible tales to tell. He served in the military in World War II. He chose to raise his three children close to nature, as we did ours. During his working years (he was already in his 70s by the time our lives intersected) he was an educator. He served as the assistant superintendent of schools in San Jose and the superintendent of schools in Novato. He was the superintendent of schools in Marin during the 1960s when the schools were integrated. Phil rode, with a shotgun across his lap, on the school buses transporting black children to formerly all-white schools, to personally protect them from harm. Nancy says he was friendly with the Black Panthers, which does not surprise me. I have always thought of Phil as a warrior for peace, justice, and equal rights. He had such a tremendous respect for all people. Phil proved himself to be more than a friend to us, he was also an ally on whom we could depend when racism reared its ugly head.
Perhaps the thing I admire most about Phil is his inquisitive mind. He was an educator to the core and with that came his lifelong love of learning. For all his years he remained genuinely interested in the perceptions, beliefs, and thinking of others. He was always at-the-ready to glean some valuable insight from another person.
I shouldn’t complain about losing a friend who lived to be 93 in reasonably good health; someone who made good use of his time, made a contribution, knew how to enjoy himself and to be productive; someone blessed with a wife he loved dearly; a man who was mentally alert and active right up until the end. But nothing will change the fact that I’m sad that he’s gone and I’m going to miss him. So I will pour a libation for you Phil: well-played.