Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The man who died upright on a Rittenhouse Square bench

Phil Schultz died sitting upright on a Rittenhouse Square bench that faced multimillion-dollar homes in the city he had roamed for more than a decade.

Phil Schultz.
Phil Schultz.Read more

Phil Schultz died sitting upright on a Rittenhouse Square bench that faced multimillion-dollar homes in the city he had roamed for more than a decade.

A woman found him there about 9:30 a.m. Oct. 14. Three people from St. Mark's Episcopal Church, including the Rev. Sean Mullen, hurried two blocks up Locust Street after a parishioner recognized Phil's distinctive white, bushy beard.

By the time they arrived, police had drawn a sheet over his body. One of his sneakers poked out from underneath. That looked familiar.

So they prayed.

Phil was homeless. He refused shelter and rarely spoke, his grunts interspersed with few words. His silence offered both comfort and bewilderment for those who encountered him.

Beneath the gnarled beard, they said, there was something gentle - almost avuncular. Maybe, a few thought, he was autistic. A silent observer of this city.

Twelve years ago, St. Mark's started an outreach program that provided soup and coffee for the needy.

"Phil was one of the 10 people here on the first Saturday," Mullen said. "He's been here every Saturday ever since."

Mullen went to London in May, delivered a sermon about Phil's miraculous springtime recovery from near-death, and wondered: "Maybe Jesus did return when Phil came back."

The churchgoers used biblical names to describe Phil, who was tall, bearded, and gaunt. Sometimes, Phil was Moses, sometimes John the Baptist.

"I thought his name was Eric," another homeless man told Mullen last week.

"Eric?" Mullen said. "You mean Phil."

"No. We all called him 'E.' "

Mullen thought. It had been so long since he asked Phil his name.

"He might be Phil Schultz," Mullen said. "He might be somebody else. At one level, it doesn't matter. At another level, it would be nice to know who he actually was."

Five months before Phil died, Mullen read him his last rites. Phil had been spending more nights in the St. Mark's garden, under the two large tulip magnolia trees and next to the hydrangea. One Friday morning in May, a roofer working at the church heard Phil moan. He called 911.

The doctors told Mullen that Phil's blood pressure, body temperature, and hemoglobin levels were "incompatible with life."

They prayed.

"I laid my hands on him, anointed him, and commended him to God's care," Mullen said in his sermon. "And I stood there and cried at his bedside out of sheer confusion and helplessness, and a profound sense of failure."

Phil lived. Doctors found that he had hardened arteries and heart disease. He also had hookworm.

For two weeks he lingered at Pennsylvania Hospital, shrugging at help. Once released, he declined placement in a shelter. He returned to the warmth of Mass and the soup kitchen, where he received daily Communion for the next six months.

In Pew No. 166, to the left of the 167-year-old church's altar, Phil found refuge.

"He felt like he was charged to protect that place," said David Jenkins, 29, a parishioner who regularly visited Phil in the hospital. "He was a person to watch over St. Mark's Church."

"We all placed some sort of significance on his silence," said Kenny Pearlstein, 56, a longtime parishioner and volunteer at St. Mark's. "You'd become exuberant at the thought of him saying something."

Phil at times was fastidious. For years, Mullen said, Phil would attend every Mass at St. Mark's. (There are 13 a week.) Then he would stop. He wandered.

On June 11, a SEPTA police officer spotted Phil at Jefferson station and warned him not to loiter. When the officer saw Phil at the station later in the day, Phil was cited for loitering and defiant trespassing. A judge found him not guilty on Sept. 11.

Later that month, the church held an outdoors brunch for its families. Phil wandered by. Erika Takacs, the associate rector, paused. Did she need to shoo him away? No, that did not feel right. It's Phil.

"As I was having this conversation with myself in my head, I looked over and he had put down his plate," Takacs said. "He had this giant box of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. He was walking down the table, refilling all the bowls."

A few weeks later, Phil was dead. Authorities said the 56-year-old man died of heart disease.

Philip John Schultz was born on Jan. 1, 1959. He grew up on Long Island with his three siblings. He played soccer and baseball at Newfield High School. He got his associate's degree in business administration from Suffolk Community College.

He wanted to be a baseball umpire.

After a stint at an umpiring school in Florida, the instructors told Phil he was not good enough to be a minor-league ump. He came home. Stony Brook University hired him as a receiving clerk.

Often, Phil did not come to work. His boss knew Phil's older brother, Andrew, and called when Phil's absences were prolonged. About 14 years ago, when a few days turned into weeks, another call came.

Andrew Schultz, who lives in Upstate New York, drove to Phil's apartment. There was an eviction notice on the door. Phil's stuff was on the lawn.

"We didn't have a clue where he went," Andrew said.

The family reported Phil missing. Andrew suspected mental-health issues. Six months later, police found his car parked in the long-term lot at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Then Phil called from Philadelphia International. The police picked him up for loitering. Andrew offered Phil his home. Money. Anything.

"He just didn't want help," Andrew said.

The streets became Phil's home.

It rained Wednesday night, and 47 people came to St. Mark's for Phil's funeral. Andrew was there with his wife. So was Theresa Schultz, Phil's mother, from Florida.

Phil, she said, was a quiet boy. He went to Catholic school.

"He just wanted to be by himself," his mother said.

But Mullen struggled with Phil's presence. Yes, it was wonderful to see his community accept Phil. Yes, the donations offered to pay for Phil's funeral were heartening. The church, Mullen said, did what it could for Phil.

"And," Mullen said, "it still feels inadequate."

The church offered to cremate Phil and place his ashes in the church's columbarium. Instead, the family will bury Phil's brown casket this week on Long Island.

At the end of Mullen's sermon, he spoke of a recent story that questioned whether everything happens for a reason. He wished he knew how to help Phil. But, Mullen said, some things in life cannot be fixed.

"Now," Mullen said, "all we can do for Phil is carry him."