By GRIFFIN GUINTA
Filling up your glass is a seemingly ordinary and tedious process for those who dine in the cafeteria. Long lines often congregate around the soda fountains, and impatient stares are shot at those who dare wait for the fizz to subside or pause for a moment to get extra ice. For me however, getting a drink from the machine is often the most insightful part of my day–thanks to one man.
Cafeteria worker Phillip Holley, affectionately known as “Mr. Phil,” is always there, meticulously stacking glasses and singing gospel melodies under his breath. There’s a distinct joy surrounding him, and you get the sense that regardless of what time of day it is, or how many cups he’s stacked, he’ll always tell you he’s “doing pretty good.”
Mr. Phil has been giving me advice since the first day I walked into the cafeteria my freshman year. What started with a simple “hello, how are you?” eventually blossomed into a fantastic friendship. In many ways, Mr. Phil is just as much of a mentor to me as any parent, coach, or professor. He has a gift for sensing when others are down, and he’ll never hesitate to pull out a Bible verse, motivational quote, or interesting article he read out of his apron to cheer someone up. And surprisingly enough, the daily dose of inspiration always comes right when I need it. However, this act is by no means exclusive to me. Countless students, faculty, and fellow employees have forged meaningful relationships with him over the 11 years he’s worked here.
When I first proposed the idea of interviewing him for a story, Mr. Phil cocked his head to the side and sported a confused look on his face. In his ever-calm, slightly Southern accent, he said:
“Now why would you want to interview a plain old, ordinary guy like me?”
I couldn’t help but laugh, as Mr. Phil is easily one of the most interesting people I know.
Born in Birmingham, Al. in the 1940s, he grew up a country boy with dreams of becoming a lawyer. His father did backbreaking, dangerous work as a coal miner, and his mother stayed home to take care of Phil and his siblings. Sadly, his father eventually passed away from Black Lung, a disease prevalent among those who worked in the mines, but Mr. Phil insists that the attitude of diligence and hard work his father instilled will always be with him.
“My father was a very disciplined man, and he enforced that,” Mr. Phil said. “I didn’t have a lot of horseplay in me. He didn’t allow it, and I’m glad.”
That focused, no-nonsense mindset spurred Mr. Phil on to become a lawyer. Aside from that, he was living in a time in which injustice, particularly in terms of civil rights for African-Americans, was prevalent, and he saw becoming a lawyer as a means of taking action to stop it. He devoted his studies and aspirations on becoming a defender of the law, but lost the will to do so after his mother unexpectedly passed away when he was 18 years old.
“That shattered my dreams. I wanted to be a lawyer, but not for me–for her. I wanted to give her a better life. After she passed, I had a bad setback,” Mr. Phil said.
A deeply faithful, spiritual Christian man, he couldn’t understand why God was allowing such catastrophic events to happen. As such, he became wary and jaded towards faith, something he now considers to be his “centering” today. Overwhelmed by losing the closest person to him, Phil began questioning his purpose and creator.
“I said, if you can save Lazarus and bring him back from the dead, bring back my mother. He didn’t, and at the time it was a shock, and he and I’s relationship fell apart for a little while. But I came to my senses. The attitude I showed to him was not loving, even though he still loved me. But He never gave up on me,” Mr. Phil said.
Though he never became a lawyer, he feels he can achieve his purpose of trying to change the world by simply talking to people and encouraging them in their daily lives.
“Talking to people and being honest with people, it’s just as fulfilling as if I were a lawyer. That’s my goal–to encourage people.”
In 2004, a friend referred Mr. Phil to UT, and immediately upon being hired, he “fell in love” with the job. He enjoys talking to all of his colleagues, bantering back and forth about various topics, and most importantly, speaking to them about his faith. Mr. Phil operates on a listen-first policy, and will always listen to your needs before burdening you with his own.
“Just to have an ear to listen to someone is my favorite part. I’ve heard some stories from students that have brought tears to my eyes. I’ve had students who have opened up to me about losing parents, being hurt, having troubled relationships. I always want to be there to encourage them when they’re down.”
Outside of the cafeteria, Mr. Phil is an active member of his church, acts in plays, appears on a radio show, and devotes some of his weekends to prison ministry.
The next time you ask Mr. Phil for a cup at the drink line, ask him how he’s doing too. He may just give you a piece of advice that’ll change your day.
Griffin Guinta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org