When Phyllis Pharr passed away on Jan. 20, 2015, after a battle with cancer, the campus lost a long-time professor and coach, who some said was the soul of Queens.
A professor at Queens since 1964, Phyllis Pharr coached women’s tennis from 1965 until 2000, according to athletic department records. She also coached men’s tennis and volleyball, said Athletic Director Jeannie King. She was inducted into the Royal Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010—just one of the many honors Pharr won throughout her career. Pharr also won the Hunter-Hamilton Love of Teaching Award in 2008.Coaching Career
Pharr’s student-athletes loved her, and she was always close with them, King said.
“I would have to say, she treated them more like her own children than she did players,” she said.
When King herself took a tennis class with Pharr, she gained a whole new level of respect for the coach.
“She could break the mechanical pieces down, “ she said. “She was extremely fundamental.”
Chrys Baker, Pharr’s friend for over 30 years, agreed.
“She cared about the students,” Baker said. “ She wanted them to learn.”
This was proven by her willingness to go above and beyond the duties of her job, said Blair College of Health Dean Tama Morris.
“I think that it’s very easy to put your head down and do your job,” Morris said.
Pharr didn’t do that.
“Phyllis started a youth tennis camp, and she was a judge for city-wide male and female athletes of the year, ”Morris said. “She really believed in health. It wasn’t just a job for her.”
One of Dr. Emily Seelbinder’s favorite memories of Pharr centers on just an ordinary day at one of those tennis camps.
“One summer afternoon I happened to be walking by the tennis courts as a light rain began to fall, “ said Seelbinder via email.
Pharr was out walking with her campers.
“Just as I was thinking the rain might dampen the afternoon activities,” Seelbinder said, “I heard Phyllis call out, ‘who wants to play ticket-tennis in the rain?’”
Several of the campers yelled out, “Yay! Ticket-tennis in the rain,” she said.
“I still don’t know what ticket-tennis is,” Seelbinder said. “But I do know those kids had fun playing it, and they probably improved their footwork, too.”
Historian and Leader
Pharr was exposed to 51 years of change at Queens, said King. So, she was whom colleagues in the athletic department went to when they needed to know about Queens’ past.
“We went to her too often as the historian,” King said. “She was the rock from that standpoint.”
But Pharr helped to shape Queens’ history and culture, too, Morris said.
“She…got to see Queens grow while she grew professionally,” Morris said. “And being a faculty member, you have an opportunity to help shape the campus and help shape the curriculum.”
Pharr was known to fight for her department at faculty meetings, Baker said, adding that she fought for women’s equality in athletics, too.
“Phyllis was the soul of Queens,” Morris said. “When you think of Queens, you think of people like Phyllis.”
But as much as Pharr impacted and knew of Queens’ past, she still lived in the present.
“Phyllis was a very here-and-now and future-thinking person,” Morris said.
Her attitude of thinking ahead helped her upon her cancer diagnosis in Aug. 2014, she said.
Pharr never stopped fighting, Morris said, noting that Pharr was preparing to start another treatment option on the day she passed away.
“Even to that last day, she was still planning on that last step to get better,” she said.
Pharr’s doctor called her the “definition of determined,” Seelbinder said.
But, while Pharr needed to focus on her own battle, she also had to deal with another family member’s illness.
“The week before she became ill, her brother had been given the all-clear on a cancer diagnosis,” Morris said. But then he relapsed.
Morris called Pharr frequently and asked how she was doing. And, instead of complaining about her struggles, Pharr would say she was worried about her brother.
“And that’s typical about Phyllis—putting the other person first,” she said.
Pharr’s brother died a month before she did.
During her illness, Pharr’s family, former students and colleagues flocked to the hospital to keep her company, Seelbinder said.
“One long-time colleague brought her fresh lobsters and cooked a meal for her,” Seelbinder said. “Her college roommates, with whom she’d had annual reunions since they graduated, brought last year’s reunion to her.”
Even in her illness, Pharr continued to enjoy her life, Morris said, remembering a story Seelbinder told at Pharr’s memorial.
In a YouTube video posting of Queens’ memorial for Pharr, Seelbinder tells that story of a Christmas-time shopping trip with her.
After getting in the car to go shopping, “She breathed a deep, contented sigh, and said, ‘Oh! Isn’t it a lovely day?’” Seelbinder says to the audience.
They spent the day shopping, at one point trying to get the electric shopping cart in and out of the restroom handicap stall. They got her into the stall all right, Seelbinder says. But getting her out proved difficult.
“She backed it out. Well, first thing she did is run it into the edge of the door—you know, the frame. So, she went forward again,” Seelbinder says.
By the time Pharr got out of the stall, both women were laughing.
“We laughed all the way to the front of the store. We laughed all the way home,” she says.
On the way home, they made a detour to look at the chicken-wire balls of light hung in the trees.
“Phyllis just crowed with joy,” Seelbinder says.
They returned back to Pharr’s house and met Seelbinder’s partner, Lydia, there. They stayed for a glass of wine.
“We had a real nice talk, and it was a good glass of wine, “ Seelbinder says. At the end of night, Pharr thanked her for the good day.
“She said ‘as my kids used to say… I had a wonderful day. Thank you for the wonderful day!’” Seelbinder says.
Leaning in towards the conference table, Morris reflected on that story.
“And that was Phyllis. Every day was the best day,” she said.
Go to https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DUaqhbqrQb4 to take a look at Queens’ memorial service for Phyllis Pharr.