Ted Phillips lived to work.
Every weekday, for more than 60 years, he woke at 4:20 a.m. and drove to his service station on Rossville Boulevard. Even when customers stopped coming, even when his health and his memory faded, he never wanted to abandon his post.
He stayed on that corner, pumping gas and working cars until last November, until he couldn't walk anymore, until the state took his driver's license away. Even after being placed in a nursing home he expected to be able to return to the job. He told his daughter he would take a bus. He would find a way.
"He had to get to the station," said his daughter, Melody Phillips Reser. "Nothing was going to keep him from it. It is sort of sad, really, that he loved it so much, but he did."
Phillips, a legend on the boulevard, died a week ago in his sleep, and will be buried in Chattanooga on Monday. He is survived by his only daughter and his granddaughter, Raleigh Palis. He was 91.
Ted's Service Station opened in 1953 and sold Pure Oil. At first the oil company couldn't find anyone to manage the small lot in a rough part of town, but Phillips stepped up. He worked on big rigs coming off the interstate and handled major trucking accounts. He used the money to buy his daughter nice clothes and piano lessons and set his wife up in a nice house. Over the years they went on four cruises.
For much of his career he worked seven days a week and came home after his daughter was in bed. After his wife of 63 years died of pneumonia in 2005 he was forced to move in with his daughter. But even then he made work a priority.
Many mornings he would fall trying to get to his car, and Reser would help him up and send him on his way. She tried to convince him to sell. The service station wasn't making money. Some months only a few people would come by for gas. At times, he kept the business afloat with his Social Security check. His daughter worried that people were taking advantage of him, asking for gas on credit and not paying. But he refused to let the station go.
At the nursing home he would stare out the window and imagine he was at the station. He asked how many cars were being worked on, how much money was coming in.
It's hard to know what to say at the funeral for a man whose life revolved around a gas station, Reser said, but she found a letter sent to her father from a man in Florida that she plans to read. Long ago, the man was the branch manager for Pure Oil Co. in Chattanooga, and wrote Phillips when he heard he was still working. His words seem like a fine tribute, she said.
"It is hard for me to believe that you carved out a living for you and your family in that little old service station on a postage stamp piece of property for nearly 60 years," the man wrote. "Ted I want you to know that I have the utmost admiration and respect for you and what you have accomplished. The endless hours and hard work that you have put in there just absolutely blow my mind. You are a legend in your own time.
"Unfortunately age and poor health have put an end to my traveling or else I would make a special trip to Chattanooga to shake your hand."
Contact staff writer Joan Garrett McClane at email@example.com or at 423-757-6601.