The doctors said there would only be one baby. They didn’t notice the second, identical brother hidden under the visible one. The boys’ parents only had one name picked out when the day came — Francis. Their father was named Theophil — he hated the name, but after some debate he decided his unexpected second son might like it more.
Thus began Theophil Skrzypek’s life of making little sacrifices for the people he loved.
As an adult, that second twin stood 6 feet and 1 inch tall. He weighed some 240 pounds in his prime, much of which he would lose in the last year of his life. He wore glasses over his eyes, except when he was reading. One of those eyes was lazy, which he resented because it meant that he couldn’t enlist in the armed forces without first letting a doctor stick a knife under his eyelids. His long, thin face greeted everyone with a smile.
Phil, a Chautauqua Institution bus and tram driver, passed away on April 13. His original newspaper obituary is taped to a refrigerator in the Chautauqua transportation office. On a whiteboard hanging on the wall, someone has written out, “Please stay on route! Don’t be fooled into ‘helping,’ it makes the rest of us look bad when we don’t ‘help.’ Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.”
Phil was often guilty of “helping.”
Roy Fisher, a Chautauqua driver like Phil, sat at a table in the office earlier this week, eating his lunch after returning from a driving shift. He nodded to a chair beside him.
“That’s where Phil used to sit,” he said. “We would sit and talk about just everything. If you didn’t make friends with Phil while he was here, it was your fault.”
Another driver, Jim Crosscut, entered the office. The two had driven down to see Phil just a couple weeks before he died. When they saw him, Phil said he didn’t feel like anything was wrong with him, Crosscut said. They had all worked together through his illness last summer.
“Even when it was bad, he never complained,” Crosscut said.
Phil was mostly a tram driver, preferring it to the large buses. He could sit closer to his passengers in the tram, and therefore the conversation was usually better. He drove on Fridays and Saturdays so that his wife, Gayle, could ride into the Institution with him for her choir practices.
For 30 years, Phil worked as a mail carrier in Hamburg, New York, along with his twin, Frank. They frequently confused newbies to the postal office with their matching uniforms and faces. He volunteered for the local fire department, which awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985.
Phil always carried a little notepad around with him. In it he would keep lists of names belonging to folks on his mail route, and then he would schedule his days around visiting those that needed some human interaction. He often spent his lunch breaks working through the list.
The people on Phil’s route never had to buy their own stamps because he would take orders and then stand in line in the post office lobby once his shift was over, cash in hand.
His first wife, Jane, died 22 years into their marriage. He met his second wife, Gayle, on his mail route. Her young daughter, an aspiring gymnast, would follow him around the streets doing cartwheels to show off. Eventually, he and Gayle went out for dinner.
“We sat there and just talked for five hours,” she said. “They had to come around and ask us to leave.”
About two months later, he proposed.
After 25 years on the same route, Phil switched to another. The kids at St. Mary of the Lake School put on a “Phil Skrzypek Day” to honor him when he switched away from their route. There was a turkey feast.
A few years later, Gayle and Phil moved nearer to Chautauqua and both applied for jobs on the grounds. From 2004 to 2015, Phil drove Chautauquans around the grounds by tram and by bus, enriching the community and meeting people from all over the world and all walks of life. Those people became great joys to him.
The thing that took Phil away from so many people — from all Chautauquans, from Gayle, from his children Catherine, Christopher, Ellen and Brian, his stepchildren Charles, Barbara and Karen, from his nine grandchildren, from his sisters Betty and Irvine and of course his brother Frank — was pancreatic cancer.
For 16 months he battled it, even getting jaundice from the cancer pushing up against a duct in his liver. Many of his family members, including his siblings, had already struggled with other types of the disease and won many times. But pancreatic cancer is a different type of beast, and few rarely beat it.
Without Phil, Chautauquans all have one less shoulder to lean on this season.
“I don’t know any other people like Phil, I don’t think,” Gayle said. “Chautauqua is poorer now without him.”