When Phil Allen was 27 his friends helped him escape from the Saskatchewan Institution where they were kept against their will. They figured he was the one most likely to make it and come back to help them.
They were right. For the past 50 years Phil has been a tireless advocate for closing institutions and tilting mindsets that equate disability with segregation.
After his successful escape, Phil hid out in a hotel room where in his words he was able for the first time in his life, “to close my eyes and not be afraid.” He then hopped a freight train to Vancouver. He arrived without connections, just a dollar in his pocket and the clothes on his back. But, “grateful to be in a new place where I wasn’t locked up.” And an approach to life that trumps every title on a self help bookshelf.
Determined not to rely on welfare, Phil worked a variety of jobs before settling in at Dueck’s on Broadway, producing the cleanest, shiniest cars on the lot. Along the way he accumulated one of the most impressive pin, and stamp collections in the country and found his true love.
I met him just before he and Wendy were married and just before his career as a community advocate kicked into high gear. For a number of years, I taught a summer school course on Inclusion for teachers at the University of BC. Phil and Wendy were my preferred guest speakers. They would enter a room full of clouded assumptions. Something sad was surely to be revealed, the horrors of institutions, the hardships of discrimination, yet another tale of inhumanity toward those we don’t understand.
The teachers were right about one thing. There were lots of reasons for Phil’s heart to be broken. There just weren’t any pieces to pick up. Except perhaps their shattered assumptions.
What emerged in those summer school courses wasn’t another heroic pep talk but a glimpse into an open heart. About how to continue loving when there are no guarantees? About overcoming despair through beauty.
… the institution was the kind of place where you had to learn to take something ordinary and make it beautiful.
I have witnessed this moral courage often in the hearts of people who have been abandoned in places where, “the only thing they taught us was how to feel forgotten.” This demonstration that something more fundamental remains when hope is gone – vulnerability, which is the birthplace of love and courage. Such a hard lesson for North Americans. We have built our culture on the illusion of hope and seem to lose our bearings when our leaders, our institutions, our assumptions, our authorities betray us. Perhaps we should stop looking for heroes and turn our attention to the authenticity of those the Quakers refer to as, “God’s ordinaries.”
Phil is now of an age when he should write his memoirs. With a little prompting he’s done so. The plot, rivals the Great Escape. It’s a brief book. But worthy, if measured by the wisdom between the sentences. You’ll finish it in 30 minutes but think of it for the rest of your life.
In fact I’m so certain of its treasures, I’ll send you a free copy. Simply send me your mailing address. E-mail me here or reply to this post.
Phil’s book is succinctly titled, Phil Allen. He doesn’t waste his time either on regrets or words. Clearly his mates in Saskatchewan knew what they were doing. They chose the one most likely to succeed. I’m confident they would support one friendly amendment to his title. Phil Allen – The Man Who Stands By His Friends.