|Phil at San Juan Hot Springs, 2009 (Photo by author)|
Memorials and tributes to Phil included...
- Phil's funeral, planned by his brothers, was held Jan. 29 at Waverly Chapel, Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana. More than 200 people attended. Video has been posted. Fairhaven's website includes public comments.
- Orange County Council, Boy Scouts of American Annual Awards Gala: Phil was already scheduled to receive the highest honor awarded to volunteers in Scouting -- the Silver Beaver -- on Jan. 25. It was awarded posthumously before a crowd of 600. See video here.
- The Orange County Historical Society held a public tribute to the man, his work and his legacy on Jan. 9 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange. More than 300 people attended. Video of the first half and the second half of the program are now both online. I've also posted my comments as text here. The Society is also starting a fund in his name that will help support the newly renamed Phil Brigandi History Room at OCHS. The Society will also host a memorial hike later this year.
- Hemet/Temecula historical community: The Hemet Heritage Foundation, Hemet Museum, San Jacinto Museum, and the Ramona Bowl Foundation held a tribute to Phil at the Diamond Valley Arts Center, in Hemet on Jan. 10. Historian Steve Lech gave the eulogy. About 60 attended.
- City of Orange Public Library assembled a small exhibit about Phil and the books he's written about Orange's history.
- A Scouting Celebration of Life was held at the O.C. Boy Scouts of America office in Santa Ana on Jan. 4 with John Nordenstam and David Daniels. See video here.
- California State Historic Resources Commissioner Alan Hess honored Phil as part of the Commission's Jan. 31 meeting. (Skip to about 1:15:00 in the video.)
- Government: The Orange County Board of Supervisors and the city councils of Anaheim and Santa Ana adjourned meetings in his memory.
Phil was born in Orange, California, on June 29, 1959 to Pamela and Michael Brigandi. Michael was a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland and would later have a long career working for the Orange County Probation Department. Phil and his brothers Stephen and Christopher were raised in Orange.
Phil was fascinated with local history even as a student at Handy Elementary School. He began to do actual historical research and writing as a teenager, compiling stories of Orange High School and interviewing “old timers.” This, in turn, led him to the Orange Community Historical Society where he was elected to the board of directors at the age of 18. It was there that he began to forge lifelong friendships with fellow historians, including that society’s president, Mark-Hall Patton.
|Phil Brigandi, circa 1990s. (More photos posted on Flickr)|
Phil was also a Marx Brothers fan from an early age. He interviewed a number of those who worked on their movies and he counted being personally insulted by Groucho Marx as one of the high points of his life.
In Orange, Phil began writing historical columns for the local newspaper. He started writing lengthier pieces by the time he was 19 and published his first real book at age 23. He graduated from California State University Fullerton, where his abilities and enthusiasm were identified, encouraged and guided by Dr. Art Hansen and top History Department faculty.
Phil’s college work took him back to study the history in the areas of San Diego County near his beloved Lost Valley. He made close friendships with elders at the Pala reservation and steeped himself in the lore of the Anza-Borrego desert.
|With Phil Brigandi and Jim Sleeper in Jim's office, 2009. (Photo by author)|
“Local history is often underappreciated, viewed as parochial, or simply ignored, written by ‘blue hairs’ and the ‘untrained.’,” writes historian and close friend Stephanie George. “But, Phil's research skills and knowledge of his beloved city of Orange, his county, and southern California could match any academic -- and then some -- as he explored through multiple disciplines the very fabric of who we were/are through his multiple books, articles, presentations, and storytelling.”
Phil approached local history as a calling, not just a job or even a career. As such, he was never very interested in how much (or sometimes even if) he was paid for his work. He once said, “My brain just doesn’t make the connection between the work I do and the pay I get. I just do what I do, the best way I know how. Money appears sometime later, and it’s always kind of a surprise.”
What did matter to him was the quality of his work and whether he was helping the greater cause of understanding and preserving Southern California’s history. He wanted to, and constantly did, make meaningful contributions to the subjects about which he cared so deeply.
|Phil speaks at Orange County's 125th birthday party, hosted by OCHS. (Photo by author)|
Phil’s articles appeared in Dezert Magazine, the Westerners' Branding Iron, the Orange County Historical Society's Orange Countiana, the High Country, the Overland Journal, the Journal of San Diego History, the Inland Chronicler, Desert Tracks, the Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly, the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, the Sand Paper, the California Museum of Photography Bulletin, Preview magazine, and many more.
