published Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Life at the pump: Ted Phillips has spent nearly 60 years running his gas station

Ted Phillips talks to a customer on the phone as mechanic Tom Anderson gets a cup of coffee Wednesday morning. Phillips has owned and operated a full service gas station on Rossville Boulevard for 59 years.
Ted Phillips talks to a customer on the phone as mechanic Tom Anderson gets a cup of coffee Wednesday morning. Phillips has owned and operated a full service gas station on Rossville Boulevard for 59 years.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

There is a stiff wind blowing down Rossville Boulevard, and on a Tuesday at Ted's Service station cars pass in the cold.

Ted Phillips, a 90-year-old who walks with a hunch and a cane, sits in a corner inside, surrounded by the clutter of car parts and broken coffee makers.

His mechanic, Tom Anderson, is on lunch. So he sips Coca-Cola from a white Styrofoam cup and waits. Dozens of blue uniforms, washed and pressed, hang on the wall behind him. The gas tanks are full this month, paid for by parts of his Social Security check, he admits.

But it's pure gasoline, he says, with none of that alcohol or ethanol.

A metal sign -- "Full Servs" -- dangles above the pumps. A small wooden plaque above his desk reads: "All things cometh to he who waiteth. If he worketh like hell while he waiteth."

For nearly 60 years his life has ticked away at the pumps and the cash register of this little gas station. People speed by, on the way to the highway or the ridge. It's hard to tell if anyone is inside the station.

The tan 1995 LaSabre that he drives 9.3 miles every day to work sits parked, but a large chunk is missing from the front bumper. It looks like part of an abandoned past.

He won't pay to get it fixed, his family says. It had been totaled several years ago, but he bought it back from the insurance company for $250, and drives it through snow and rain.

Here, at the station, he missed time he could have spent with his wife, Alice Jean, who died in a Chattanooga hospital of pneumonia in 2005. He keeps a sepia-tone picture of her with him. In it she smiles with dark lipstick and a housewife's perm.

Here, at the station, he missed really knowing his only daughter, Melody, he says. There was always the work -- 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. He left before the sun was up. He came home when his baby was already asleep. He worked weekends.

Melody lives with him now, but there is still a distance between them.

"She never grew up with me, and I never grew up with her," he says.

He changed truck tires so Melody could go to piano lessons and have nice clothes, he says. He took Alice Jean on four cruises and bought two houses.

With work, there was gain. He once owned two stations and won awards for service. Trucking companies had accounts and he knew the drivers by name. When the gas prices spiked after a hurricane hit the gulf several years ago and everyone rushed for fuel, he kept his. He sold it for the price before the supply disruption.

"We don't rip people off," he says.

And there was loss. His trusty mechanic, Mack, who had turned wrenches and changed oil for him for 35 years, died.

Many customers stopped coming. Some of those trucking companies went bankrupt and couldn't pay their bills.

Melody said he was too trusting.

"If you went down there and bought $1,000 worth of gas and shook his hand and told him you would mail him a check, he would say, 'O.K.,'" she said.

In a spiral bound ruled notebook he keeps the names that have come by for service in October. Six people.

Every now and then a woman named Kathy Vaughn, who is the same age as his daughter, comes by to bring him lunch and junk food for his snack machines. They met when she was going business to business selling Sam's Club memberships and she decided to keep up with him because she worried about him working by himself.

Once, he fell on the grease racks in the shop. He fell in the driveway, too. After his wife died, he vacuumed his house so much that he threw out his hip.

"You don't know how to give up," Kathy says.

"I can't sit still," he says. "I've got to keep moving."

She listens to his stories about time in the Coast Guard, how he met his wife at a corner drug store at Fourth and Walnut street, how his daughter wants him to sell the shop and stay home and watch Bonanza reruns, how he won't do it because he's waiting for the cash windfall that will come when the road to the hospital gets widened.

He tells jokes and Kathy laughs.

"He's wise," she says. "He gives me advice about life. Things don't always go the way you want. He's got the ear to listen."

"The world couldn't handle two of me," Ted says.

Kathy laughs again.

When he is alone, without the mechanic, without visitors, he thinks about how he can make money, he says.

"If I run out of change, I'll have to close and forget I worked here."

Not long ago, Melody tried to sell Ted's Service station, and Ted went along until the Realtor wanted to put up a for-sale sign. He just couldn't let go.

Every now and then someone will come into the store and ask to buy it. He tells them he'll hang on to it just a little longer.

Melody doesn't argue with him about it anymore. The mechanic will look out for him, she tells herself.

"He doesn't understand why the business isn't like it was," she says. "But it's something for him to do."

He'll die before he lets that go.

Every weekday morning she hears his alarm go off at 4:20 a.m. Then he's gone again.

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at jgarrett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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