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Above and beyond: The life of Phil Reavis Sr.

Ronald Mitchell
Above and beyond: The life of Phil Reavis Sr.
Somerville High track and field named in honor of Olympian Phil Reavis Sr.

This week’s editorial is a personal one for me, because it’s the story of Philip Reavis Sr., who is more like an uncle than a family friend, and his son Philip Reavis Jr., who is my brother from another mother. To tell the story properly, I have to go back to the beginning.

Phil Reavis Sr.’s grandfather, George Washington Reavis, was born into slavery in North Carolina and moved to Massachusetts in the late 1880s. He worked as a janitor at MIT and bought a home in Somerville, the city where multiple generations of the Reavis family still live today.

Two years ago, following the George Floyd protests and national upheaval, an interested white Somerville resident named Matt Hoey, who had been doing historical research about the city’s Black residents, became upset because he could not find even a single instance of Somerville honoring a Black resident. As Hoey researched, he came across the name of Phil Reavis Sr., whom he identified as one of a handful of Somerville residents ever to compete in the Olympics.

Hoey also noticed a person listed in the city with the same name. He called Phil Reavis Jr. and asked if he was related to the Olympian. Phil Jr. replied that he was his dad. As they talked, Hoey asked Phil if they could join forces in an effort to convince the city to recognize Phil Reavis Sr. for his achievements in both his athletic life and civic life.

The city of Somerville was in the process of rebuilding its public high school and track and sports field. Hoey started a campaign to have the new high school track and field named for Phil’s dad. That was when I got a call from Reavis Jr. asking that I lend a hand. I was still at WBZ-TV, crafting television news stories in my former position. I worked with anchor Anaridis Rodriguez to produce multiple stories about Reavis Sr.

The Somerville native and future Olympian began making history in the 1950s as a master of the high jump, breaking records at Somerville High School and moving on to Villanova University, where he broke a world record and won the AAU high jump title in 1956. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated in February 1956 as “Villanova’s High-Flying Phil Reavis” before competing in that year’s summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. He went on to give back as a teacher, mentor, family patriarch and public servant.

After our TV stories, a public write-in campaign and a bit of public pressure on the city’s memorial committee led to Somerville memorializing Phil Reavis Sr. by putting his name on Somerville High’s new athletic field.

Now, an exhibit about his life is about to open at the Somerville Museum. The exhibit showcases him as an Olympic athlete, longtime educator, jazz musician and one of the first people of color publicly honored in Somerville. As you journey through the exhibit, you will come to realize that this is an individual who took full advantage of every opportunity presented to him, however foreign, and he excelled at each one.

As an adolescent, his mother had a subscription to National Geographic, and he would flip through the magazine filled with forests from exotic places around the world, not realizing at the time that someday he would not just visit places like that, but live in one. A world traveler, Phil Reavis Sr., now in his 80s, divides his time between Somerville and Macau, China.

The upcoming exhibit, put together with intensity and integrity, is a collaboration between the Somerville Museum, the Reavis family and students from Somerville High’s Local History Club. Please take the opportunity to see the show, an intimate portrait of a life lived to the fullest. Titled “Above and Beyond,” it opens June 8 and closes July 8. The museum has many public activities scheduled during the month.

My sincere hope is that the life of Phil Reavis Sr. poses important questions for all who attend. What if we all took advantage of even half the opportunities presented to us? What if Matt Hoey hadn’t required more from his community of Somerville, where he has lived his whole life? What would have happened if Phil Jr. had not partnered with this guy who called him out of the blue? What if, at all those decision points in life, those intersections on the roads we travel, we decided to travel the path less followed and stand up against the same old thing? How much richer our would our lives be — not just for ourselves, but for others as well.

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