His regular columns appeared in such periodicals as the Orange City News, the Orange Progress, the Rancho News (Temecula), the Aza-Aguanga Stageline, the Hemet News, the Borrego Sun, the Valley Chronicle (Hemet), and the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review and others.
|Phil and Mark Hall-Patton with fellow book collector at the 2017 Pasadena Antiquarian Book Show|
- The History of Lost Valley and the Surrounding Area (1978)
- The Plaza. A Local Drama in Five Acts (1982)
- Looking Back . . . on the Ramona Pageant (1985)
- A New Creation. The Incorporation of the City of Orange, 1888 (1988)
- A Place Called Home. Orange's Architectural Legacy (1990 with Karen Wilson Turnbull)
- Garnet Holme: California's Pageant Master (1991)
- Prayers, Presence, Gifts and Service. A Centennial History of the Hemet United Methodist Church, 1894-1994 (1994)
- Orange, The City ‘Round the Plaza (1997)
- The Ramona Pageant. A Pictorial History, 1923-1998 (1997)
- Temecula, at the Crossroads of History (1998)
- First Church. A 125th Anniversary History of the First United Methodist Church of Orange (1998)
- Watson's Drug Store. A Downtown Orange Tradition. A Centennial History, 1899-1999 (1999)
- 100 Years of Headline News [The Orange County Register] (1999)
- Building the Future. The Story of the Eastern Municipal Water District (2000)
- Old Orange County Courthouse; A Centennial History (2001)
- Borrego Beginnings. Early Days in the Borrego Valley, 1910-1960 (2001)
- "Out Among the Groves of Orange" A History of Orange Union High School, 1903-1953 (2003)
- Barnstorming the Desert. The Life of Randall Henderson, Founder of Desert Magazine and a Pioneer Pilot of the Desert Southwest (2004)
- Orange County Place Names A to Z (2006)
- Images of America ... Orange (2008)
- On My Honor, A Century of Scouting in Orange County, California (2010)
- A Brief History of Orange, California - The Plaza City (2011)
- Orange County Chronicles (2013)
- A Call for Reform, The Southern California Indian Writings of Helen Hunt Jackson (2015 with Valerie Sherer Mathes)
- Reservations, Removal and Reform: The Mission Indian Agents of Southern California, 1878-1903 (2018 with Valerie Sherer Mathes)
- The Portola Expedition In Orange County (2019 with Eric Plunkett)
|Phil Brigandi, Orange County Archivist (Photo by author)|
The few detractors Phil ever had were usually bad historians with a jealous streak. At least a couple of these dismissed him as “a purist.” But that’s exactly what Phil was shooting for. He wanted to tell the narrative and get it right. He was happy to leave fiction, half-truths and wishful interpretation to others.
Phil grew up in a home without much, if any religion. But through friends he found Christ, made a personal study of theology, and was eventually very active in the Methodist church. Over time, he came to feel that the Methodists might not be the right fit for him and he no longer affiliated with a specific denomination. But his faith was always central in his life. Phil never evangelized by hitting people over the head with religion. But he made no secret of being a Christian and he lived and behaved in ways that made others want to know how they might have what he had.
|Senior picture from Orange High annual|
A couple years out of college Phil was hired as the historian and museum curator for the Ramona Pageant in Hemet. During his years in the desert, he was usually working multiple jobs at once – running the Temecula Museum, publishing books, and writing history columns for local newspapers. Work seemed to fall into his lap as he needed it.
After thirteen years in “exile,” Phil was invited back to Orange County. New Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly was reopening the Orange County Archives after a post-County-bankruptcy closure, and he turned to historian Jim Sleeper for recommendations on who should run the place. Sleeper suggested Phil, who happily accepted.
