Opinion

Phail, you taught by your example and made Durham better for all of us

Former Durham mayor Bill Bell remembers the legacy of Phail Wynn

Former Durham mayor Bill Bell spoke at the funeral of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., former Duke vice president and Durham Tech president, on Monday, July 30, 2018 at Duke Chapel.
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Former Durham mayor Bill Bell spoke at the funeral of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr., former Duke vice president and Durham Tech president, on Monday, July 30, 2018 at Duke Chapel.

Phail, this was supposed to be something that would be a tribute you would read and enjoy, not a memorial piece. You left us so soon and unexpectedly, but I wanted to write this to you anyway.

We knew each other for over 35 years, in a lot of settings – first the Durham Tech Foundation, then when you chaired the Durham Daycare Council board, then when you were chair of the Chamber, then when you headed up two Durham County bond referendum committees and then at Duke.

I followed you in all those efforts and learned so much about personal leadership – and leading by example.

I remember you telling me the story about when you were the platoon leader of a bunch of white country boys in Vietnam and you were concerned about how you would connect with them. Then you heard them singing some country and western songs and you joined them, surprising them by singing every verse — and winning them over in the process. That was just like you, your heart and experience connecting and leading others in important assignments.

You had more advanced degrees and board positions than anyone I know. And yet, you always found a way to communicate with everyone in an empathetic way that made us feel you were talking to us as fellow citizens.

We talked a lot about Oklahoma football, since we were the only two Okies we knew around here. I was impressed with the fact that you played quarterback for the Sooners for a while — somewhat rare for that time. But that was also something you did often, just like at Durham Tech, blazing a trail for others to follow.

You had a real heart for young children and families and getting them ready to be successful in school and life. This work still remains for us in Durham, but you gave us leadership, energy and inspiration to continue the work … not only helping us to work harder, but smarter. Your vision of us doing a better job of recruiting those families early, whose children we needed to reach is something we need to continue to focus on.

Your wife, Peggy, and your son, Rahsaan, were the light of your life, and you spoke of them often. (And to Peggy and Rahsaan, thank you so much for sharing your husband and dad with us … Durham is a much better place because of him, and you both). Phail, the way you cared for your elderly mom was an inspiration for all of us with elderly parents.

I feel like I speak for a lot of folks in Durham who got to know and work with you when I say we will miss you and are still in a state of shock that you’re not with us in body. But you will always be with me and many others in spirit, for your love of Durham and your great work to help us reach our potential lives on.

In the words of one of your favorites, Duke Ellington, which you quoted to us often, I love you madly,

Your friend Steve

Steve Toler served as past chairs of the Durham Daycare Council, the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, the RDU International Airport Authority and the Duke-Durham Campaign and the 2003 and 2007 Durham County Bond Referendums and the 2011 Education Sales Tax Referendum.
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