A champion gone too soon…Phil Lopez

Written by: Sun Staff / Staff Writer

04/02/2013

IN YOUR FACE- Phil Lopez, the widely admired professor and union activist died unexpectedly in December.
Photo credit: Serina Duarte/Staff

Condensing Phil into 250 words is difficult, but so was he. He heartily embraced the role of curmudgeon, yelling out the car window at slow moving pedestrians or moaning loudly when gas bags droned on and on and on at meetings. That last bit will always be my favorite. I was a terrible audience for Phil because I loved it when he moaned or rolled his eyes, saying “Geez,” right in front of the perceived offender. How many times did he toss out an insulting metaphor or simile in a meeting? Not enough times for me. So he was a real PITA, but he was also generous to a fault and a true crusader who spent enormous chunks of his life helping others. He always opened his house for anyone who wanted to hold a party or a rally or a meeting. Here’s a cliché come to life: I told him once I really liked this one shirt he had on, and he asked me what size I wore, and started to take it off. He was going to give me the shirt off his back! The night he died, he called me to tell me a funny story and see how I was recovering from some complicated health BS, but I was napping, so I missed the call. I still have the voicemail where he promises to call later. It breaks my heart that he’ll never keep that promise.

-Andrew C. Rempt

Phil didn’t talk a lot about teaching, not because it wasn’t important to him, but because I think he felt his role was more to keep us informed about what was going on at the college, in the New Yorker, and on the basketball court. He wasn’t one of those professors who felt it was their job to tell everyone else how to teach. Even if he thought we all didn’t read enough, he respected and trusted our philosophies of instruction. We all knew that students were the most important thing.

The observant, however, could not help but pick up bits and pieces of his wisdom. Early each semester, sign-in sheets—one for each class he was teaching–would appear on his office door. Mistaking the lists for a student conferencing schedule, at first I thought Phil was being very conscientious to be meeting with students the first two weeks of classes. His purpose was actually simpler and more direct: he wanted his students to know where his office was so that they could find him.  And they did—throughout the semester, a steady stream of students came into the 400 building to see Mr. Lopez. If Phil wasn’t around, we could always assure the student he would be soon because his door was open and the light was on.

The 400 building was our water cooler, and Phil could often be found sitting in the area right outside my office that we unceremoniously call The Chairs. Invariably, if a student came by, waiting nervously for an instructor to arrive for office hours, Phil would invite the student to sit. “This area is for you, too,” he would say.

I got to know Phil best as a teacher after he passed. On the last day of finals, Dean Joel Levine and I huddled over dozens of portfolios, working out how to grade Phil’s classes. The process entailed reading several pieces of writing from each student, along with Phil’s remarks. It was a wonderful glimpse into his approach: In person, Phil often gruffly complained about how his students (like his colleagues) didn’t read. In the margins of these papers, though, he read their work, responded, supported and cajoled them. Through multiple revisions, he pushed them to do their best, and when he felt they’d achieved it, he would write, “Done!” at the top of their papers.

In return, his students were inspired. It was difficult to read their final reflections, composed prior to Phil’s death. Student after student expressed gratitude for Phil’s help, for how much they had learned, for what the class meant to them. One student wrote, “Thanks to you, Mr. Phil, I might be the first person in my family to make something of themselves.”

-Leslie Yoder

Phil was a fighter. He enjoyed being in a conflict, but not just any conflict. He liked to fight for the little guy. Protecting those who were unable to protect themselves was his passion. He had been an adjunct professor for many years and knew the plight of those “freeway flyers.” He knew that they had few rights and little power, so he became their champion. The Vested Adjunct Policy, and later contract language, came in lion’s share from him.

But he didn’t stop there. He felt a kinship with all the staff, administrators and faculty on campus. He had been here for decades and SWC was his home. We were his family. He did not hesitate to step forward when anyone on campus was treated unfairly. He had a true sense of justice, and little patience for those who didn’t. He would sit out in the campus courtyard smoking his cigarette between classes or meetings. Students, staff and faculty would often wander by and ask advice. He would offer both practical and philosophical observations, and I never tired of either.