Phil had done some work at UCI’s Special Collections and had some training in the technical/library science end of archival practice, which added to his already vast understanding of Orange County history and how the records were used and could be best utilized. He was the perfect man for the job.
|Phil, me, Stephanie George and Kevin Starr at Chapman University.|
The five years I worked for Phil were a far better education than I’d received with my university degree. As my mentor, he helped me build not just a knowledge of facts and how to “do” history, but also the underlying philosophical constructs that are critical to doing this kind of work WELL. He was not only my teacher and the best boss anyone ever had, but ultimately also a good friend. I had been spending my free time on local history projects and had even worked for a Museum before ever meeting Phil – But he showed me how to be an Orange County historian, introduced me to the people I needed to know, and set an enormously high bar for me by example.
And all of this was fun. As he liked to say, “Too many people mistake being serious for being solemn.” He was deadly serious about his work, but he was hardly ever solemn. The Orange County Archives was a fun place to be, good work was being done, stress levels were near zero, Phil was sharing his brilliance with anyone who needed a hand, and researchers always told us how much they looked forward to their visits. It was truly a golden age, and I was so lucky to have been part of it.
|OCHS' Portola Trail Tour 2019 organizers.|
And since I’d become president of the Orange County Historical Society, I had plenty of opportunities to Shanghai him as a speaker or volunteer.
And what a volunteer! He was the most reliable – and of course, trustworthy – volunteer a nonprofit ever had. From packing up our office, to speaking several times a year, to leading tours and hikes, to editing the Orange Countiana journal (for eight years), to breaking down tables after meetings, he was the Society’s not-so-secret weapon.
Phil was also a longtime member of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners (where he also served as editor), Los Compadres Con Libros, the Queho Posse of the E Clampus Vitus, and the Orange Community Historical Society. And although scrupulously honest, Phil won the famed Pegleg Smith Liars Contest so many times that they finally had to disqualify him and make him a judge.
|Phil with Cynthia and Richard Ward at the 2019 Anaheim Halloween Parade|
Phil wanted no part of social media, even when it clearly would have been an invaluable platform for promoting his work. And he would quit a major project if he felt he was being disrespected – Even when he needed the work.
But generally, Phil’s commitment to a personal code was downright inspirational.
His work on the cultural phenomenon that surrounded the Ramona myth was a good example. Phil’s knowledge, research and hard work on the subject were vast. He planned to write a book about the far-reaching effects of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona on Southern California’s tourism industry, self-image, and more. But early in his life, Phil had decided to be a “sharer” rather than a “hoarder.” So when he learned that Dr. Dydia DeLyser was working independently on a book on the exact same subject, he not only offered to share his knowledge and files, but became fast friends with Dydia and her boyfriend Paul. (Their Christmas Eve dinners together in L.A.’s Chinatown were always a highlight of the holidays for Phil.) Dydia went on to publish the definitive book on the topic and – true to his nature -- Phil was absolutely thrilled.
In the last few years, school teacher Eric Plunkett joined the merry band of serious local historians and Phil began collaborating with him on a number of projects. Their shared interest in the Spanish, Mexican and Early American eras of California, in particular, brought them together to work on articles, on a special Orange County Historical Society tour following the trail of Portola, and other projects. In recent weeks, they were jointly approached to work on a new book about the Portola Expedition for a major university press, and were just beginning that process.
|Phil and I in Calico, 2014.|
Phil always predicted that he would die relatively young, as had so many men in his family. Although, one wonders if ignoring medical check-ups and eating a bachelor dude diet didn’t help make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we will never know.
|Flag lowered for Phil's passing, Lost Valley Scout Reservation. (Courtesy Justin Scott)|
We do grieve for ourselves, Phil. We grieve for all the work you would have accomplished in the coming decades – including projects already in progress. We grieve for all the great schemes yet to be hatched over late night tacos. We grieve for all the times our own work will suffer because we won’t have the benefit of your insights before going to press. We grieve all our future adventures together, exploring historic corners of California’s backcountry. We grieve never again seeing the excitement in your eyes when you encountered a new discovery or “aha” moment. We grieve the times we’d laugh so hard that we feared passing out. We will even miss the stories we’d already heard a dozen times – because they were part of you.
Phil was the best of Orange County. I will always miss him.
|Phil Brigandi atop Tomato Springs, 2019. (Photo by author)|