My friend Julia, a writer, and I were discussing the importance of good editing. I explained how a good editor can transform what I write to pure gold, and I told her about Gene Phillips, who worked with me when I was a technical writer at Pearl Harbor Shipyard.
"I loved when Gene edited my stuff," I explained. "He would cut and clean and always improve my copy."
This morning, in one of those quirky life coincidences, I received an unexpected email from another colleague. "We have lost Gene Phillips," he wrote.
My heart dropped and I thought, "How ironic, I was just talking about Gene."
I last saw Gene in 1997. He popped in unexpectedly at my office at the American Cancer Society, after about a seven-year lapse of communication. I was surprised, but delighted to see him. Gene was a kindly Southern gentleman with a strong newspaper background and a gentleness about him that made him dear.
He didn't look well. Perhaps he was already silently fighting the cancer that would take his life. But we shared stories, caught up, and I tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit him as a volunteer. He didn't say a word about being sick. I remember saying, "Oh Gene, you are the best editor I have ever known." When I looked in his eyes, there was gratitude, and something else. "I needed to hear that from you," he said.
Writer D. H. Lawrence once observed, "The dead don't die. They look on and help."
I know as I string these words together, Gene is watching me from heaven with a smile. And I can hear him drawl: "Um, are you absolutely sure you want to use that passive voice right there?"
Rest in peace, Gene.