As we approach the end of our first year of these Humans postings, I’ve opted to take the week off (go ahead, fire me!) – and will accept the kind offer of past Human Robert Garfinkle to profile yours truly as “Human of the Week.” We met recently at a local Dunn Bros. coffee, and the photo was taken at Minnehaha Falls. (Phil)
Phil and Renae have been married for over 30 years, and have two young adult children, Natalie and Joey. They both contribute in numerous ways to the Mount Zion community, and have for many years. As you’ll read below, Phil volunteers a great deal of time and energy to both the broader Twin Cities community, through his pro bono legal work, and the Mount Zion and Jewish community. That includes, of course, doing these “Humans of Mount Zion” biographies. I thought it would be fun to turn the tables on Phil and have him tell his story, so here it is. I found out that it takes a huge amount of time to put one of these together…and Phil does one of these per week. I’m in awe. It was an object lesson in just how dedicated Phil is to family, community, and Judaism—more on that later, as well. Here’s Phil. (Robert)
So, who are you, anyway?
I’m Phil! I’m going to make it tough on you; you’re going to have to work for this. I’m afraid this is going to be like a deposition.
That’s right. Only answer the questions you’re asked.
Right, right, don’t anticipate. Don’t offer.
Okay. Tell us about your family, where you grew up.
I grew up in Milwaukee, my folks still live there, in their late 80s, but doing as well as can be expected I think. I’ve got an older sister who’s living with her family in Milwaukee, and they bear the brunt of being there, in terms of helping our folks through things; and I have a younger sister who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband.
What was your childhood like?
It was actually a wonderful childhood, knock on wood. We were part of the west side Jewish contingent. I began at the local elementary school, but after the 4th grade, we were tested and I was one of those selected to be in an accelerated program with new kids at a different school. I remember that part of that process included meeting with a school psychologist, and my mother told me “if they ask how you get along with your sisters, tell them ‘fine.’” And they ended up asking me that exact question, and I proudly told them “fine.” It must have worked. And I’ve been telling people that ever since.
Tell me about your parents.
My dad was an accountant. He started out doing a lot of different things; I’m helping him finalize his memoir right now, actually. He started out as a ditch digger, I guess you’d call it, for the City of Milwaukee park system. That evolved into going to evening school in accounting, then working in the Comptroller’s office and eventually the Treasurer’s office–he spent his entire career moving up the ranks in the City of Milwaukee. Wow, that was a pretty quick synopsis of his 130 page memoir. I might have missed something.
My mom had various jobs, through her early years, but mostly stayed at home as a mom; she didn’t go on to college, though she was very talented, quick witted. She had a starring role in a musical; I think she was valedictorian of her class. I suppose it was not the norm in her world at that time to go to college or work outside the home. Though one job I remember she had was as a census taker. I remember she would get on an airplane and come up here, of all places, for training. I thought it was pretty exotic to go to St Paul.
What brought you to the Twin Cities?
To make a long story short, I came up here to try to get into veterinary school. I had gotten my undergrad degree in Madison, and I had always thought I wanted to become a veterinarian. But since Wisconsin didn’t have a vet school at the time, my only chance was to get into one of the few spots they kept open for non-residents at the University of Minnesota, which I tried to get into for a year or two. But when I didn’t get in, I went on for a Master’s degree in Colorado, and then I was in a doctoral program back in Madison for a while, before I moved up here to give vet school one last try, by becoming a resident of the state. So for a few years I worked in research at the Minneapolis VA while I applied to vet school, which is where I met Renae. I was first or second on the waiting list for a couple of those years, and actually deferred entry into law school for one year thinking I would get in. And the year I actually did begin law school, I didn’t even buy my books at first, still thinking I would finally get in.
Wow, what a story. What happened next?
I tell folks that my main goal by then was just to get out and sue the vet school. I figured I’d rather spend three or four years of my life getting a law degree, than have to hire a lawyer.
