PHIL CAMPBELL, Ala (Reuters) - Nineteen Phil Campbells -- and one Phyllis -- had planned to travel to their tiny namesake Alabama town this weekend for its joyous 100th anniversary celebration.
Then a deadly twister roared through Phil Campbell on April 27, changing the Phils’ mission but not their travel plans.
“When the tornado hit, this trip went from being whimsical to necessary,” said Phil Campbell, a pastor from Coffs Harbor, Australia.
On Saturday, Phils from across the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom received celebrity treatment at their third-ever gathering in the town. Wearing “I‘m with Phil” T-shirts, they rode in the anniversary parade, ate barbecue at the First Baptist Church and were honored on stage at the community hoedown.
But thoughts of the storm that killed 28 of the town’s residents were never far away.
Fred Dummar, who lost his home, his restaurant and seven neighbors, wiped away tears during the program.
“My friend died,” said 8-year-old Makayla Baker, as she handed a baseball to Phil Campbell of Glasgow, Scotland for him to sign.
Glasgow Phil flinched. A freak storm had swiped the roof from his own home five years ago, prompting him to write a song called “The Tornado Blues.”
“It was a massive knock on the door to have the chance to come here to help others and to tie things up for me personally,” he said.
The effort to unite the Phil Campbells of the world began with a man by that name in Brooklyn, New York. The 38-year-old first heard about the Alabama town -- named for the railroad engineer who placed a depot there -- on a television show.
“I became obsessed with the town and wanted to gather all of the world’s Phil Campbells together,” he said.
A group of them first came together in 1995, and again in 1996.
After a long gap, Phil from Brooklyn decided to track down his similarly named brothers and sisters and invited them through social media to attend the town’s anniversary festivities this year. Word soon spread across continents.
The April tornado turned the reunion into a relief effort. So far, the Phils and Phyllises have raised nearly $40,000, enough to build a Habitat for Humanity house.
On Friday, they pitched in to clean the community center.
“It was very moving to clean where we had held the first picnic,” said Phil Campbell of Juneau, Alaska, a pastor whose church raised $5,000 for the relief effort.
Phil Campbell of Nottingham, England discovered the town five years ago and had added a visit to his bucket list. The invitation this year spurred him to action.
“Everybody is really friendly, putting aside any issues to get back to the human condition, to help their fellow man and woman,” he said. “Just an outpouring of affection.”
Phil Campbell from Wisconsin had opted to sleep in his car after failing to find a hotel room.
“Not in my world,” said Phil Campbell resident Vic Johnson, who took the visitor to his home, one of only 12 still standing in his neighborhood.
“He gets a bed, a shower and if he leaves hungry, it’s his own fault.”
Mayor Jerry Mays said the town appreciates the support of time and money from a group of people connected to it -- and to one another -- only by name.
“I never knew we had so many neighbors around the world,” Mays said.
Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton