The Gentle Giant Who Made You Laugh
Posted by Allan but actually written By -- Ted Kushner, with thanks to Steve Sakson.
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There are many ways to describe Phil O'Reilly: jokester, comic, bike ride leader, volunteer, beloved husband and dad and brother – and one of the most decent persons to have ever graced this planet - a gentle giant of a soul who never let the nonsense of this crazy world get him down.
Phil was really the original “Teflon” man – nothing ever stuck to him. Politics and taxes? Religious fervor and unabombers? Speed demon bikers with overloaded panniers or outrageous designer spandex? Phil's genius was to knock us all down from our serious pegs and to remind us to enjoy our lives – that nothing, in fact, is sacred. With his unassuming, sotto voce tone, Phil loved to sidle up to friends – and strangers alike – and spring a joke or tell a tale, not just to make them laugh, but also to see their reactions to his “wiseguy” persona. Yes, he loved to make us all feel uncomfortable at times, but he also helped us make sure we never took ourselves too seriously, while reminding us we were just as capable as being nutty as he! Phil's true gift was to make the people he loved and the people who loved him feel special. He was a guy you just loved to have around.
Many of us in the Five Boro Bike Club knew and loved Phil for well over three decades, beginning mid to late 1980's, during the days of our predecessor organization, the Bicycle Committee of the NYC Metropolitan Council of American Youth Hostels (AYH). Phil said he had known about AYH for many years and one day “wandered” into a Five Boro Bike Tour meeting where he met Paul Sullivan, then the Tour director, who immediately put Phil to work. His motivation wasn't all charitable, as he later reported to me. For Phil quickly noticed some of the female bikers, and poking me in the ribs, said “I thought to myself this might be a good thing, ya know Kush? Of course it all depends on the woman”, he said, giving me that trademark soft grin and sideways look. Little did he know how well it would work out.
When the NYC Council went kaput around 1990, several people on the Bicycle Committee decided it would be very worthwhile to form a stand-alone biking club – and it was Phil who went around to others in his gentle, stream-of-conscious, persuasive way of his asking if we would donate some money to get it started. “Ya know, Kush, this biking thing, we have a pretty good thing going, and it would be a shame if we lost it, so we're looking for what they call seed money. I always thought seeds were in oranges, or those grapefruits that you always get for breakfast but you never see anyone eating them, you know what I mean Kush? So we're asking the core people from the Committee – Sully, Lenny, you - you know, those guys - to chip in, whatever you wanna give. We'll use it to fund a newsletter and get the word out.” From those humble beginnings, the 5BBC was born. Phil served for three years as our President, and we even somewhat facetiously named the term limit portion of the Club bylaws after him and called it the “O'Reilly rule”. Phil later served as our Weekend Trips Coordinator, where he helped kick off, with a bottle of champagne, the first (and very successful) week-long trip in Club history, a trip to Vermont led by Bipin Batra and Steve Levy. History does not record whether Phil & company consumed the contents, or if the bottle was smashed, ocean liner style, but we can presum the answer is yes on both accounts.
Somewhere in there, Phil met Lerida, or maybe it was the other way around. “Ya know Kush, we were at AYH, on Spring Street, after one of those meetings, and I'm sitting there minding my own business when all of a sudden the old lady comes running over and jumps on my lap. Well I thought to myself this might become interesting, and the next thing I know, we're walking down the aisle in the church”. Alfredo Garcia wrote in our September 2007 newsletter that Phil described the incident as “being attacked”. He always called Lerida “the old lady” as a term of endearment.
When Dylan arrived in May 1990, Phil was probably the most astounded person around. He'd say something like, “Ya know Kush, this wasn't in the script, ya know what I mean? I'm in my fortiesnow. Who woulda thought I would have a kid now.” Then he would give that mirthful look and say something like “I told the old lady either the stork went to the wrong door, or I would have to look around for a church with steps. You know, wrap the kid in blankets and stuff. But then the pots and pans started flying so I became the world's oldest father”. Still. with all the jokes, one thing was clear: Phil absolutely loved his family and was extremely proud of them.
