As President of Duke University, I am frequently called upon to open services in this beautiful and historic space. Today I do so with great sadness, as we gather to remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr..
Let me begin by offering the condolences of the entire Duke community to Phail’s family: his wife Peggy, mother Valree, son Rahsaan, brother Michael and sister-in-law Cheryl, and aunt Mary. This university is forever changed for the better as a result of Phail’s vision and service, and we will always consider you members of the Duke family. Thank you for sharing your husband, son, father, brother and nephew with Duke.
Last year in this chapel, I quoted the poet and essayist Wendell Berry, who described the bewilderments of life – those moments when we face a great challenge or tragedy and our mettle is tested.
Certainly we feel bewildered today, as we find ourselves remembering Phail Wynn just a few short weeks after we celebrated his decades of service to the Durham community and this university. We feel bewildered to know that we will never again hear his infectious laugh rumbling through the Allen Building like one of his beloved Harleys. Above all, we feel bewildered to have lost such a great colleague, extraordinary mentor, and true friend so suddenly and far too soon.
Last fall I left off the second, more powerful part of Wendell Berry’s quotation. He went on to say that we are not alone in the bewilderments of the human condition. We have the company and the comfort of the best of our kind.
Phail was certainly the very best – I knew it the minute I met him last year when I started at Duke. He had a rare combination of dedication to his work and genuine kindness that made him not only the perfect ambassador from Duke to the community, but also a great joy to work with, and to learn from.
And his life, his example, demonstrated that we are not alone, even in this moment of profound sadness. Look around this Chapel at the crowd gathered here today. Among us are men he served with in the Army, students he supported at Durham Tech, neighbors and city leaders he worked with in Durham, and friends and colleagues from across the country. We see in this crowd represent the full arc of Phail’s life and career, a life that brought so much joy and light into the lives of people he met and befriended along the way. To know Phail was to feel a part of his wonderful extended family.
So as we face this great bewilderment, as we remember together a great man lost far too soon, may we be thankful that our lives were improved, our loves strengthened, our work made more meaningful by having known Phail. And may we resolve to live lives of equal fulfillment, dedication, and kindness in his memory.