Celebrating a Friend’s Birthday by Donating to St. Jude

Willie Bland, wife of the late bluesman Bobby Blue Bland, relaxes in the room that Eugene Phillips named in honor of his friend. Photo by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Home is where Eugene Phillips’ heart is and where he feels most comfortable. His heart is also with the children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who grapple with catastrophic diseases.

On Sunday evening (Feb. 10), Phillips opened the door of his lavishly decorated home in Germantown to a cadre of special friends who celebrated his birthday over dinner and made a donation to St. Jude. 

Phillips, whose birthday was Feb. 12, has raised more than $100,000 for St. Jude over the course of 35 years – thanks to an eclectic mix of friends: doctors, CEOs, entertainers, entrepreneurs, ministers, business owners, social justice advocates, and others.

“It’s a blessing to have friends to donate money to St. Jude in honor of my birthday,” Phillips said.

Raising funds for St. Jude sparked Phillips’ interest decades ago after longtime community activist Sandy Vogel Lewis escorted him on a tour of the campus. She had served more than 20 years on St. Jude’s board before she died in 2010.

“I was so impressed,” he said. “They [St. Jude] do so much for children and their families.”

Phillips embraced Lewis as a dear friend. She was credited with helping St. Jude’s founder Danny Thomas grow the hospital into a worldwide pediatric treatment and research facility.

“I told Sandy that my birthday would always be celebrated for St. Jude,” he said. 

A photo of Lewis hangs in Phillips’ home. In fact, just about every wall in his two-story home is adorned with photos of his friends and St. Jude contributors. The photos are keepsakes, irreplaceable memories, he said. 

Some rooms are named in honor of his friends – for example, the late rhythm and blues entertainer Rufus Thomas. His memories are framed in each photo and embody the man that Phillips had happily regarded as his good friend.

“Rufus was so happy. It [a room in his honor] meant so much to him,” said Phillips, recalling those special moments when the entertainer would come over and drift off to sleep on a soft, cushioned recliner. 

Another friend and entertainer, the late Bobby Blue Bland, is featured prominently in another room. His eyes seem to glare at the onlooker. His wife, Willie Bland, said her husband appreciated the honor.

“He liked it,” she said. A private duty licensed practical nurse, Bland didn’t hesitate to lavish praise on Phillips. She appreciates their friendship. “Eugene has been a friend of ours for so many years.” 

Bobby Blue Bland died in 2013. His voice wails from a recording that Phillips plays whenever he feels a need to relax in the room that he named in honor of his friend. Sitting quietly, he reflects on the good times. 

 “When I’m here at home and all over the place, it’s good to have the memories,” said Phillips, noting that the memories will occupy his mind for the rest of his life.

Anita Ward-Richardson and Phillips were neighbors once. She remembers when Phillips first talked about supporting St. Jude. It was around the time when her million dollar selling, chart-topping single, “Ring My Bell,” caught fire in 1979.

She and her husband, Stephen R. Richardson, are frequent guests at Phillips’ birthday celebration each year. Her appreciation for Phillips is evident: “Eugene is such a wonderful person. He’s so kind.”

They came – couples and singles, near and far – to celebrate with Phillips, to fellowship with one another, to support a worthy cause: St. Jude’s children.

Several guests conversed with one another and shared stories. Phillips made them all feel at home. They made him feel special. He was a jovial host. 

Zeina Alwfeu and Michael Fahr were present. So were Louisette and Dino Palazzola, Mimi Bell and Sonny McQueen, Doris and Bubba Bridges (comedian Steve Harvey’s mother-and father-in-law). 

Other guests included Anita and James Bridges, Janelle and Reginald Eskridge, Gwen Nelson and Roosevelt Boyd, Sarah Schwab, Rick Abraham, Michael Donahue, Gina Roberts, and Dr. Gregory Hanissian.

Rahechelia and Elder Aaron L. Patterson made the trip all the way from Munford, Tenn., about 30 miles outside of Memphis. They have celebrated with Phillips for about four years now. 

Giving the host his props, Patterson – who serves as minister of worship at Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ and president of the missions department – said, “His dedication is unparalleled.” 

He said the reason for the birthday celebration is to support St. Jude. “And we look forward to it each year.”

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