His many close friends knew this tall dapper gentleman as Phil Holland. But so many, perhaps thousands of people who lived or hung around the U of M and Dinkytown area throughout the 1960s and a few decades beyond never knew his name – instead he was known as “The Walker.” Constantly on the move, always walking, always dressed in a suit and always wearing a hat, seeing Phil Holland was very often a daily experience.
Most of the time, people observed him in a brisk pace at some distance away, but never got a chance to actually talk to him or even hear him speak, which gave his general public image a sense of mystery. But those infrequent occasions meeting Phil face to face along a sidewalk, his handsome face with wide-open penetrating eyes and his pleasant demeanor gave Phil a palpable presence. But the question lingered – what caused him to always be walking?
Was he, according to circulated rumors, a former Negro League baseball player, outstanding on the baseball diamond and a notorious ladies’ man off the field, and was his brilliant playing career cut short by an ended love affair that affected him? Had he caused his east coast parents some serious embarrassment that led them to ship him off, with monthly allotments of financial support, to some unknowable place called Minneapolis?
At Phil Holland’s funeral on September 10, at Saint Frances Cabrini Church celebrating his 77 years, many of his circle of friends, who turned out to be a communitarian support group, verified much of those attributed aspects, and added much more.
Phillip Holland was born Jan. 11, 1930, in the South, to a strong African-American family of modest means. But they were able to send Phil to Saint John’s Prep School in Collegeville, Minnesota, and he later attended a few years at Saint John’s University. During the funeral’s eulogy, his friends recounted how he starred in baseball there, and also proselytized to his college acquaintances the cause of civil rights, well ahead of the national movement. They noted his years with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League as a superb pitcher. But they also spoke of his long time unsuccessfully seeking work, which reportedly caused him to be malnourished, augmenting a somewhat hidden mental disorder.
But that didn’t stop Phil from being well-dressed and highly conversant on a variety of topics. He stopped here and there to sit in on University classes without benefit of tuition. And despite his seemingly- constant perambulation, he did stop for short times in Dinkytown shops and in offices of various departments at the U of M to pass out music critiques as well as advice on the stock market to selected people of established order. Some of them attended the service, including a retired vice-president of educational psychology at the University, and a former owner of The Podium Shop in Dinkytown. They knew and appreciated the man most people simply knew as The Walker. Father Leo Tibusar, who presided over the service, called Phil a Christ-like figure, walking everywhere within a defined area, and that “he just wanted to be who is.”
But eventually Phil’s eccentric living habits into advancing age began to take effect. His prodigious walking became limited, then very difficult. At some point, to get around, Phil needed the device that had the same name as what most people knew him by. By then, so many people who simply unconsciously counted on seeing him on a regular basis unknowingly didn’t realize he was no longer within their quotidian paths. But Phil’s friends knew – and cared. A circle of support grew.
With their words of eulogy, some of Phil’s acquaintances commented there would be periods of time they wouldn’t see him and worried about him, only to later see the same Phil they knew him to be. Fr. Tibusar paid Phil and his friends the ultimate tribute, noting, “ His friends around him knew how to help in a way that let Phil just be who he was.”