Phil Campbell runs a bar and restaurant in La Farge, a village in Vernon County in southwest Wisconsin. He calls himself a country boy. He’s friendly and modest. Nobody would mistake him for a movie star, except that, life being funny sometimes, now he is one.
It has everything to do with a town in Alabama named Phil Campbell.
Some 20 years ago, a man from Brooklyn, N.Y., named Phil Campbell — are you sensing a theme here? — was attending Northwestern University, and in the tradition of college students everywhere, decided to watch “Hee Haw” one night rather than do his homework.
A skit on the show referenced the town of Phil Campbell in Alabama, named for an engineer who brought the railroad to the area in the 1880s.
Watching in Illinois, Phil Campbell from Brooklyn — now known in the Phil Campbell universe as Brooklyn Phil — smiled when he heard his name mentioned. Soon after — anything to avoid school work — Brooklyn Phil sent out a letter to every Phil Campbell he could find, inviting them to a party in Phil Campbell, Ala. in the summer of 1995.
In La Farge, Phil Campbell — Wisconsin Phil, to the fraternity — decided he’d like to see Alabama, and drove down for the event. Twenty-three Phil Campbells attended. Everyone had a good time.
That might have been that, but in 2011, with the town of Phil Campbell set to celebrate its centennial that summer, Brooklyn Phil decided to try to put the band back together. Notes went out. The town was having a hoedown in June and all Phil Campbells were invited. Wisconsin Phil said he’d be there.
On April 27, everything changed. A tornado hit Phil Campbell, devastating the town. Winds reached 210 mph. Twenty-seven people — in a town of about 1,000 — died. Many buildings were destroyed.
Some 12 miles away, in Russellville, a film student and Phil Campbell resident named Andrew Reed was huddled with family in his aunt’s basement.
“There had been sirens all day,” Reed, 26, said last week. Later that night — the tornado had wiped out cell phone service — he learned his church was gone. His home had been spared.
Reed had been working with Brooklyn Phil to make a humorous short film on the pending reunion of Phil Campbells in Phil Campbell. Everyone surmised the reunion would be canceled, and with it the film.
Brooklyn Phil, however, recast the reunion as a relief effort, and encouraged his fellow Campbells to still come in June. Twenty did, 19 Phils — from as far as Australia and England — and one Phyllis. Wisconsin Phil arrived at night. The moonlight revealed the destruction. Much of what he remembered of the town from his 1995 visit was gone.
Over the next several days, the visitors helped the town clean up and begin to rebuild. A fundraising effort, called “I’m with Phil,” was launched. Major media showed up. In a short time, Wisconsin Phil became close with numerous residents, including Reed, the filmmaker, who was documenting the relief effort.
Before heading back to La Farge, Wisconsin Phil took out a mail subscription to the local newspaper, the Franklin County Times. The sheriff gave him a personalized plaque. Reed had been wearing a Lambeau Field cap he’d gotten as a teen on a visit to Wisconsin. That, too, went back to La Farge with Wisconsin Phil.
In January 2012, Wisconsin Phil’s wife, Deb, was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer. In June of that year, Reed brought his nearly finished feature-length documentary to La Farge. A showing was arranged in the high school gym, with proceeds going to offset Deb’s treatment costs. Wisconsin Phil gave Reed back the Lambeau cap. It had become symbolic of their friendship. Two weeks after Reed left — having shot more footage in La Farge — Deb died.
In June 2013, Wisconsin Phil went back to Alabama. The hoedown has become an annual event in Phil Campbell. He renewed friendships with the locals, whose recovery — both the physical rebuilding, and psychological healing — is ongoing.
“It’s a special connection,” Wisconsin Phil, now 59, said when we chatted last week.
Once again, the Lambeau Field cap changed hands. Reed sent it back to La Farge with Wisconsin Phil. Meanwhile, Reed finished his documentary. The film is called “I’m with Phil,” and the subtitle is, “A Town, a Tornado, and Twenty People Named Phil Campbell.” Reed, who is completing an MFA in film and video production at the University of North Carolina, has submitted it to more than 40 film festivals for consideration. Brooklyn Phil is executive producer. And Wisconsin Phil? “He’s a big part of the story,” Reed said.
They’ve been raising money on Kickstarter for various licensing fees associated with releasing the film commercially, and as of last week, the goal was nearly reached. Yet the town still needs help (more information is available at imwithphil.com). The hope for the film is that it will draw attention to the town and its continuing recovery.
For the 20 Phil Campbells, it has been life-changing. Something that started with a phrase overheard on “Hee Haw” two decades ago has become, in the words of Wisconsin Phil, “a brotherhood.”
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been part of,” he said.