Philip Reeves: Farewell to a hero

Under a bright winter sun, hundreds of mourners gathered at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to pay their final respects to Philip Reeves, whose funeral was Saturday, Feb. 18. He was described as a hero, a mentor, a leader, and a friend.

“He was a great guy,” Keith Muratori of Rescue Fire Bridgeport said of Reeves, who died Feb. 7 of cancer at age 57. He was a 20-year veteran of the Bridgeport Fire Department, serving as a firefighter, engineer, training officer, safety officer, and battalion chief’s aide.

The man who had earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in homeland security and disaster management was described by his colleagues as “the professor, “brilliant,” “super genius.”

“On technical matters we picked his brain,” Muratori said. “Ropes, confined spaces, all the technical stuff, that was his forte.”

“Phil was a great teacher,” said Lt. Junior Morale, and Fire Inspector Joe Taylor added that “he had a nice, dry wit.”

Lt. Glen Christie came up with Reeves. “When we came on, he was a leader, but he never flaunted it. He was a leader by example,” Christie said. “One of the great things about him was his great intellect.” Despite that, he said, Reeves “still fit in. He was never condescending.”

After a procession led by the Connecticut Firefighters Pipes and Drums corps, police cars, and a flower-draped fire truck, Reeves’ flag-draped coffin was carried into St. Matthew’s by six firefighters, followed by his family.

His Bridgeport “family” was joined by firefighters from many departments, including Wilton, Westport, New Canaan, Boston, Fairfield, Waterbury, South Metro, and Connecticut Statewide. An Army veteran, Reeves was a member of the Massachusetts National Guard. He served two tours in Iraq as a medevac helicopter pilot.

It was of this service that his daughter, Rebecca, spoke during the service. “I don’t think one person knew the entirety of Phil Reeves,” she said. “He was a husband, a father, a sibling, a son, a friend to some and to others a mentor. But we can all indisputably agree that he is and always will be a hero.”

While he was deployed on his second tour in 2011, Rebecca was able to call him on an international cell phone. He told her of an incident with a little girl that happened five years earlier.

Flying his medevac helicopter, he went with a crew to pick up the child, about 8 years old, who had had her leg amputated becaus severe burns. It was dark and she was frightened. Reeves gave her his flashlight. Although the girl’s father tried to return it, Reeves let her keep it because he knew she would be making several trips. Finally, when her medical treatment was complete, the girl’s father came to the air base and returned the flashlight.

“When I asked him why he told me that story,” Rebecca recalled, “he said it was to show we are all people, and no matter who we are or where we come from, we need to learn about all the people and what we can do to help them.”

She encouraged those assembled to “take a page out of his book” and be or become a hero to at least one person. “He would be so proud to have that … be his legacy.”

Lt. Col Jonas Patruno, battalion commander 31126 Aviation of the Massachusetts National Guard described Reeves as a “rare thinker, a lover of knowledge and always ready to share it.” He had “a genuine concern for the welfare of his soldiers, his impassioned involvement in the success of his unit and his mission, his willingness to speak his mind, to teach, to share. …

He related what Reeves once said. “You will live with the example you set. He taught us a sense of duty, personal responsibility and commitment to duty as citizen soldiers and he did set an outstanding example.”

Reeves’ sister Leslie Kanerva remarked on each of his careers. To the firefighters, she said, “Phil savored every moment of his time as a firefighter. As frustrating and heartbreaking and aggravating as some of those moments were he would not have traded his career for anything in the world, anything.

“He also equally, and maybe more importantly in some ways, loved his career as an aviator. He was destined to fly and he loved it so much. He cherished learning everything he could about his aircraft, every flight, every moment spent with his colleagues and in the National Guard.

“In both cases, I know because he told me straight out, that if he had known things were going to end the way they did, he would have made sure he would have one more time behind the stick of his helicopter, one more time on a fire truck and at a scene. He absolutely loved being with you all.”

Ralph Nathanson, recently retired of the Wilton Fire Department, spoke of Reeves as his friend. After telling a story about going together to buy a boat he said, “Phil always had a way of getting to you. As I say he learned you all the time. You didn’t think you were getting learned but he learned you and he learned you good. …

“He was a good man, and I’m going to miss my friend.”

Many in the community participated in the funeral, some as ushers, as Mike Kaelin did.

“He was a wonderful, selfless person,” Kaelin told The Bulletin. “Words cannot express our gratitude as a town for his life and his service. Phil dedicated his life to serving others. To honor him, very many Wiltonians volunteered to serve at his memorial service from Phil's fellow firefighters to his wife Robyn's fellow teachers at Miller-Driscoll, the parishioners at St. Matthew's, Wilton CERT, and the volunteer ambulance corps. It was a labor of love for everyone.”

Al Alper, chairman of the Republican Town Committee, of which Reeves was a member said, “Phil Reeves will long be remembered for his generosity of spirit, his strong sense of community and involvement, and a belief system that made him a good friend, neighbor and citizen; our Wilton family has lost a good man. Our hearts and thoughts are with him and his family.”

At the conclusion of the church service, Reeves’ flag-draped coffin was carried to the courtyard, where the flag was folded and presented to the family. The Massachusetts Military Funeral Honors unit of the Army National Guard fired a 21-gun salute and Taps was played. Two Army helicopters flew low overhead. The pipe and drum corps played one last time, before uniformed personnel were dismissed.

Memorial donations may be made to the Bridgeport Fallen Firefighters, the USO, or any veterans organization.