PHIL CAMPBELL, Ala. – After the small Alabama city of Phil Campbell was ravaged in April by a tornado that killed more than two dozen people and hurt even more, a select group from around the world offered to help: men named Phil Campbell.
Phil Campbells from across the globe are converging this weekend on the hard-hit city of 1,150 for the "I'm With Phil" convention, a gathering meant to raise spirits, money and new roofs.
Phil Campbells are cleaning up storm debris, marching in a parade, donating money to build a Habitat for Humanity house, listening to country music and just showing they care.
"We're doing whatever it takes to be part of the town for a weekend," said Phil Campbell of Nottingham, England.
There's also Phil Campbell from Brooklyn, N.Y.; Phil Campbell from Juneau, Alaska; Phil Campbell from La Farge, Wis.; Phil Campbell from Austin, Texas; Phil Campbell from Glasgow, Scotland; Phil Campbell from Palo Alto, Calif., ... you get the idea. A couple Phils from Alabama are here, and two from Australia are expected.
Organizers say 18 Phil Campbells plan to be here before the weekend is out, and they're not picky on the spelling.
"We are asking all Phil, Philip, Phillip, Philippe, Philipp, Philippa, Felip, Fil, Felipe, Filip, Filippo, Filippu, Filipe, Filype, Phylip, Phillep, Pilib, Fulop, Fulup, Phyllis, Philice, and Philomena Campbells to join us," said a Facebook group for "I'm With Phil," the post-tornado name of an event that started years ago as the Phil Campbell Convention.
Located about 95 miles northwest of Birmingham, the town began in the 1880s as a work camp established by railroad crew leader Phillip Campbell, originally of England. It was incorporated in 1911 as the only town in Alabama to have both a first and last name, a distinction it still holds.
After hearing the city mentioned for laughs on the old CBS-TV show "Hee Haw," Brooklyn writer Phil Campbell visited during a trip to Alabama and decided to organize a convention in the town for people with the same name.
"Phil Campbell is such a bland name," he said.
Twenty-two Phils and one Phyllis showed up for the first convention in 1995, but hopes for making it annual event fizzled. Months ago, Brooklyn Phil and others banded together through the Internet and decided to try again. They had help from the city's parks director, who mailed about 400 invitations to people named Phil Campbell.
Long before a massive EF-5 twister plowed through the city during the Southern tornado outbreak on April 27, this year's gathering was planned to coincide with the town's 100th anniversary celebration scheduled for Saturday. The twister killed 27 local residents and injured twice as many, some seriously. Among the city's 450 or so homes, dozens were destroyed and even more were damaged.
After the tornado, Alaska Phil felt compelled to come back to the town he first visited in '95. Raised in Oklahoma and familiar with the power of tornadoes, he's now pastor at Northern Light United Church in Juneau. He took up a collection and raised about $5,000 to help the Alabama town.
"Just because of the coincidence of our names we can do some good," he said Friday. Then, he pulled on work gloves and joined seven other Phils in clearing limbs and a shattered pavilion outside the Phil Campbell Community Center, now a distribution site serving tornado survivors.
There's at least one drawback to the event: It gets confusing having so many people named Phil Campbell in one place. The Phils tend to call each other by their hometown or state rather than "Phil."
"Hey California, you want a sandwich?" said Brooklyn Phil.
"There's Birmingham," said Alaska Phil.
In those first days after the storm, Mayor Jerry Mays wanted to cancel the anniversary festivities and the Phil Campbell gathering. The thought of celebrating anything amid flattened homes and funeral wreaths seemed wrong.
"An EF-5 tornado just takes everything with it," he said. "Those 27 people in town, you know them all."
But then Mays heard about all the people who were planning to visit despite the tragedy — including two Phil Campbells from suburban Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, which were both hit by twisters the day Phil Campbell was so heavily damaged.
Mays reconsidered, and he's glad he did.
"I got to thinking maybe it would give people a chance to get this off their minds and enjoy themselves a little," said Mays. "When the Phil Campbell from New York got all this going ... I said, 'Let's do it.'"
Now, rather than having just another sweltering weekend in Phil Campbell, the Phils will help in the cleanup and reconstruction. The Phils, some companies and others are donating money to help the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity construct a home. About $35,000 has been raised so far, said Brooklyn Phil.
The town's annual anniversary celebration — the Phil Campbell Hoedown Festival — will include music acts and homespun events like a bubblegum-blowing contest, a car show and the parade of Phils.
Before the tornado, organizers had made a few changes in the Hoedown Festival, like moving the concert stage across a street to a lot shaded by big, full hardwood trees. It was just too hot last year, they decided.
The stage this year is in the new location, but listeners may the same old heat.
"We didn't know the storm was going to take out all the trees," said Ann Bragwell, the town clerk. "Trees are pretty scarce around here right now."