Hidden Falls · Coyote Creek · Tarbell Trail · Yacolt Burn State Forest · Yacolt · Washington · USA
On the morning of November 24, 2012, a great spirit shuffled off his mortal coil and set a course for the stars. Mr. Ralph Elmer Phares was my favorite teacher of all time, stoking my interest in the biological sciences as he did with countless other students over a career that spanned four decades. But Mr. Phares was, as many will attest, so much more than that. He was a friend. And I suspect this duality was universal with all he touched: To his lovely wife Lawana, he was devoted husband and friend. To his children, he was loving father and friend. To his siblings, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, he was brother, grandfather, great-grandfather, and…friend. And so on.
His classes were always entertaining and lively, with a steady stream of friendly barbs and good-natured banter flowing in equal portions and velocity from pupil to teacher and quickrightback to pupil. He made learning fun. He never took himself too seriously and put on a great face and hearty laugh even with the unrelenting Wilford Brimley and oatmeal references that I suspect annoyed him more than he ever would allow himself to let on in front of his students. His ‘secret’ candy drawer was the stuff of legend. He took double-fisted swills of learning, laughter, life, and love in everything he did, and that included regular raving about the love, support, and accomplishments of his beloved family. What you saw was what you got with Mr. P, and that was a quick-witted, dedicated, enthusiastic, and caring father figure. And, of course, friend.
I will always treasure my visit to Mr. and Mrs. P’s home one day after getting off of work at Salmon Creek Medical Center some three years ago, when I was just beginning my career in hospice and palliative medicine. This was strictly a social visit, of course, but he’d been on the mend from a series of heart attacks in the months preceding. Despite his weakened frame, however, his wit was as quick and sharp as ever, and that impish spirit I thought I’d left behind in 1994 hadn’t been quelled one iota. It was such a privilege listening to him and the missus catch me up on their lives in the intervening years. And he beamed with pride when I returned the favor.
When I caught news of his passing this past weekend, a pang of guilt and regret gnawed at me. He had asked that I come back someday to visit him and Lawana again, but the stars never did align. And if I’m being honest with myself, I think I had more control over that than the previous statement would suggest. I could’ve found time. I should’ve. The reminder that life is short always seems to come too late. But then after a while, I realized that guilt and regret just weren’t what Mr. P was about: He was about learning from the most curious core of your intellect, laughing from the deepest reaches of your bowel, living with vigor and presence in every moment, and loving with every fiber of your soul.
Love you, Mr. Phares. You are the greatest teacher ever and an awesome human being. R. I. P., but maybe teach those angels up in Heaven a thing or two about mollusks and radulas.
See you when I get there. ;)