Friends, family, and colleagues of Phil Freelon gathered Saturday afternoon, September 28, to celebrate his life and remember the enduring values he taught us through example every day. Phil’s wife Nnenna and their children Dean, Pierce, and Maya welcomed hundreds of celebrants to the Durham County Human Services Center, a venue Phil chose for the event because it exemplifies the idea that beautiful and inspiring design should be experienced by all.
The ceremony was joyful, intimate, and filled with stories revealing Phil’s multi-faceted persona: parent, husband, grandfather, music lover, photographer, business leader, and relationship builder.
His son Dean Freelon described for us the ever-present love and devotion he and siblings Pierce and Maya felt in the Freelon home. “When you add up his many accolades, awards, and achievements, you start to realize how truly remarkable it is that he could accomplish all that without compromising the quality of his family life,” Dean said. “He was an exemplary father. He showed me how to be a father. And you notice I said show, not tell.”
Randi Freelon Vega, Phil’s sister, said her brother was an architectural genius who she will remember beyond his design talent as “an architect of relationships, someone who cared about other people and opened his heart and arms to them.”
Those enduring relationships were the subject of heartfelt reflections by Phil’s friend, mentee, and design partner Zena Howard. Zena, who worked side-by-side with Phil for 16 years, recalled him as a truly authentic person, a helper, an advocate, and a teacher with a calming presence that lifted those around him.
Friend, business partner, and colleague Phil Harrison followed Zena and described why he and so many others find inspiration in Phil.
– Phil Harrison
Prior to the Celebration of Life service, Perkins and Will and the Triangle Chapter of AIA hosted a Phil Freelon tribute and reception in the lobby of Perkins and Will’s Durham office. Zena Howard, principal and managing director of our North Carolina practice, welcomed guests from throughout the country, including many current and former employees of the two organizations Phil led, The Freelon Group and the North Carolina practice of Perkins and Will.
Members of the Design Community Share Personal Stories of Advocacy, Mentoring, and Leadership
Kevin Montgomery, President and Chief Operating Officer at O’Brien/Atkins Associates, cited Phil’s leadership and outspoken advocacy for inclusive recruitment and development in the profession. Herman Howard, Founding Partner, Studio H Architecture Planning Environments (SHAPE), spoke personally about the tradition of mentorship inherent in the career-long values of Phil. Kenneth Luker of Perkins and Will, cited the long-lasting social and community impact Phil and his work is having and told us of the leadership example that inspires him and countless other professionals who worked with Phil and shared the aspiration of creating community
Matthew Szymanski of Buildsense and president of the AIA Triangle Chapter announced the Phil Freelon Legacy Grant. This grant will serve to both reward and encourage AIA members who act as citizen architects by encouraging positive change and demonstrating that design can solve problems in our communities. Peter Exley, the president-elect of the AIA, presented a Presidential Citation from AIA president William J Bates celebrating Phil’s career and his success in breaking down socioeconomic and cultural barriers through his work and advocacy. Andre Vega, an architect, and Phil’s nephew accepted the award on behalf of the Freelon family.
Closing out the reception, Phil’s longtime colleague and mentee Anna Marich of Perkins and Will invited all attendees to raise a glass and toast to his legacy.
Following the toast, attendees walked together through the streets of Durham to the Celebration of Life service, passing buildings including the Durham Transportation Center that Phil and his team designed. The walk fittingly encompassed the community where Phil’s dream of leading his own firm, and of growing that firm into national prominence, came true.
– Zena Howard