Eugene Francis Phelan

10/07/1891 ~ 9/25/1976

Gene Phelan was born in Albuquerque New Mexico in 1891. He made his first Wagon Train trip at a year old, was a Deputy Sheriff, drove buckboards, stage coaches and led mule trips down the Grand Canyon. He served as a Special Officer for the Santa Fe Railroad … wore a badge, carried a gun, escorted prisoners, and was a legend to his Grandkids!

The Unloaded Gun That Went Off!! It was a warm summer afternoon up in the mountains.  Dad was sitting on a bench in front of the cabin and as usual had his seven adoring kids in a semi circle in front of him, watching as he cleaned his rifle. He liked to used examples to teach us and was explaining the different parts and he told us a gun was always considered loaded no mater how broken down it was. Emily being more curious, leaned forward to look down the barrel of the gun and Dad was quick to tell her to get back. No sooner had she drawn back and the rifle went off! It was terrifying for Dad but a very well placed lesson for all of us. We never forgot that a gun is always loaded! Emily’s version was slightly different, saying that when the gun went off – it sheared some of her hair and that Dad was so shaken, he got up throwing the gun down and took a long hike!

Remembering her Father  

Remember her Father – Eugene Francis Phelan, as told by Emily his oldest daughter, was born in Albuquerque, NM. He went to school in Belen, now, a suburb to Albuquerque to the Sisters of Charity of Loretta, commonly known as the Lorettas. I do not know how old he was when his family moved to Needles, CA. His father owned and operated a meat market in Needles. His family also lived in Flagstaff, AZ. As a young man, Dad worked at the Grand Canyon, taking tours into the Canyon via mule train. He also worked at the College in Flagstaff, called the Normal School at that time. It was during this period of his life that he met Mother. She told a cute little story about Dad. He picked Mother her friend Ruth Duncan up one evening as they were leaving the Post Office and took them back to the College. At a later date he asked Mother if she would like to go for a ride to the mountains to see the “Teddy Bears”. Mother had some second thoughts at this point because she knew “teddy bears” only as a type of women’s underwear. However, I believe this little ride was probably close to the beginning of their dating time.

Mom and Dad were married on New Years Day,1924, in the rectory parlor because Mom was non-Catholic and they were not allowed to hold mixed marriages in the Church. I think this was a painful point for Mom, judging by the manner in which she talked about when telling me. Dad became a Deputy Sheriff in Flagstaff. I do not know when he took this job but held it until he moved the family to Phoenix after Gene was born. As a Sheriff, he frequently visited the men held in jail. He liked to take Ruth and me with him, believing that it was good for the men to see little children. I can remember getting dressed up and waiting for Dad to come home to get us and I remember a bit about going along past the bars where men reached out to touch us. Some of them would put coins in the pockets of our dresses. We moved to Phoenix because Mother needed to be in a lower altitude. She was very sick after giving birth to Gene. Grandma Phelan came down and helped to take care of the three of us while Mother was in the hospital. While in Phoenix, dad was an undertaker at the Whitney Undertaker Establishment. At that time there were many tubercular patients in the Phoenix area. Dad had some interesting events with tubercular patients. One of his stories: A patient died and was brought to the Funeral home. Dad met the hurse at the entrance and saw the man looking around. Dad explained that they were just taking him back to the sanitarium after a medical exam. Later in the day the same man was returned to the funeral home. Another situation came up when Dad was preparing to embalm the man and his assistant went into prepare the body. The assistant came moving through the room where Dad was exclaiming: “My God, Gene, that man’s alive!” Dad went in to see the gentleman sitting up on the slab rubbing his head and looking perplexed. Dad soothingly let him know he was in for a little exam and that he would be going back to his sanitarium, as he helped him to stretch out and get more comfortable. I loved getting Dad’s stories and asked a lot of questions.

After Mother was stronger, we moved to Winslow where Dad went to work for the Santa Fe. Robert Francis was born in Winslow. Dad was transferred to Seligman with the Santa Fe. The twins were born the year we moved to Seligman. Bill was born five years later. All of us children went to the Seligman elementary school. I graduated from the eighth grade in 1938, at about the time that Dad was laid off from the rail road because he was the youngest man in seniority and the company was cutting back as a result of the great depression.  We moved to Flagstaff where Dad expected to get work with his brother Claude. This happened for a short time then Dad got work as a Game Warden during hunting season.

In our young days when I was 8 and younger: when we misbehaved during the day (to the point Mother deemed it serious) we were banished to a chair beside the back door to await Dad’s return from work. To add insult to injury we couldn’t go to meet Dad. Our usual practice was to walk to the Depot to meet Dad and walk home with him. Quite a picture that was! Ruth and Emily on either side, Gene and Bob holding close to his legs and Pat and Tom held in his arms, Bill was yet to come. When Dad came in the door he would take off his hat, give Mom a kiss, and look at the culprit on the chair with a greeting like: is this my Pard (for each of the boys) or my Mickey for Ruth, or Pinky for Pat, with a look that made you feel pretty sorry you had not behaved as you knew you should. Following that, Dad put his gun on the top shelf of his closet, washed his hands took his place in his chair and sent one of the kids to tell the person on the chair Dad wanted to see him/her. When the guilty one got to Dad he would bring them up close to the chair and sometimes put his arm about their waist, and ask: Do you want to tell me about it?” That would bring about a confession of the days misbehavior beyond what Mom knew! His response was to ask “How does your Mother feel about this?” And a make up with Mother followed.

