Five silk purses, each one exuberantly motley, all laced with memories. They are made from the old neckties that once belonged to Michael San Phillip W’67. And thereby hangs a tale.
San Phillip, a trader for Sandler O’Neill Partners, was at work on the 104th floor of 2 World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when the murderous hijackers crashed their plane into it. Only his wallet was found.
For the next three years, Jill Abbott GPU’93, San Phillip’s older daughter, grieved, tried to make sense of the tragedy—and poured her heart into a new life. She was pregnant at the time of her father’s death, and when her daughter was born three months later, she named the baby Michele in his honor.
“I think for the first three years I really focused on her, on everything that comes with being a first-time mom,” Abbott says. “There was a purpose for me now—my daughter. For the first couple of years, my mom and sister were dealing with grief differently, because they didn’t have that focus.”
After the three-year mark, Abbott began thinking more about her mother, Lynne, and her sister, Carrie. “I’m a female version of my father,” she says. “I also felt that maybe it was my responsibility to try to help my mom and sister. There was something I needed to do to turn a page.”
That something turned out to involve her father’s collection of colorful, often-whimsical ties, roughly 50 of them, still hanging in his closet in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Lynne hadn’t been able to bring herself to throw them away.
At the time Abbott, the senior events coordinator at the Winterthur Museum near Wilmington, Delaware, was having some business discussions with Kate Beachell, whose web-based business, Paisley Pear, featured homemade custom handbags and accessories. Abbott asked her whether she would be willing to transform her dad’s ties into purses. Beachell was game. On Christmas 2004, Abbott recalls: “I lied and told my mom that my husband needed new ties, and we took Daddy’s entire closet. I got the impression she felt somewhat relieved that they were out of her closet and she did not have to give them away; we took them for her.”
This past Mother’s Day, Beachell brought the five finished purses out to Winterthur. “They were fabulous,” Abbott says. “I just stopped and cried for five minutes.” Each bag incorporated at least one tie that had special resonance for the intended recipient. (In addition to Jill and Carrie, the other “girls” in San Phillip’s life were his sister, Carolyn, and Michele, the granddaughter he had never met.) Abbott’s, for example, included a tie from the U.S. Open tournament, which she and her father had attended together.
Some four months later, the family made its somber annual pilgrimage to Ground Zero for the emotional 9/11 anniversary. At dinner the night before, Abbott presented the bags to her mother, sister, and daughter. (She had shipped a bag to her Aunt Carolyn, who called them from Florida when they were on the way to Ground Zero.) The women were completely taken aback—and deeply moved.
“They loved them,” Abbott says. “Each bag was perfect for the person.”
Beachell is still making purses from other people’s ties—the Heirloom Collection—and will donate 20 percent of the sale price to charity (www.paisleypear.com). “I love using the bags,” says Abbott. “I did this purse project for my mom and sister, but I got as much out of it as they did. Every time I’m at the grocery store, people ask me about it, and I can talk about my dad. For me it’s healing, and it’s my way of dealing with grief—and keeping Daddy alive and in my heart.”
There’s another thread to this tale. When Howard Freedlander C’67 heard about the death of San Phillip, his old lacrosse teammate at Penn, he also decided to do something. And so the Michael San Phillip Memorial Scholarship, which honors all 13 of the Penn alumni killed on 9/11, was born.
Lynne and Carrie San Phillip gave the project their blessing, and Lynne suggested that, given her husband’s fondness for athletics, recipients of the scholarship should be scholar-athletes. As president of the Class of ’67, Freedlander then had to sell the idea to his classmates, some of whom might have preferred a bricks-and-mortar project for their class gift.
“This scholarship is an investment in the future, a way to make sure that the doors of an elite institution like the University remain open to those who lack the means to afford a world-class education,” says Freedlander. “A scholarship is a positive action; in this instance, it stands in stark contrast to the tragic circumstances of September 11, 2001—just as Jill has channeled her grief in proactive ways.” And it almost goes without saying that Abbott had Beachell donate her 20 percent of the purse price to the scholarship.
“In more than 39 years since I graduated, I consider the establishment of the Michael San Phillip Memorial Scholarship as my greatest contribution, the most meaningful form of service to the school,” Freedlander adds. “I just think we did the right thing for the right reasons. We memorialized classmates out of a tragedy that is now seared in the American soul, and staked out a claim for the future, memorializing all that is good about Mike San Phillip.” So far the scholarship’s recipients have been College senior Brian Walsh and College juniors Joseph Boaen and Sean Goodbody.
“Just like the purse project I did is keeping my dad’s spirit alive,” says Abbott, “the scholarship is a way his Penn peers are keeping his spirit alive.”