Painting Phil was a challenge

Ricardo Bitran, Santiago, Chile

Painting Phil was a challenge. His portrait had to convey simultaneously four key features of his personality: intelligence, pride, humor, and kindness.

Phil was my best friend and also a mentor. For over 25 years we travelled around the world and met in different countries for workshops, conferences, and missions. During those encounters we tried to get together daily in the evenings to talk about work, life, family, love, our children, wine, food, ornithology, art, mushrooms (one of his many eccentric interests), literature, music, and many other subjects. He had a formidable intelligence and an encyclopedic mind. He was also kind and compassionate. He could listen with great interest and always had useful advice to offer. He was generous with his time and knowledge. Phil was possessed of a highly analytical mind and an implacable logic, and was intellectually honest. His sense of humor was outstanding.

Phil was not known for his patience, particularly in technical discussions. He once declared: “I can stand virtually anything, except stupidity or irrationality.” He was always ready to stand for his ideas and for what he thought was the technical truth, and to speak up against what he considered wrong and intellectually light or dishonest.

In the mid-1990s I invited him to give a talk about cost-effectiveness in one of my classes in the World Bank Institute’s Flagship course. He delivered a great, elegant lecture, sparkled with insights and anecdotes. Yet upon reviewing the daily evaluation forms at the end of the day we discovered that one of the 80 students in the class wrote that Phil was technically misleading the participants (all the other students gave positive reviews of Phil’s lecture). As those who knew him might imagine, Phil didn’t take that well. We, the faculty, explained to him repeatedly that we had to refrain from having negative or defensive reactions to the student’s feedback and finally he grudgingly agreed. Yet the next day while we were thanking the students for their helpful comments, Phil suddenly rushed to the middle of the room and said defiantly from his imposing height: “One of you wrote that I lied in yesterday’s lecture. Such an accusation is totally false and malicious and that person should stand up right now.” Time stopped. People did not breathe while Phil’s face switched from red to purple. He again requested that the author of that criticism should stand up, but since no one moved, or blinked, Phil added “If nobody stands up it means that those accusations were not written by anybody, and therefore they do not exist.” That ingenious exit door brought much relief to the participants and the faculty and settled the issue.

Once I hired him to work with me on an assignment in Chile. Having noticed a pastel painting of mine he particularly liked, he said: “I don’t know how much your paintings go for in the market nowadays, but I would be happy if you paid me with that painting, instead of my fees, and if there is a balance in your favor I will pay it in cash.” I remunerated him for one day of this work with the painting, and paid for the rest in cash. I was proud to see my work hanging in his living in the following years.

Phil left a huge vacuum in my life and in that of so many people like me, who loved and admired him deeply, including family, colleagues, and friends. I remember him daily. I often come up with an idea or a question and wish he were around to get his views, but he’s gone. I did not have a chance to say good bye or to tell him how much I loved him and how he enriched my life. I can only hope that he already knew.