A Memorable Friend


I first met Phil Temko in Berkeley.   He came down from Sonoma Mountain that Spring to the bustle of the Big University with Warren Olson. They were looking for a fourth philosopher for the growing department at Sonoma State.  My PhD. wouldn’t be done for three months.

Would I finish it? The title was as modest as my height: Gesture, Commitment, and Vision: Generative Roots of Human Being.  They took a big chance with me. I was green, in my mid-twenties. Very green. Warren and Phil seemed almost parental.

As I remember, Phil smoked a pipe and took notes while Warren questioned me.  I kept absolutely straight ahead to hide a barbering disaster.  At the last minute before heading to the interview I had the bright idea that I should not look like an unkempt hippie but a bit  professional.  I grabbed a hair trimmer to take a swipe at those messy locks back out of sight.  The mirror didn’t help.  I kept Phil and Warren face to face so they wouldn’t see the disaster.

A week later I learned that if I wanted it, I had the job. It was my first — and only — job interview, ever.  Over the years, Phil, and his wonderful wife Judy, became fast friends.

Warren was chair. Then he founded The Hutchens School and turned over the philosophy department to Phil, who was a college wrestler — not easily pushed around.  I don’t think he liked the bureaucratic paperwork. He’d rather be in the library or the gym.

Those were the late sixties and early seventies.  There were Anti-War demonstrations. Mario Savio led the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, and decades later taught math at Sonoma and attended philosophy discussion groups.

The day after Patty Hearst was kidnapped there was a banner over the Sonoma Student Union: “Long Live the Symbionese Liberation Army.” This was Sonoma State.  On the light side, there was skinny-dipping in the pool behind the union.

Phil stayed cool, remaining “philosophical” about the threats that swept through every campus in the land.

He wasn’t philosophical in the late sixties about his 15-year old daughter Wendy’s insistence that she be allowed to hitchhike to the Sierra Nevada on her own. He said no. She locked herself in her room.

Once in a seminar, we considered a chapter on death.  Heidegger had written that we are “beings tending toward death.” Being flip, irreverent and too young to know better, I objected that too much was being made of death.  Phil had been in the military and seen death.  He replied sternly, “Speak for Yourself.”

Phil and I drove up from the North Bay to Oregon to professional meetings with another Phil, Philip Clayton. Clayton was a would-be racetrack driver. He was out to show off his swerving skills. Temko stayed cool. He did suggest that the car might not be up to the stress it was being put through.

Judy and Phil spend a spring – perhaps a year – in Italy, where I had the good fortune to visit them with my wife. He absorbed Italian café life in Sienna, a city ringed by a medieval wall. Cars and trucks were barred. This made strolling and crowd watching a pleasure.  They were fine hosts, well-adapted to the city and countryside and to an easy Italian, outgoing life.

Phil was politically engaged. He was, of course, against the Vietnam War, and also against our policies in Central America. In the mid-eighties he traveled to Nicaragua with an ecumenical group to protest the dictatorship there.

Phil made his way into Philosophy journals. If you check Wikipedia, you’ll discover that he published a number of papers on Plato and Ethics, one with his Stanford mentor, Julius Moravscik.

He was a good friend, a stalwart of the Sonoma community, in love with teaching, and especially with teaching and tutoring philosophy.  He was a notably good man who carried his stature lightly. To me and to all who knew him, he spread a warm glow of friendship we won’t forget.

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