“I can’t grieve. Phil had such a good life, got to do everything he wanted, a loving family, strong faith, a long life. How can I grieve?”
When sympathies were being expressed to Julia George after the passing of her husband of 73 years, she responded without remorse.
That positive feeling of heartfelt faith was reshared by an overflowing-church of family, friends, and neighbors at his life’s celebration.
Philip Woodbury George, 101-years-old, passed away February 12, in Emporia, with sacred memories February 25, at the Lebo Methodist Church. Julia George, 95, was in the front pew.
While funerals are generally intentionally sad occasions, this was not like that. Apparent laughter, grins and nodding smiles were commonplace as family, compadres, fellow-veterans, clergy shared remembrances of Phil George serving others.
Pastor Lori Schwilling concisely summarized best. “Once upon a time, a farm boy named Phil married a farm girl named Julia. They turned a schoolhouse into a farm home with beloved children of God lovingly caring for livestock and land. Phil now has a new home in Heaven to live happily ever after.”
Grandchildren reflected memories of “Papa” and recited Bible passages symbolizing the Phil George life.
Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…” Psalm 101: “I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise…” Romans 14: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions…” Romans 8: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
Common thread among his beloved grandchildren’s reflections. “Papa was patient, humorous, a storyteller with the strongest love for God, Grandma Julia, family, and his livestock.”
Born September 14, 1921, Phil grew up at Sunbyrne Farm on the Osage and Coffey counties line east of Lebo.
Second oldest of Frank and Harriet George’s four children, Phil attended the one-room Elmwood School and was active in 4-H. He graduated from Lebo High School in 1939 and started studying agriculture at Kansas State University.
Just before his junior year, Phil enlisted in the U.S. Navy in part out of respect for his high school friend. Harold “Skinny” Spatz was serving in the Army Air Corps and volunteered for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. That resulted in Spatz being captured, tortured, and ultimately executed after his plane crash landed in occupied China.
During World War II, Phil participated in multiple significant battles even sinking the Japanese battleship Yamato, biggest in the world. He flew more than 25 missions with the first flights to return over mainland Japan after the Doolittle Raid.
For his combat service, Phil earned the Air Medal, Gold Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Presidential Unit Citation.
“Probably now, one of the last great heroes of World War II has slipped into history,” said friend, fellow-veteran (serving in Vietnam) Jim Whitaker. “Phil George flew his plane #129 off the brand-new USS Hornet CV12 for the rest of the war after the original USS Hornet CV8, Skinny Spatz’ boat, was sunk during the Battle of Santa Cruz in Solomons.
“I was honored to escort Phil to Kansas City where he repeated war stores tempered with a few farm tales for more than three hours. Audience members corralled him in the aisle afterwards wanting more stories,” Whitaker noted. “Phil never forgot anything that happened to him after third grade and could repeat it verbatim, what a fabulous storyteller.”
At the celebration and later the Phil George grave, Whitaker placed a Soldier’s Cross on black granite with rifle bayonet centered in the gold star honoring the deceased veteran.
After the war, Phil George came back to college, was on the livestock judging team, and graduated with an animal husbandry degree in 1947. He returned to the farm and married Julia Gardner, Hartford farm girl who graduated with a degree in home economics.
His old Elmwood School building was purchased and converted into a residence for the couple, their three sons, Jay, Phil, Vern, and daughter Frances.
Dedicated first to family and faith, Phil was a rancher who served the community, an especial proud American Legion member. He had the honor of carrying the United State flag from horseback in the Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades annually with the last time when Phil was 99-years-old.
Devoted to the ranch operation, Phil had a Hereford cowherd and raised Quarter Horses ridden for handling cattle. In recent years, it was common to see Phil sitting straight in the saddle horseback checking pastures or moving cattle almost daily.
Nephew pastor George Pasley reflected. “Uncle Phil knew his whiteface cows each by name, his labor of love. Phil was their shepherd as God is our shepherd.”
Spending time assisting his uncle in earlier years, Paisley insisted, “Uncle Phil was the hardest worker I’ve ever known. He just wore me out trying to keep up with him.
“I heard a lot of memorable stories from Uncle Phil, but not nearly all of them. He lived 37,000 days and could remember what happened just about every day.”
The George family has had land along Frog Creek since the 1880s with multiple generations of neighbors helping one another. Eldest son Jay insisted, “Dad served God as a steward of the land, grass, water, livestock with the strongest work ethic.”
Still, Phil George wasn’t the most organized farmer, according to namesake son Phil. “Dad would lose something and spend half a day trying to find it. Dad really didn’t know how to build fence, so cows would often get out, He’d get them in, patch the fence with baling wire, and not think any more about it.”
Yet, middle-son Phil credited, “Dad lived through 18 presidents, 26 governors, 16 Kansas senators, 56 supreme court justices… From no phone to cellphone, Model-T to four-wheel drive pickup, Dad saw more changes than others ever have or will.”
Faith, family, and community “were important to Dad,” emphasized son Vern. “He never had problems with people. Dad knew everybody and loved every one of them.”
An avid sports fan, Phil grew up listening to baseball on the radio. He celebrated his 100th birthday by attending a Kansas City Royals baseball game.
Recovering after hip surgery, Phil’s main concern when a grandson visited was getting the television tuned for the Super Bowl. Sadly, Phil George with family beside him passed away that morning before being able to watch the football game.
Special celebration music was Home On the Range by Steve Sergeant and How Great Thou Art by Martin Jones. Recording of “Grandpa” by The Judds was played. Congregation joined in singing appropriate hymns from sheet music.
More than anything else, Phil liked to visit with everybody about everything. Whatever the occasion, Phil was the last to leave, always caught up in remembering and relating stories of bygone days.
The funeral director pointed out, “This is probably the first time Phil George has not been the last one out of the church” There were 11 casket bearers and 23 honorary bearer’s indicative of the vast family and friendships of Phil George.
Appropriately, a cowboy carrying the American flag was mounted on a ranch stallion leading the cemetery procession. Two mounted outriders followed, one leading a saddled riderless horse. Phil’s boots were reversed in the stirrups representing a fallen leader looking back on his troops for the last time.
A draft horse team drawn box wagon carried Phil George in a flag draped casket to Lincoln Cemetery.
Military graveside service included gun salute and taps by American Legion and Navy flag presentation for Phil George’s final resting.
“Amen” seeming most appropriate was repeated by the large gathering celebration.
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