Sometimes I would wander to his smoky corner even when I had no questions on contracts or justice. He was just a pleasure to listen to as he was extremely well read. He could offer wonderful insights into areas from linguistics to astronomy, from social science to religion. I feel that over the last decade, I learned more from Phil than I did in college or in law school.

The students have lost a great teacher. We have lost a great champion.

-Rob Unger

The writerly Phil Lopez: he had arty friends—LeRoy, Michael, me, a couple painters; Hemingway, Huck Finn, the Dylans, Bob and Thomas, Yeats, Neruda, his son, Nick.  The guy read with hunger and laughter and could write lightning (I say this about you, Phil, because I like the sound…and hold it to be true).

A year ago he smiled in my direction, “Can you believe we’re going to be 64, like in “When I’m Sixty-Four”?  and so now for Phil, forever.  And the Roman à clef novel he intended to pen, maybe Southwestern Confidential, will not be, forever.  The educator and the music man and the SCEA Prime Mover, dexterous and red shoes and forthright, but my nod and image and embrace toward him is this: writerPhilwriter.

-Jane Tassi

Phil Lopez, like Senator Hubert Humphrey years ago, was a happy warrior. He was Don Quixote in a Hawaiian shirt, battling against injustices and rescuing damsels (and gentlemen) in distress. Phil had a better won-lost record than Señor Quixote, however, and took on real beasts like inequality and repression of free speech instead of windmills. Phil’s targets hit back, but he never flinched.

Phil was a chain-smoking, Shakespeare-quoting man-about-campus who seemed to always be nearby. He was genuinely interested in what everyone was doing and loved to chat about what was up. He was the rare person who always made you the subject of the conversation and inevitably made you feel valued, talented and relevant.

Journalism students on this campus owe Phil a tremendous debt of gratitude for his unwavering support of their First Amendment rights and his ferocious defense of The Sun when a previous administration attempted to silence the student newspaper. He immediately mobilized political support, funding sources and community awareness. He also provided much appreciated encouragement with his impromptu pep talks to students (and their advisor) during their darkest hour. It is easy to stand next to a buddy who just won an Oscar, but it is a true friend who will stand next to you when bullets are flying. Phil took bullets for many of us over the years and by doing so saved people’s jobs, improved his colleagues’ quality of life and showed us the true meaning of service leadership.

-Max Branscomb

Beatles or Stones?
Phil used to say that the answer to that question, for anyone growing up in the sixties, told you all you needed to know about someone’s politics, their worldview. The Beatles were: “All you Need is Love,” “Let it Be,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The Stones were: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Under My Thumb.”

Phil started college in 1965 (USC). Malcolm X had been assassinated that February. Watts went up in flames in August. The country was deeply divided over civil rights and the draft hung over everyone’s heads. Hippie culture was still on the cusp of the national scene (the Summer of Love was still two years away), but even back then, Phil would’ve rejected the whole peace and meditation vibe. He believed in confrontation and political struggle. He was a Stones guy.

I must’ve played music with Phil (and others) more than 100 times at the big yellow house on 2nd Avenue. It has beautiful oak floors and the acoustics are just awesome. If you had on a good pair of boots you could really get a good stomp to go along with the 12-bar blues we would play. That was his thing: The blues. He couldn’t really riff to country, folk or even to norteño music, which he loved. Phil played the blues and he could really fly on the keyboard, accordion or the piano. We had about 20 or 30 songs in our limited repertoire: Bonnie Rait’s, “Sweet and Shining Eyes,” T- Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” and even The Band’s “The Weight.” But some songs were de rigueur: the Stone’s, “Love in Vain,” “No Expectation,” or the one we’d almost always close with when we had enough beer in us to knock it dead: “Wild Horses.”

Some nights we sounded pretty good, but it was really a private thing. In 10 years we probably never played for any more than a dozen people or so. It was just a living room band, but man did we have some fun. I can still see him sitting at the keyboard fingers flying over the keys. He was most at ease playing music. The confrontational, cranky Phil was gone. He was happy and generous, praising you beyond your abilities. Just thankful you broke away to visit him, thankful to be giving in to the Friday night muse.
Nos vemos Viejo!

-Alejandro Orozco