But as it turns out, I like to say that vet school was the best thing that never happened for me – even the year I deferred, ended up for the better. During my first semester in law school, all the first year students who had a technical background got a letter from 3M looking for someone to clerk in their patent group. I responded, interviewed, and got the job. So within about three months of starting law school I had left the VA and I was working full time days at 3M while going to law school nights, and everything just kind of fell into place from there. That job probably wouldn’t have happened had I started one year before.
But you never had a chance to sue the vet school?
No, I think the statute of limitations has lapsed, but I’ve been meaning to check.
You met Renae at the VA?
Yes; we were both working there–she’s got a great story to tell, I couldn’t do it justice, but basically, I think it was during her first week on the job that she found her car had a flat tire in the parking lot – it was a big, old Chrysler hand-me-down from her father. So she came back into the building late that afternoon and tried to find somebody she knew, who might be able to help. She had just met me the day before (this is where her story kicks in), and so I was it. And I told her I would change her tire if she would buy me lunch someday – I’ll do almost anything for lunch. And so we went to lunch at the Best Steak House and that’s kind of how that started. Over gyros.
Tell me about your Jewish life growing up.
I mostly hung out with Jewish kids and being from a conservative synagogue, AZA and BBG were big – they are part of the BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization) – so that was pretty much all I knew. I was active in AZA – flag football each Sunday, editor of our chapter’s newsletter, and I was a “Beau” one year. We would have a city wide “Beau Dance” where every BBG chapter would pick a guy to be their Beau, and they would parade them through a prom-like thing.
Did they dress you up?
In a tux! I have this picture of me in a tux – baby blue, no collar, I think that was a Beatles style at the time. But they didn’t dress me up, I did it myself! So I never went to a homecoming or a prom in high school, but I went to the BBG’s Beau dances, and AZA had Sweetheart dances. Things like that every year, and they were big events.
Did you get involved in the temple here when you came to Minnesota?
We did that when Renae and I started to get serious, and we began to look around.
Before that, I kind of dropped off the temple scene, I was focused more on school and careers and girls and everything else. When I got up here I tried the Jewish dating service, but I’m not sure that ever got very far. I remember being on the phone with the woman that organized it, and I think I still have some notes of people I was supposed to call. I always meant to look those girls up and see where they are now. I’m sure that they all did better without me.
So, when Renae and I started to look around, we talked to Rabbi Lerner. Basically this was our first contact, and we never looked anywhere else. I do remember two things from our earliest years – very early on, we performed in the musical “Katz!” that the temple put on one year. I still have the VHS tape of that somewhere. It was quite the production. And also back then, the temple had a program where they would “link” new members with current members, and we were fortunate to be linked with Steve and Gail Brand – and they have been our “linkees” ever since – for well over 30 years!
Tell me about your work, your law practice.
As I said, I kind of fell into patent law. I didn’t know anything about patents when I first got to law school. But ironically, I had dabbled at stand-up and improv comedy in those years I was at the VA, and one year made it onto the Dudley Riggs touring cast. And the winter before I started law school, we did a show for the state’s patent law association – which years later, I actually became president of.
But at the time, a couple of patent attorneys came down to Dudley Riggs and we sat around the stage as they tossed ideas at us, used their vernacular, told us some inside jokes, so we could make it look like we actually knew what we were talking about it during the show. So within a year I went from doing improv comedy about patents, to actually practicing patent law. My first exposure to patents was that improv show.
And as I said, 3M just fell into place, and it was just perfect; the single best thing that has happened professionally. Then I moved to my current firm well over 20 years ago, and have been doing similar things since.
When did you get started with comedy?
It was just a way to spend time actually, during those few years that I was biding my time, trying to get into vet school. But that time period coincided with the start of comedy in the Twin Cities. Micky Finn’s was basically the first comedy club here in town, and I went over and started to watch, and on open mike nights I started to get up and do little things. I never considered doing it professionally though, since I knew I would have had to move to one coast or the other.
To this day, I still keep notes about stuff I hear or think about, and I try to package that up and get it out there somewhere. Almost every place I worked I’ve ended up becoming a kind of de facto MC (master of ceremonies) of whatever event they have. So now I get my fix doing the firm’s Employee Appreciation event once a year. Or, sometimes I like to do bits at Temple with Steve Silverman, something like that. He’s a great straight man, though I still let him think that’s my role.