Many of us used to kid Phil about his prowess on a bicycle, for it is legendary among his large circle of friends that he was one of the slowest riders around. Phil would run a 15 mile ride in Queens beginning at 9 am, and finish at 3, and there was always a stop somewhere at a pub or restaurant for a long lunch. For Phil, the biking wasn't about the biking or the exercise, but rather about the socializing - the chance for people to get together for a common interest. Of course, it also meant a new chance for Phil to try out new “material” or to poke his gentle fun at the newbies. “What ya got there, a bike with 3 gears? I once read Abraham Lincoln used those in the last Civil War fight. He would have asked me to train the soldiers, but I wasn't born until a few years later”. Phil took plenty of ribbing for his habit of wearing brown socks on bike rides, but he was able to laugh at himself about it as well. When email came along, he even declared himself “brownsocksphil”.
Phil was also an integral and calming force at a difficult time in the Club's history when the 5BBC was in danger of implosion. Disagreements over club operations prompted a few Board members to resign, and as the year progressed, Phil was the target of some unfortunate mudslinging, including false allegations of malfeasance. But Phil to his courage and credit stuck it out. When it was time for elections, he once again quietly contacted a cadre of old friends and urged them to vote for a proposed slate of candidates that he thought would restore some dignity to the Club. That slate was elected handily – and once again Phil had saved the “good thing”.
Phil was born on April 21, 1946, just a few months after the end of World War II, when Truman was President. That made him draft-age during the Vietnam era, where he served in the US Air Force, became a sergeant, and served in Nam in 1968. But Phil never talked about his military service; he much preferred the people over the accolades.
One of his greatest commitments to volunteering was for the 5 Boro Bike Tour. For many years he was posted at the Queens side of the 59th St Bridge, where he could direct bike traffic, or as he sometimes said, “mix them up a bit”. Phil also rode in, and volunteered for, the Club's Montauk Century many times, and in recent years, for the 8-day Cycling The Erie Canal ride (sometimes known as the “NYRATS” event), and Bike Virginia.
Actually, volunteering of all kinds was in Phil’s blood, much to the delight of his fellow volunteers. When 5BBC member Steve Sakson was organizing a Habitat for Humanity trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Phil was one of the first to sign up. And with that, Steve knew it would be a successful trip, because Phil would keep everyone entertained. “The first night, our boarding-house hosts handed us three cans of red beans and a bag of rice for dinner, which we all thought was pretty cheap,” said Steve. “Of course, none of us knew that everyone else in New Orleans was partaking of the same Monday night tradition. As we began grumbling through dinner, Phil basically started his standup routine, with plenty of beans jokes and whatever else popped into his head. In a few seconds, we were all in stitches. The beans never tasted so good,” said Steve, adding, “Later, when our minders explained that no beer was allowed in the house, Phil helped lead the conspiracy to convert an old ice bucket and a wooden plank into a “coffee table,” with a secret cache of bottles down below,” said Steve.
For the past couple of years, Phil has also joined Steve and friends as a balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. “This year, all I had to do was look at Phil’s deadpan face as he modeled his all-white “Olaf the Snowman” costume, and I was nearly on the floor,” said Steve.
I have always considered Phil as one of my mentors. Whenever I had to make an “executive” decision on a bike ride – whether turn left, or stop there, ride or cancel – I always thought to myself, What would O'Reilly do? More often than not, I would find the answer. I even borrowed his trick of cooling off on hot summer days by getting ice and wrapping in a bandana for foreheads or necks. There was more than one occasion where the magician's method saved a ride and everyone went home happy.
It is utterly senseless that Phil is gone. Our Club has lost other great people – Sully, Danny Lieberman, Tod Moore, and most recently Jesse Brown to name a few. But they lost their battles against the ravages of human disease, diabetes, cancer. Phil lost his against the age old battle of man versus machine, particularly one that humankind in one of its arguably dumbest decisions created over a century ago.
If Sully was our Obi Wan Kenobi, then Phil was our Yoda: wise beyond his years, mischievous as an elf, a teacher of life. We will always keep Phil in our thoughts and our hearts. I can just see him now - he's up there with Sully, and the others and Phil is saying, “Ya know guys? We're gonna get this place organized in a few days. We'll get the angels to start biking around so they can rest their wings once in a while, and between you and me, some of them don't use deodorant, ya know what I mean? And that guy at the Gate - the one with the long beard? What's he hiding in there, a big wart? Or maybe he's got a tattoo that he doesn't want the head honcho to see”. Then Phil will look down, see us mourning for him and maybe flash his socks. Love you, Big Guy. Make us laugh, make us laugh some more.