Mark Phillips, a long time Kansas community college track coach with an exceptional record, died at the age of 60 in April of 2022. Over the course of his forty-year career, he coached at Cloud County Community College, Kansas City Kansas Community College, Johnson County Community College and finally and probably most notably at Cowley County Community College. He himself had been part of a national championship squad as a runner at Northwest Missouri State University and competed in pole vaulting there as well. As coach, he eventually specialized in throwing, jumping, and sprints, but of course, helped with all events. He was noted as a meticulous planner–of family vacations as well as track meets.
His Facebook page now includes numerous testimonies from former student athletes, colleagues and competitors. They all noted his dedication, support and unflinching honesty and directness. Certainly the most often quoted maxim from Coach Phillips was, “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, you’re left behind.” Anyone wondering if he was serious only had to show up a minute after the designated departure time (like 6:46 or 7:07). The backside of the bus rolling away even if you were at the edge of the parking lot said, “Yep; he’s serious.”
On the flip side, student athletes also noted his encouragement (“He believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.”) and his uncanny ability to connect with challenging individuals (I thank God for people who are willing to help so many lost kids.”)
One of his former national champion athletes and also a current track coach, Courtney Gougler, provided this information: Coach Phillips won two national championships, 32 Jayhawk Conference titles, 11 regional titles, had 14 top five national finishers, 273 All-Americans, nine individual national champions, three national record holders, and one Olympic festival gold medalist. (Note: Courtney was unable to attend Coach Phillips’ Memorial service because she had qualified to compete in the World Championship Highland Games in Germany that same week.)
Coach Phillips died from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig disease. It is a debilitating and humiliating disease. It gradually destroys the psychomotor center of the brain. The person gradually loses strength and the ability of voluntary muscle control. It can take the strongest, most vigorous athlete, and turn him or her into a helpless invalid.
Mark was first diagnosed with the disease in 2020. Like many victims, he succumbed gradually, increasingly finding himself unable to do things that he had done routinely before. Among those things that he lost the ability to do was something that he loved very much: riding motorcycles. Specifically, riding Harleys, which he had started doing ten years earlier, having gotten his first Harley when he was fifty years old. He and his wife of thirty-six years, Naomi, loved taking motorcycle trips.
In an effort to help him continue to do something that he loved to do, his sons bought him a Ural dirt bike with sidecar. Mark had assumed that he would drive from Ark City over to the bikers’ rally at Cassoday but instead found himself stashed into the sidecar. Those who know Mark, and maybe even those who don’t, can imagine how disappointing and even upsetting that would have been.
So he and Naomi bought a Can-Am.
A Can-Am is very similar to a motorcycle and yet very different. It looks kind of like a motorized backwards tricycle. From behind the front axle going toward the back, it looks like a motorcycle. The driver operates the gears and the brakes and steers with a handlebar like a motorcycle. The passenger sits behind the driver just like on any motorcycle. But the front consists of two tires mounted on opposite sides of a wide axle that steer similar to the steering of a car.
When Naomi told me about their adventure on Labor Day of 2021, I felt compelled to compose and share at the memorial service my prose poem version of their experience. This is it.
The Last Ride
Any Harley Rider, and just about any other biker, will tell you, even if you don’t ask, that a Can-Am ain’t no Harley.
“Hell, man, it ain’t even a trike! Two wheels in the front and one in the back?! It’s like a little kid riding a bike with two other kids sitting on the handlebars.”
But, what it is, is balanced and you don’t have to worry about it falling over because nearly two years of this damn disease has made you so weak you can’t keep a hawg standing straight up at a stoplight anymore.
And it may not be a Harley (or even a Honda), but you can feel the open air blowing in your beard, and feel the cool of the shade as you pass by near a woods, and you can feel the wind brushing back the hair on your arms and how it still tingles five minutes after you finish your ride.
And it lets you ride with the love of your life when you know you’re already walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. And so, you and her plan a secret ride, “Hell no, we ain’t telling the kids! They’d come down here and put a stop to that in a hurry, you can bet on that!”
On the last Labor Day of your life, you back the Can-Am out of the garage and you head down toward Oklahoma. And you feel the wind and you hear the hum of the tires on asphalt. And you smell the end of summer, and even though she has to help hold you up in the crosswinds and there was that one time when the weakness of your grip let the Can-Am drift toward the shoulder, she had to lean up around you and grab the handlerbar and push it back towards center, and you both know now, if not before, this will be your last ride together.
And the years and miles of Harleys fade in memory’s rearview mirror. Yes, those miles and memories may fade, but they do not disappear.
And the mash-up of motorcycles in the garage, and the non-running 74 Nova in the driveway, and the tractor tire dirt bike on the back patio are all part of the shrine, the memorial. Every spot of grease and every drip of oil from the Honda, the Kawasaki, and the sight of the Ural dirt bike side car, and the Can-Am, are all part of who you were and who you still will be in memory.
And it might be that some of us will choose different memories, or just something in addition to, rather than focusing on our way of losing you. Choosing to remember, and celebrate in a hundred different ways, the way you lived even more than the way you died.