Phil Campbells and the Recovery of Phil Campbell, Ala.

January 4, 2012
A guy named Phil Campbell comes to the rescue of a town named Phil Campbell. And he brings a bunch of other Phil Campbells along to help.

It’s pretty safe to say that Phil Campbell loves Phil Campbell. And vice versa.

They're an unlikely couple who’d have to try pretty hard to be much more different. One’s a novelist from Brooklyn. The other is a small town in northwest Alabama, about 90 miles from Birmingham, that’s home to roughly 1,100 people. What Phil Campbell the man and Phil Campbell the town do have in common is obvious, and yet something as simple as a relatively ordinary name has become the basis of a deep connection between the two.

In 1995, Phil Campbell, Ala., organized a convention of people named Phil Campbell in Phil Campbell. In all, 22 Phil Campbells – and one Phyllis Campbell – attended the event in the town, named after a 19th Century train engineer named Phil Campbell. The convention was a self-described "silly prank" the Brooklyn Campbell dreamed up while in college and delightfully recounted in an article that year for Might magazine (and recently republished by McSweeney’s), “Phil Campbell? Phil Campbell. Welcome to Phil Campbell.”

In the years after, the Phil Campbells drifted apart. Efforts were made by locals to lure them back, but evidently, the thrill of being in the company of other Phil Campbells, in the town of Phil Campbell, had faded. Then a few years ago, on a whim, the Brooklyn Campbell decided to check in. He saw that the town was preparing to host a party in the Summer of 2011 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its incorporation, which seemed a perfect opportunity for a second Phil Campbell convention in Phil Campbell. And now with a social and searchable Internet on his side, he could invite an international collection of Phil Campbells.

“I had to do it again,” he says.

There were two Facebook pages for the event – one made by the town of Phil Campbell, the other by a group of conventioneer Phil Campbells. Eventually they merged and everyone started to get to know each other online. Preparations were underway and travel plans were being made by dozens of Phil Campbells from the U.S. and beyond. Australians. New Zealanders. English. “I even got a Jamaican,” Campbell says.

But on April 27, a month and a half before the big celebration, Phil Campbell, Ala., was hit by an EF5-rated tornado, the most dangerous and destructive kind. Winds were reported at more than 200 miles per hour.

"It looks like a bomb went off diagonally through the town," says Phil Campbell Mayor Jerry Mays.

Twenty-seven people died in the disaster. Roughly 450 structures were destroyed, including the town's high school. The overall damages totaled $119 million. For what Mays calls a "bedroom community" of just 1,100, the damage was devastating. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody was affected. Even, it turns out, the dozens of Phil Campbells, who had up until that moment been planning a carefree and somewhat wacky weekend in their nominal hometown.