McCrabb: Despite dire diagnosis, Hamilton man keeps smiling

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Friends Family and Coworkers celebrate Philip Poppel at Butler Co Lumber who was worked there 27 years and was recently diagnosed with cancer

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Phil Poppel and his family were told he had weeks, maybe months, to live. His pancreas and liver are polluted with Stage 4 cancer, test results showed just three weeks ago.

In the matter of three weeks — a blink of an eye — he went from living a wonderful, yet simple, life to facing a death sentence.

The Poppel family had two options: Let Phil, the youngest of six children, die quietly or help him live life to the fullest.

If you’d been standing outside Butler County Lumber Co. on Wednesday night — with threatening clouds overhead — and watched Poppel’s joyful reaction when a Hamilton fire truck pulled into the parking lot, or as he smiled and posed for pictures with his family and friends, or heard countless stories, you’d know Phil Edward Poppel and his family chose the latter.

You may not know him — though his sister claims half of Hamilton knows Phil — and if that’s the case, it’s your loss. This upside down world needs more Phil Poppels. He possesses a smile that’s contagious.

He smiles. You smile. Even if you don’t know why.

“He’s a super guy, a big friend,” said one of his brothers, Clifford Poppel, 58.

Phil walked up and heard what his brother said.

“Yes,” he said in agreement.

Clifford moved in with Phil 15 years ago after their mother died. The two are inseparable.

“He’s my sidekick,” Clifford said.

But they’re much different, a current version of the Odd Couple.

“I’m the clean one,” Clifford said with a smile.

Then Clifford became quiet when asked about the purpose of Wednesday’s celebration.

“It’s like a goodbye,” he said.

There are plenty of reasons to feel sorry for Poppel.

When he was 5 years old, as the family was leaving church Sunday, he had a massive convulsion that stopped oxygen from reaching his brain. So now Phil’s a 53-year-old man in a boy’s brain. He rides his bike or walks the short distance from his home on Park Avenue to Butler County Lumber Co., where he has worked for nearly 27 years.

He plays with his train set in the basement and when a train used to pass the back of the house, he’d grab a ladder, lean it against the privacy fence, climb it and wave to the train conductors.

Talk about childhood innocence.

He attended Hamilton City Schools and graduated from Lakota High School in 1983. Since 1989, he has worked at Butler County Lumber Co., a third-generation family business that was founded in 1912. When he started in the Mental Retardation Developmental Disabilities work program, he had certain limitations at the lumber yard.

There was colored tape on the concrete and he wasn’t allowed to cross the line because of the dangerous equipment. But now, he’s given more freedom. He helps with the lumber as it comes off the saws and unloads supplies.

He’s one of the guys.

“Family,” is how Butler County Lumber Co. President Tom Sanders describes Poppel.

Then Sanders’ eyes filled with tears.

“He’s been amazing to us,” he said. “He has touched a lot of lives. Everyone knows Phil.”

Sanders said he wanted an opportunity for his employees, contractors and Phil’s family to “celebrate his life.”

The Poppel family, Phil, his three brothers and two sisters, recently returned from taking an eight-hour Amtrak train ride from Cincinnati to White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., home of The Greenbriar resort. As his sister, Pam Thompson, 61, talked about how Phil enjoyed the three-day vacation, he walked up behind his sister. His eyes are jaundice and his arms and legs lack muscles.

Still, he smiles.

“He’s happy today, but he’s happy every day,” his sister said.

Another brother, Perry Poppel, 60, a Miami University retiree, takes Phil to Andy’s Restaurant, his favorite diner, every Friday morning. Most times they get there before the cooks. He says his brother also enjoys scraping, then converting the metal into cash that he takes to the casino.

“He always feels good,” Perry Poppel said. “Phil sees things differently than we do.”

He was asked what he sees when he looks at his brother: “I see my best friend. Somebody that has been … the best part of our lives. I can’t imagine him not being here, but …”

There was no reason to finish the sentence. His brother was already over at a nearby picnic table, bringing a smile to someone else.