Rick Watson lived life to the fullest, and he left us all way too soon early Thursday morning.
Watson was a lot of things to a lot of people. Heck, he was a lot of things to me.
Rick was a “turkey” during my younger days. My grandpa, Sharky Phillips, tagged Watson with that nickname a long time ago. I’m not sure if it was short for “jive turkey,” or if Grandpa just liked keeping his son-in-law’s ego in check, but my brother and I called him “Turkey” for years. My dad, Ricky Phillips, also played a big role in that. I remember seeing him laugh just about every time that we’d say something about “Turkey,” and we even taught our sister to call him “Uncle Turkey” when she was a toddler. As “Turkey,” Watson taught my siblings and I a lot about laughter. He always had a smile on his face, even if we were giving him a hard time. He also taught us to be fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I spent most Saturdays watching football with Rick from the time I was just a little guy. We loved Alabama, and we hated anybody who played them, especially Auburn and Tennessee.
As I got a little older, Watson became “Uncle Rick,” because I realized he was the coolest relative that I had, so I had better respect him a little bit. It was during this time that he became my biggest rival on the dirt basketball court behind my house. Bill Laimbeer had nothing on the physicality that Rick would bring to a game of 1-on-1. Rick also liked to play shirtless, mainly just because he knew I didn’t want to guard him too closely because he had about as much hair as a sasquatch. He would also never “let” me win. It took me a few years to beat him, but when I did, it was an accomplishment. From that point on, I would never “let” him win, and he did not beat me ever again.
During that time is also when folk festivals and concerts were a norm for us. Rick and Jilda have played music in some strange places over the years and hung out with some real weirdos, but my brother and I were right there with them.
As a teenager, I really noticed Rick Watson’s heart for others. Rick wasn’t the type to ever want to be stuck inside the walls of some stuffy old church, but he knew the Good Lord put him here to love on other living beings. The Watson house has always been a safe place for strays, dogs or people. It didn’t matter what you looked like, how much money you had or who you liked to sleep with; ALL were welcome at that little farm in Empire. I can’t even count how many stray dogs he and Jilda have saved over the years, and then the dude started loving honey bees. He loved everything with breath, and he loved all those things unconditionally.
While he will always be “Uncle Rick” to me, Watson has become just “Rick” a lot lately. While he was my relative, he was also my employee. For the last few years, he has covered east Walker County for the DME as well as anyone ever has. He loved our newspaper, and he loved being able to tell the stories of the people who live here in Walker County.
A large reason for me being in this business is Rick Watson. He noticed my gift for writing at a young age, and he did a lot to nurture that gift throughout the years. When I told him this is what I wanted to do for a career, he was so happy. We talked newspaper stuff for years now, and I don’t know how I’m going to fill that conversation hole. Not many people want to listen to me babble about newspapers and our future. Rick loved listening to it. Watson’s column was called “Life 101,” because he constantly that “every day is a school day.” Any time that I was wise enough to listen to Rick, I definitely learned something.
When I became publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle, Rick was the first person to know. He shed a little tear knowing his nephew was coming back to take over the hometown paper. Rick constantly told me how proud he was of me. At least a few times per week, he would say, “I’m proud of you Bubba (my nickname since from him and Jilda my little sister was born).” I’m going to miss hearing those words.
Our family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from the community since Rick died on Thursday. It is incredible to see the amount of people who he has touched over the years. When asked how he was doing, Rick always answered, “living the dream.” He did live the dream, and his personality and love helped those around him to know how to live the dream too.
James Phillips is editor and publisher of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He is going to miss Rick Watson more than anyone knows.