We have suffered a profound loss as a community: On April 3, 2019, Dr. Phil Furia passed away. Known to many for his “Great American Songbook” programming and concerts he did on WHQR, Furia was a UNCW professor who championed developing arts programs. Looking back, his life was filled with wonder, inquiry and accomplishment.
How many of us have been presented with the key to a city? Well, Phil was. He received the key to Savannah for his biography of Savannah’s Johnny Mercer, “Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer.” He also received a Fulbright to teach in Austria, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, not to mention he was a guest on Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air.” Each accomplishment would make up lifetime goals for many people, but Phil managed to pack all of them into one life—not that it made him vain or boastful. You would be hard-pressed to get him to talk about himself. He’d rather talk about music or his dogs.
Phil was a dedicated educator; losing him mid-semester was a shock for his colleagues and students. “I enjoyed his creative presence and his passion for creative research in class,” says Melissa Newcity, currently enrolled in his non-fiction II class. “Every student in class respected him, and they came eager to each class, to discuss what it meant to find deeper meaning in our own research. I shared a personal connection with Dr. Furia and the time he spent in my hometown in Savannah, GA . . . I could tell from his enthusiasm he had a love for music, writing and sharing his ideas with others.”
Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, a colleague at UNCW, recalls an unexpected, yet pivotal role Phil played in her life. She was enrolled in UNC’s PhD program when she received a call from English department professor Tim Bass, announcing her acceptance to the UNCW MFA program.
“I said ‘no’ over and over for a number of misguided reasons,” she remembers, “even though I wanted to be a writer more than anything. ‘Hang on,’ Tim said. ‘I’m going to get someone.’ Phil Furia came on the line. I’d known him as an undergraduate but hadn’t had the opportunity to study with him. If you’ve heard his voice on the radio, you know its musicality. If you’ve met him, you know with what charm and intellect he spoke. Phil didn’t persuade me that day so much as soothe me. His quiet sincerity and humor clarified for me a hectic vision of my future and set me on the right path. Phil made everything seem possible—and why wouldn’t he when his own life had been such a testament to what could be?”
Phil began his career at UNCW as chair of the English department. He also was the first chair of creative writing and director of the film studies program in its early days‚ before it became a full department. And he served as interim chair of UNCW’s theatre department. It speaks to a personality that is good at finding consensus, honoring differing points of view and bringing people together to work toward a common goal. The tribute from Dave Monahan, one of his colleagues from film studies, illustrates it best.
“I first met Phil when . . . I was here interviewing for an assistant professor position—my first real professional interview,” Monahan remembers. “After the interview, Phil gave me a tour of Wilmington. I was nervous to move to a strange place, but his obvious love of this town got me excited about living here. A few months later, after I got the job but before I started the position, I flew down on short notice for one day to close on a house. Phil somehow put together a party to welcome me. Thanks to him, I knew I was home.”
Yet, the public always will remember Phil for “The Great American Songbook” on WHQR. Though Laurie Patterson, Phil’s wife, was his collaborator on two books and “The Great American Songbook” live shows, they had a third musketeer on the project: George Scheibner. “What struck me first and foremost about Phil was his passion for spreading the word about the great songwriters he so admired,” Scheibner admits. “‘I have a couple of new scripts!’ he would say. ‘Can we record them tonight?’”
Scheibner always obliged. Together, they recorded over 300 radio features.
“No matter how long the day at WHQR had already been for me,” he notes. “Phil’s enthusiasm was not to be denied. And we would get a few more episodes of ‘The Great American Songbook’ feature in the can.”
They developed such a strong following, the two began featuring musicians and performers conversant in “The Great American Songbook” as live shows. It was a natural evolution that reinvigorated Phil’s passion.
“Phil [had such] enthusiasm for telling a particularly entertaining story from his vast collection and enjoying the audience’s reaction to the combination of his narrative and his wife Laurie’s whimsical and often touching visual accompaniment,” he notes. “And, of course, it all led up to the singers and musicians bringing the song to life on stage. I never saw Phil happier than after a show when members of the audience came up to meet him in front of the stage and tell him how he had brought their fondest musical memories back to life that evening.”
Julie Rehder and Jack Krupicka were two of the performers who worked on the shows. They had played on another WHQR feature, the “Soup to Nuts” concert series, when Phil took notice of them and asked them to perform on “Songbook.”
“Before meeting him, I assumed Phil was a creaky academic fellow who had a strange obsession with old songs and the histories of their creation. I had the whole thing backwards,” Krupicka details. “Phil was a creative writer. His love of people, words, music, theatre and film was preamble. The factual histories of the songs were grist for Phil to write nonfiction short stories that he could perform to an audience. Each story is like a 3:05 hit 45 single. Every word is intentional. There is an arc. There is surprise and sometimes there is a great laugh. It’s not history; it’s art. As a musician I viewed Phil’s stories as a setup for the real stuff: the songs. Now I think, perhaps, the music was the interlude between the stories.”
Rehder says it was a successful partnership from act one. They really enjoyed the freedom allowed to put their own spin on the tunes. “We did four ‘Great American Songbooks’ with Phil and Laurie, the last being in 2014 at Kenan Auditorium—which also featured Nina Repeta and the amazing musician and showman Grenoldo Frasier, who recently died.”
In addition to sharing music, Laurie and Phil made the performers feel like family. They became friends and would share wine, food and talk about their love of their dogs, music and its history. The latter is what Rehder will miss most.
“I never got to ask him what he thought of the #MeToo movement concerns over the lyrics, ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside,’” she notes. “He loved the fact Frank Loesser and his wife Lynn first sang it at their private parties in 1944 when no one would ever had thought of date rape as subject matter.”
That is where the magic of Phil was best experienced: the convergence of his vast knowledge, with an educator’s desire to inspire a conversation and spark thoughtful connections. He was a man of great scope, and accomplishment and shared so much with countless students and with a community that adored his work with “The Great American Songbook.”
Melissa Newcity perhaps sums it up best: “We will miss Dr. Furia’s wit, his classy humor, and his vast knowledge, but we are eternally grateful he shared his work with the world and his distinct voice will continue to live on the page and in our hearts.”
Phil, we will miss your smile, your calm thoughtfulness, and your brilliant, generous mind. You left us so much to treasure—thank you.