A life of business ventures, community service, father of ten
By Barbara Van Reed
There are many ways to describe Philip L. Hopkins: soldier, sailor, pilot, engineer, entrepreneur, bank trustee, hospital board director--he’s done all those things and more.
I first met Phil at a Chamber of Commerce Business after Hours event last year and learned a little about his story. I chatted with him again several times and asked if he would consider an interview for the paper. He agreed, and finally, a year later, we sat down and he told me about his many ventures.
Phil was originally from Cortland, New York, a town about 30 miles south of Syracuse, and graduated from Cortland High School in 1943. He grew up in the Depression Era. His father had set up a business with dump trucks for highway work but lost all his equipment during the Depression, so his mother had to go to work in the local overalls factory. They survived, he said, but that was all. “I never figured I’d go to college and decided to enlist instead.”
In September of 1943 he and ten of his buddies decided to join the Naval Air Corps. They all went to New York City, checked into a YMCA, and the next morning went to the recruiting office. The first portion of the enlistment process was a written test. They took it in the morning, and five of them passed. In the afternoon, they had to take a physical, and only Phil passed, and he was sent to another room to continue the process. “But then another doctor stopped me. ‘Hopkins, come back here. You have a bad heart.’ They had found a heart murmur. And that finished that idea. They gave me a 4-F and told me to go home and see my family physician. I didn’t have one, so I looked in the Yellow Pages and found a local doctor. He listened to my heart and found an extra beat, an atrial fibrillation.”
Nevertheless, a month later Phil received a notice from the induction board, signed by the town clerk, telling him to report. The name of the woman who signed the letter seemed familiar. He’d seen it before. It turned out that she had also signed his birth certificate. “You signed me in, now you’re signing me out,” he joked.
At the enlisting station in Cortland, he saw the same doctor he had seen before. This time he told Phil that “you’ll be okay-- you can be in the ground troops in the Army.” But that wasn’t Phil’s plan, and so he drove to the Army Air Force base in Syracuse and told the top sergeant there that he wanted to enlist in the AAF. Three weeks later he got his acceptance letter and reported to Camp Dix in New Jersey just before Christmas of ‘43. “They needed bodies,” said Phil.
From Camp Dix they sent him to Michigan State College to start a cadet program, and there he received 10 hours of flight training.
He also spent some time at the Randolph Field School in San Antonio, Texas, which was the “West Point of the AAF.” There he had to participate in a test program for air sickness pills and “we were the guinea pigs. They set up a big brig between the barracks, a swing made up like a cockpit, and buckled us in; then they would push you for 20 minutes to cause air sickness. There was a water bucket for people to get sick in. One guy got in the cockpit, saw the bucket, and got sick even before the test started.” Phil said he was the first one to survive the whole 20 minutes. He wasn’t sure if he’d been given the pill or a placebo.
Two years later, after his discharge in 1945, he went to Syracuse University on the GI Bill to study engineering.
Meantime, there was a lady in his life, Matilda. She went to the Catholic school in Cortland and their paths would cross. She had gone into a nursing program established by the government at Syracuse University. One day, after returning home from the service, he rode his bike to Tillie's house and found a friend visiting her. Phil said he told the friend, “See you later.” The friend departed, and Phil says he and Tillie “took up where we left off.” They married two years later on December 28, 1947, the day after Tillie's birthday.
Phil left Syracuse University just two months short of graduation to accept a job offer he couldn’t refuse. He and Tillie had three kids by this time, and they needed the money desperately, he said. The offer was from an acquaintance, Edwin Hoffman, who was a poultry pathologist at a feed mill in Worcester, Massachusetts. Edwin asked Phil to come to Worcester to help him run the feed mill. He offered him a salary 50% higher than the going rate. “In those days if you were making $100, you were doing well,” said Phil. Edwin offered him $150. “That was big money in those days. I bought a new house and a used car. Later, the family moved to Oxford, where he would set up his own design firm, Philip L. Hopkins, Inc., and built an office next to his house.
The feed mill in Worcester needed a lot of work. He took care of that, and soon Phil was designing feed mills for farming customers all over New England. He was able to compete with large companies because he designed a pneumatic bulk feed conveyor system for moving the grain from the mill into the tankers. What made it unique was that it could utilize any kind of power generation system, needing just 100 horsepower to operate. It could be a waterwheel, he said. He used the same technology to design a hydraulic system for the bulk feed tanker bodies and designed specialized trailers to transport them
The business would take him on the road. He'd drive 50,000 miles a year, so much that he eventually decided to buy an airplane to cut down on the traveling time. “With the airplane I could do three days of work in one day. If I was building a feed mill in Maine, it would take me a day to travel to it and a day back. But I could fly up there in an hour and a half.” The airplane was a tool, and Phil became a businessman pilot.
The plane was a Cessna 140 two-seater. He bought it in 1960, took lessons, applied for a student pilot license, and went on to earn an instrument rating. His next plane was a Cessna 172 4-seater, after that a brand new Cessna 182, and finally a Cessna 210 that could seat six people and cruise at 200 mph.
At first, Phil would fly out of Worcester airport. Later, John Lewis of Oxford built an airstrip here, and Phil supplied the metal hangar. It was located on Federal Hill Road, just a strip, part of a landfill at the town dump. It was closed some years ago, and is now a warehouse storage facility.
Traveling all over New England now meant that Phil would fly into airports and learn about hangars. And thus he started a secondary business, selling hangars. He matched up with a company in Alabama called Pascoe, which produced prefabricated metal buildings. One day he got a call from a competitor, Red Banks, who told him, “I've heard of you, and I have a question. How come you can sell the same hangar cheaper than I can? Phil explained he had a deal with Pascoe, and convinced Red to come work for him. “Everybody made money,” said Phil.
He had bought the Cessna 210 in 1972 and sold it in 1977 when it needed a new control panel. By that time, Phil had decided to close the feed mill business. The country was in a recession, just like now, he said, and rather than allow the business to “fritter away,” he closed it.
Next week: Part 2
- Tuesday, 11 September 2012
- Posted in Categories: : Letter From the Editor