In Memoriam – Phil Wood, founder of Ten Speed Press

July 1st, 2011 — 12:29pm

I wrote this piece for berkeleyside on Phil Wood, founder of Ten Speed Press, who died in December. I went to his memorial service last weekend.


I first met the late Phil Wood, founder and publisher of Berkeley’s renowned Ten Speed Press, in 1986. Phil gave me my first job in publishing. For a few months I was the receptionist. After I booked an author on the Letterman show when I was supposed to be answering phones, he promoted me to publicist. In the four fabulous, fantastic years I worked at Ten Speed, I went to the Letterman Show with “White Trash Cooking” author Ernie Mickler to cook chicken feet; yelled at former Black Panther Bobby Seale, author of “Barbeque’n with Bobby,” for driving the wrong way over the George Washington Bridge and missing an important TV gig; and explained to People Magazine that a recent spate of books like “How to Shit in the Woods,” and “What Bird Did That?” did not mean we were launching a new imprint on scatology.

Phil died last December. I went to his memorial service last weekend at the UC Berkeley Alumni House. Phil had been a student at UC and when he died, he left an endowment for a Chair in Asian Art History in memory of one of his former professors. Close to two hundred people showed up, many from the local publishing world: Richard Bolles, author of “What Color is Your Parachute”; Andy Ross, literary agent and former owner of the now-closed Cody’s Books; David Goines, the graphic artist; and my former boss, George Young, Phil’s right hand man for decades. Phil’s friends and family mingled while drinking Prosecco and slurping down a seemingly endless supply of Kumamoto oysters (Phil was an oyster fan and a great gourmet).

Then began the funny, moving tribute to Phil’s remarkable life. His wife, Winifred, welcomed us, and we listened to two performers play the guzheng, a Chinese stringed instrument. We watched a slide show tribute to Phil’s life: snapshots of Phil as a baby, as a boy, and through all stages of his life, including the time I knew him best — as the bearded, rotund publisher of Ten Speed, wearing his omnipresent Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat. We saw Phil smiling with Winifred, showing off his beloved Asian antiques and stuffed gators. And we saw Phil, at 72, dying, while enjoying his last weeks of life sitting in his garden with the sun on his face.

A dozen people stood up to pay tribute. We heard stories about Phil’s time as a forest lookout, his work as a sales rep for Penguin Books, and his sharp business skills — he could buy an antique for $20 and sell it at Sotheby’s for $120,000. We heard how he published books like “The Moosewood Cookbook,” “Anybody’s Bike Book,” “What Color is Your Parachute?” and “Why Cats Paint,” chosen not by a P&L analysis but by instinct. People described him with words like “raconteur,” “complicated,” “brilliant,” “eccentric,” “enigmatic,” and “idiosyncratic.” Then a man stood up and used an altogether different word — “father.”

“In 2007, I got a call,” the man said. “I heard someone say, ‘My name is Phil Wood. I’m a publisher, and I think you might be my son.’” No one knew that Phil had fathered a child almost 50 years earlier, and after he was diagnosed with leukemia, he set out to track his son down. Soon after, Phil met his son, Scott, along with Scott’s wife and two grandchildren for the first time. “It was surreal,” Scott said, “and too short.” His eyes started to water. He couldn’t say much more, and sat down.

Towards the end of the day, we all went outside for the official Phil Wood Memorial Group photo. We donned the Hawaiian shirts that Phil’s wife had given each of us as a gift. In our sea of colors, we stood outside in the Berkeley sunshine, and as the photographer clicked his shutter, a cheer rang out: “”We love you, Phil!”

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