LORDY, I hate writing obituaries.
It’s just not fair, having to find the best words to memorialize a person, especially for the ones who left this world far better than they found it, whose impact and accomplishments surpass tidy summarization, not to mention my word count.
Already Savannah has lost two of its greats in 2018, the kind of people who deserve reams dedicated to them, not just for being role models but myth busters, unafraid to get their hands dirty or slap the status quo upside the head.
Dr. Theodora “T” Lippett Gongaware loved getting her hands dirty in her garden beds and artfully arranging blooms for her beloved Christ Church, but it was in Savannah’s challenging healthcare climate that the acclaimed and orchid whisperer really got up to her elbows.
One of a handful of female graduates of the University of North Carolina Medical School at Chapel Hill class of 1968, the Savannah native practiced internal medicine at Memorial Medical Center for over 50 years, directing the hospital’s outpatient clinic and championing higher standards of care for the community’s low-income population. Passionate about treating the city’s indigent with a reputation for being a “tough cookie,” she met the epidemic rise in diabetes, heart disease and other issues associated with obesity with a commitment to educate her patients on their own power to heal.
“Especially later in life, she saw that in a broken system, we are our only advocates—for ourselves and loved ones and friends,” remembers her son, Hartford, who wrote a far more complete and elegant obituary for his mother on the Fox and Weeks website. “There are great doctors out there, but health is about self-awareness and insisting on wanting to be well.”
Dr. T also promoted justice and dignity throughout Chatham County and beyond, serving on the boards of the Savannah Renewal and Development Association and Hospice Savannah. She passed away peacefully on January 9, leaving behind Hartford, his brother Andrew Gongaware, their sister, Teddy Gongaware Martin, a bereft extended family and countless grateful patients. Donations to Christ Church or Hospice Savannah are requested in lieu of flowers.
On January 5, this community and country also lost one of its most valuable and valorous activists. I met Phillip “Philly” Meyers on the Occupy Savannah picket line way back in 2011, and from then on, every time I went out to cover anything smacking of progress and socioeconomic justice—the Bank of America protests of 2012, the sit-ins for raising the minimum wage in 2014, crowding Buddy Carter’s office on behalf of the Affordable Care Act just a a year ago—Philly was there, bullhorn in hand.
“Yo, Lebos, whaddaya writing about this week?” he’d bellow cheerfully. “You makin’ some good trouble or what?”
I’d always respond that I hoped so, but no one knew how to make the best kind of trouble like Philly.
A union man to his Brooklyn-bred bones, he helped organize his fellow workers in the press machine room at the New York Post and remained active the Labor movement long after he retired. He was lead dog of the Retirees Unite for the Future (RUFF!), helming Rick Ellison, Claudia Collier and the rest of the dedicated Ruffians as they rallied against Monsanto, gun violence and the Dakota Pipeline, and for Bernie Sanders, the Women’s March and Medicare for All. Insisting that every protest needs its visibles, Philly often paid for the buttons and banners out of his own pocket—union made, of course.
The funeral on January 10 was attended by some of Savannah’s most dedicated rabblerousers, among them educators, anarchists, veterans and Teamsters.
Many tears were shed during Father O’Brien’s reading of “The Dash,” the famous poem by Linda Ellis that contemplates the hyphen between the years of birth and death—and how some dashes are more imbued with heft than others.
I didn’t cry until the very end of the service, when a pair of young Marines marched slowly forward to fold the American flag draped over the casket, as somber and sacred a ritual as any on this earth.
As the carefully-tucked triangle was presented to Philly’s daughter, Niki Meyers, I could think of no more fitting way to honor this true patriot who crawled on his knees through the jungles of Vietnam as a dimple-chinned soldier, then spent the rest of his life serving his country as an active, engaged citizen.
“It’ll take 15 people to replace him” and “He always made people feel like they belonged” were things overhead that evening at the wake hosted by Tondee’s Tavern and the political action pack Drinking Liberally, with booze provided by Ghost Coast Distillery (around here, if liquor is paid for in your honor, you know you’re a real somebody, fuhgeddaboudit.)
Standing on a chair in the middle of the room, Niki, one of Philly’s six children, delivered a meaningful message to remember.
“Thank you for showin’ up and showin’ out, but where ya been?” she called to the crowd, lamenting in the same New Yawk accent as her Pop how he would report to her the small numbers turning out for his rallies as of late.
“You really want change? Show up not in two’s and three’s and four’s but in hundreds, like you did today. Get out and do what he was doing.”
It’s a stark reminder that we can be and say and click on and leave comments about all kinds of things, but in the end, it’s showing up that matters most. The best kind of folks, like Philly and Dr. T, are the ones who welcome us when we get there.
I’m not much for quoting Scripture, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the section of Timothy 4:7 included in Philly’s memorial pamphlet: No matter what you believe, the phrase “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” seems to sum up the sort of life all of us can be proud to leave behind.
And I take it back: I don’t hate writing obituaries—it’s a real privilege to try and capture “the dash” of a great citizen who gave so much.
I just wish they were still around to ask if I got it right.