What did you like about being Temple president?
Well I like the fact that there were no major catastrophes those two years! But most of all, my tenure included our Sesquicentennial, which was an amazing year all around. And it was very interesting to see the inner workings of a synagogue. Aspects that we don’t see at services or events. I’ve been involved in other groups or organizations, and have seen other synagogues – and I realize now all the more that Mount Zion is kind of the gold standard – in terms of just how good we have it.
What is your pro bono work I read about in your bio on your company website? It seems like another big way you contribute.
A lot of what I have always done is pro bono work. One thing currently is with the Minnesota Jewish Theatre. We’ve been big fans of the theater for a long time. I figured out with Barbara Brooks, the executive director, that we might be able to provide CLE (continuing legal education) credit to lawyers who attend the shows, by providing post-show conversations on topics that might qualify for credits in what they call “ethics” or “elimination of bias.” And so I’ve been doing that for the last few years.
And you have done other pro bono work?
I was Volunteer of the Year for the Metropolitan Economic Development Association one year! It was for work that I did with a fellow from Mexico who had come up with a novel system for growing papaya. So I helped him patent that, and he has recently made some progress in trying to have it commercialized.
So, in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway: What’s your six-word biography?
I don’t know about that; what’s that?
Hemingway was once challenged to tell the shortest story he could, and he did it in six words. Someone picked it up and it became a big thing on the web a few years ago—a challenge for people to tell brief stories.
I like that, I’ll have to look that up. Okay… well, certain words that come to mind would be family, community, and Jewish – but how do you tie those together in a sentence? I suppose you could just double that, and maybe add a verb. I mean it really does all revolve around that for me, because it seems that everything I do ends up trying to promote and integrate those things. For instance, you know I’m always taking photos at Temple and in life, in part because I like seeing that my photos help out the [Mount Zion] bulletin. And each year I take photos of the guests who stay at Mount Zion when we have the overflow shelter in June. I give the families pictures of themselves. It feels especially cool when I can do that on Father’s Day weekend. One of those pictures made the cover of the Interfaith Action (formerly St. Paul Area Council of Churches) publication a year or two back. So to me, all this sort of integrates with each other.
What’s your favorite food?
Good question! Renae says you were interested in the pickled tongue I make. I have another tongue pickling right now, because you literally cannot get it here. I make it a few times a year. And kreplach—I made a rib roast this week, and I’m going to make the leftovers into kreplach. Probably kreplach would be my favorite. My mom used to make beef lung, and tongue – and my favorite food as a kid was deli-type food, though looking back that might have been because there was likely a family event going on. Renae and I were just in New York for four days, while I went to a one day CLE, and during that time we had deli three times, and saw three Broadway shows. And I had tongue at all three delis – though mine is better, actually.
So let’s wrap up with this question – what were the origins of this Humans series, what led you to do this?
I have thought about that, and it probably stems from a couple things, actually. First, I don’t know if you remember a series of “conversations” with members that the Temple took on about a decade or more ago. There were maybe 20 or 30 people on the committee, and we divvied up the congregation to go out and have us do as many one-on-one conversations as we could. Just to learn about folks, and their interests. I remember at first thinking that it seemed a bit hokey, but I thoroughly enjoyed the 8 or 10 conversations that I had with people. In fact, I made several new friends, and I think I still have all my notes. Ever since then I’ve been trying to think of ways to re-create that sort of vibe, and after a few iterations, we came up with this series.
Also, this particular approach takes me back to my school days as the John Marshall “Eagles” in Milwaukee. The school paper printed a series called “Eagles Under the Eye,” which would focus on a different boy and girl from the high school each week, together with a series on junior high kids called “Eaglets Under the Eye” – and one week my classmate Linda and I were the Eaglets Under the Eye. I remember thinking how nice it felt to be seen in that way, and I still have a copy of that after all those years. So in one way, I hope things like these Humans postings, and the snapshots that Batya has been writing for Board members, might provide folks with a similar sort of feeling. And now I’ve come full circle – I’m no longer an Eaglet. I’m a Human of Mount Zion.