In Memory of Bill
Tuesday at 7:51 pm
We lost our dear friend Bill on July 3rd. There were no goodbyes or farewells. He died peacefully in his sleep without warning. Unexpectedly. Shocking news all around.
We all hope to go that way, just go to sleep. No illness, hospitals, pain, suffering. But it takes a toll on those left behind.
He leaves a huge hole in our hearts that will never truly mend.
Perhaps I should start where our story began so you can understand why his loss is so unbearable to process.
We met on the bleachers of a baseball diamond in the spring of 1997. Our boys were on the same team. Both were in seventh grade.
Bill, Elizabeth and their son, Brian, had relocated to the northwest suburbs of Chicago from Boston. We had relocated from Atlanta.
Not knowing a soul in town, we became fast friends. Spring ball turned into fall ball and our families grew inseparable. Often we would go out for a meal after a game with Elizabeth’s parents in tow. One year we had the bright idea to bring a thermos of booze to a game to see who could concoct the best Bloody Mary. Don’t judge, fall ball was very laid back and no one noticed.
Bill and my husband played golf together for years every Saturday and whenever else they could sneak away.
Brian and our son Matt became lifelong friends and traveled to Europe together after graduating from college. They served as “Best Man” at each other’s weddings.
Now this is where it gets really interesting.
After our daughter Lena graduated from college, she began to date Brian. I am not making this up. She had known him since she was in fifth grade. They dated for six years and got married in 2014. Now our families are connected through friendship and marriage.
We began to celebrate holidays together. St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, their legendary 4th of July Lobster Fest which was the party we looked forward to all year.
Labor Day, Thanksgiving, New Years (until we got too old to drive that late.) Graduations, milestones, birthdays.
For my husband’s sixtieth birthday, we all ventured to Alabama with their golf foursome to play the Robert Trent Jones courses in Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. While they golfed, Elizabeth and I explored historic sights, the Mardi Gras Museum and learned about Azalea Maids.
For my sixtieth, a big surprise, my husband rented a home in Saugatuck, Michigan for a long weekend with “the people.” Thankfully, Bill suggested we all go to bed once the War Speeches commenced.
For Elizabeth’s sixtieth and Bill’s seventieth, we stayed in a La Jolla, California rental home for a long weekend of golf, lavish family meals on the patio with cake, wine and photo bombs.
It wasn’t all shits and giggles. Life never is. We lost our mothers, fathers, brothers, a sister, an aunt and a brother-in-law. Serious illness, job loss. Those moments that bring friends closer together just to survive and help you stay afloat.
A native of Rhode Island, Bill loved the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox and later the Chicago Cubs. A lover of music, the theater, long walks, overnights in Chicago hotels and exploring quaint shops.
P.O.S.H. on State Street was a favorite and at the end of the evening, a stop at Eddie V’s for live music, dessert and a nightcap.
He designed a wine cellar in their home and carefully curated each bottle. I believe his collection numbers in the thousands. His knowledge of wine was envious.
He would peruse the shelves before each party and select just the right wines to accompany the meal. Bill always ordered the wine when dining out and brought the wine to our home when we hosted. His choice was always better than any sommelier in town.
As Director of Finance for Motorola, Bill traveled to five continents for both business and pleasure. Thailand and Italy were his favorites. Always a true Ambassador to every country he visited, he would make friendships with everyone from the CEO to the shoe shine attendant. He treated both equally. In fact, I believe he would treat the shoe shine attendant just a tad more respectfully. That was Bill.
Often on his worldly adventures he would find a subtle, cultural treasure and bring one back for me. He’d arrive at our home with a box under his arm wearing that mischievous smile. He would tell the story of this gift, how he found it, who he was with, what each country does with this and why he thought I would enjoy it.
My collection varies from a floral syrup pitcher from Poland. A hollow gourd and metal spoon for drinking mate tea from Argentina. A delicate, white soup bowl with a cherub lid from Rome and a pink and gold carnival mask from Venice. Our favorite, hands down, is the quaich from Scotland. It’s a small, decorative two-handled cup that we would all drink from every time we got together to commence the party.
I know. Isn’t Bill thoughtful? Who does this?
Bill was so humble. Never bragged about his success or the trimmings that accompanied it. He was overly generous to his extended family but never spoke a word. Mr. Anonymous. He preferred it that way. He was never negative or spoke unfavorably about anyone. I don’t believe he ever frowned.
He had a wicked sense of humor with that New England accent and eyes that genuinely smiled. He was always a gentleman. I could never swear in front of Bill because I didn’t want him to think poorly of me. He had that effect on people.
You wanted to be better around Bill.
Bill was the life of the party at our gatherings. Always a good sport, he would make Peep bunny-Twinkie race cars at Easter, try on funny hats in an antique shop in Bloomington, sport cat-eye giant glasses and if the mood hit him, his paper party hat from a Christmas cracker.
When Bill and Elizabeth traveled in the winter to warmer climates, they would usually stay on a golf course. Bill would sneak out in the evening and play a few holes in his back yard. We named this “Illegal Golf.” It morphed into “Bill Phelps Golf,” and finally, “Opportunity Golf.”
Try it sometime. Bill would love that.
This 4th of July weekend was going to be big.
Brian and Lena would be coming out from Chicago on July 3rd for the holiday weekend. They hadn’t seen each other since January. COVID-19 stepped in and they took extra caution because Lena is pregnant with a baby girl. Bill’s first granddaughter.
He was more excited than anyone to become a grandfather in August, less than two months away.
I’m confident Bill was just plain giddy Thursday night. He would have the bellini glasses set out, the wines carefully chosen for our subdued Lobster Fest on the 4th. His flag shorts would have been cleaned and pressed, the bocce court mowed and ready for our tournament.
The grass was left high because Lena loved to walk on it in her bare feet. He did that for her since there is not a lot of lush grass in the city. He went to bed all smiles and ready to begin a weekend of family celebrations.
He would wake up Friday morning ready to welcome Brian and Lena with gracious open arms. Always a gift-giver, he had a Swarovski stork to give them for the baby’s nursery.
But fate stepped in and he didn’t make it through the night.
What hurts me more than anything is he never got a chance to meet his granddaughter.
He didn’t get to know her, but she WILL know him.
We will tell tall tales of Bill throughout her life. He will be remembered in photographs, memories, stories, laughter and a few tears now and then. A place will always be set at the table for him to join us. We will toast him. He will be there.
A guardian angel is a gift, but for all of you I wish he could have waited a lot longer before he reported for duty.
Mary Ellen Vehlow
We all wish we could have had Bill around for many years to come. Now it’s up to us to honor him, celebrate him and be thankful we had him for as long as we did.
Not everyone gets a Bill.
Aren’t we the lucky ones.
In his obituary, Elizabeth wrote, “Bill was loved by all who knew him, and he will be sorely missed.”
Indeed he will.
Enjoy your long nap Bill. You earned it.
With love, always.