Garrison Keillor's earliest memory of his oldest brother, Phil, is set on their grandmother's farm. "I suppose I was two or three," says the author and Prairie Home Companion host. "I was being chased by a goose, and he came in and drove the goose away. There were a couple of evil geese on the farm."
Keillor would grow up to tell stories like this. Phil would become a coastal engineer with the UW-Madison's Sea Grant Program, but never lost his impulse to protect people: He was among a handful of people who started the homeless shelter that grew into Transitional Housing Inc. and, later, Porchlight. In addition to serving on the shelter's board, he was a frequent volunteer on the late shift.
John Philip "Phil" Keillor died on Feb. 27, after sustaining critical head injuries in a fall while ice-skating in Vilas Park. He was 71. He is survived by his wife, Ann-Britt, a son, two daughters, his mother, seven grandchildren, two sisters and three brothers, including Garrison, who is coming to Madison to pay tribute to his late brother with a May 6 performance at the Overture Center. The performance will raise funds for a new Tenney Park shelter.
"He and I both loved the farm," Keillor remembers. Phil also loved water. They grew up in Anoka, Minn., hard by the Mississippi River. "We used to skate on the Mississippi," Keillor recalls. "You could do that once every four or five years, when it froze smooth. Then you could skate for miles. We had long-blade skates. He used to go out and open up his jacket, a big jacket, and make a sail out of it. And when the wind was out of the north, you could get up a terrifying speed. I can remember him going 'round the bend and down around the islands, and he would be gone until dark."
There were grand childhood forays to Lake Superior, where Phil and Garrison would help their father fish for smelt in the spring. "When they were really running you could just dip your net and come up with 10 pounds of fish," Keillor remembers. "My dad would go up there and come back with 200, 250 pounds of smelt. My brother and I would clean them, cut off the head and tail, fillet them and take out the entrails." Frozen, this bounty would provide 75 or 80 meals. "You would bread them and fry them," Garrison says. "They were fine. We lived on those."
Phil's early reading of the Horatio Hornblower books and novels set at sea magnified his affinity for water. He became an avid sailor. "His idea of manhood was, I think, very much embodied in sailing and working out problems," says Keillor, who notes sailing make perfect sense for an engineer. "A sailor, things break, storms come up, the world is always surprising you, but you - a rational person - do not allow yourself to be stampeded, and you work things out."
Keillor read some of his older brother's Horatio Hornblower books but was more attracted to satire. The satirist "does not have to fix anything," he observes, and Phil made for quite a large target. "As a satirist, I must say, he was a very easy person to make fun of. He was very serious about moral issues."
This seriousness is reflected in the things Phil carried, Keillor notes. "I think he always had a scout knife or a Swiss Army knife, and he always had a clean handkerchief, and he always had some clippings in his pocket that he meant to show people." Newspaper stories about the Great Lakes, or the ozone layer, or global warming. "My brother, throughout the Bush administration, found a great many things to be earnest about."
He also found an ideal home when he arrived in Madison to attend the UW. "There was enough ferment and diversity for him," Keillor says. "He could keep his boat on Lake Mendota, and he could be in it in 10 minutes and out on the water. You could find eccentric, even dangerous people, but you could also find this solitude. He had a great imagination: When he was out on Lake Mendota he was on the Atlantic, really."
On land, Phil's compassion for the homeless and commitment to providing them with shelter might be ascribed to his faith. "We grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical group that he worked his way out of," Keillor says. In Madison, Phil found a spiritual home at Arbor Covenant Church. "He held onto his integral faith in Jesus," Keillor observes, but came to believe "that expression of one's faith lay out there in the world and that one needed to engage with the world."
Wednesday at the Overture Center, Keillor intends to mount "a show of the sort that my brother would have enjoyed seeing." He'll tell a few stories and feature Robin and Linda Williams, "whose music Phil really enjoyed."
"We'll sit out there on stage and we'll pass some songs around and have a fun time."
Garrison Keillor with Robin & Linda Williams and Rich Dworsky in a benefit for the new Tenney Park shelter, 7:30 pm Wednesday, May 6, Overture Center. $49-$29.
A Fireside Chat with Garrison Keillor, 4:30-6:15 pm Wednesday, May 6, at the Sollinger residence, 1206 Sherman Ave., with music by Peter Leidy and a Lake Wobegon buffet including powdermilk biscuits. $500/two. Details at