When we talked about someone in a negative manner, Dad who had already educated us with the Golden Rule would begin: “Remember, there is so much — and we were to finish with : good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” That usually cut off complaining. However, both Mom and Dad always heard us out if we had a genuine complaint we needed to talk about. In the interim after his stint as game warden, Dad bid for a night watchman job to be back with the Santa Fe. He got the position at the Grand Canyon and moved his gang there. This was a time for Dad to get his family acquainted with the beauty and the wonders of nature from the Grand Canyon through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. As a young man, Dad had worked in these areas and knew a lot about the territory. Living at the Canyon was a wonderful time for us kids. Winter there was awesome with time for sledding and much fun in the snow. Ruth graduated from the eighth grade there as valedictorian (A class of two). The Canyon school was a typical country school with more than one or two grades to a room. At the Canyon, a Priest used to come once in a while to say Mass and minister to the people in that little community. He used the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel for his chapel. The altar and materials for Mass were stored in a room reserved for the Priest. Before Mass, he used to sit behind the Altar, put his hand to the side of his face, and listen to Confessions. Dad took the eldest of us with him on these mornings (about 6 am) to Mass.

Back to Seligman days for a moment:

During the Depression many men from across the country found their way out west to seek work. Most caught rides on freight trains rolling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dads work included keeping the trains free of hobo riders, yet Dad knew these men were fine people for the most part and needed whatever help they could find. At the hobo camp, just outside the town, met shared information with each other about where they could get help, a meal, a place to clean themselves, etc. We children were instructed that if a man came to the front door we were not to open the door to him. If he came to the back door and asked if he could do some work for a bit of food we were to call Mother. She always could offer them some form of work as chopping wood for the kitchen stove, raking the yard and clearing out weeds. While the man was working Mother fixed a porcelain baby bathtub with hot sudsy water to be carried to the woodshed. A clean pair of sox, set of underwear, shirt and overalls were set beside the tub along with a towel and washcloth. The man was invited to clean up before coming to get the food. They also were invited to leave their dirty clothes so she could get them ready for the next man who came. This seemed to be very acceptable to the men and I used to be so surprised at how clean and improved the man seemed when he appeared at the back door for his meal. Usually, Mom brought them in to sit at the kitchen table and gave them whatever she could provide. With so many children to feed the meal was meager but nourishing. Word went through the Camp that our house was a good place to come. They must have included some information about how they were expected to behave because there never was any problem that I can remember and I was around most of that time.

It was in Seligman that Mother learned to drive. That was a big moment for me. All six of us were in the back seat of the little Ford and Mom behind the wheel. Dad was the coach in the front seat. He selected a dirt road out of town that led to a cow trail. Mom was doing fine until time to turn around. Dad coached her to stop. She became desperate calling out: “Gene, I can’t make this thing stop”as she pulled very hard on the steering wheel. Much laughter from some in the back seat (mostly because we saw the look on Dad’s face) She did learn and became a very fine driver – good into her last year of life at 85.

The only time I remember hearing Dad sing was when we were driving in the country, usually following trails that he wanted to explore. As he drove sometimes he sang to Mother Let Me Call You Sweetheart and/or When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. This was very special to me because of the loving comfort I took from it.

Dad loved to explore places in the mountains, usually saying: “wonder where this trail leads?” We found such beautiful spots and often stayed long enough for a picnic. On picnics, when there was meat to cook, Dad did the cooking.  (He also cooked when Mother was in bed after childbirth. He taught me to cook oatmeal so it would not get gooey and sticky.) Dad became Special Officer on the Santa Fe at Winslow and moved his family there in time to begin the school year. It was in Winslow that Gene Scott was hit by a car on Friday, June 13, 1941 and died Sunday, June 15, Father’s Day. This was a major tragedy and we all have/had a variety of memories about the event and the summer that followed. As a consequence of the accident that took Gene’s life, there was compensation paid to Mom and Dad. To invest the money, Dad took Mom and went to Albuquerque, a larger place and one somewhat familiar to Dad. While there, Dad wanted to show Mom the place where he went to School with the Loretta Sisters. While riding the bus on their way to Bernallio, Dad saw a place that he thought looked familiar so they got off the bus and went to the door, rang the bell and were surprised to find a Sister who had a different habit than the one Dad remembered. It was indeed, a surprise to learn he had not even left the city yet and had come to the Academy where the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati taught 1 through 12 grades. In the course of their visit here at the Academy, they showed off pictures of their ‘gang’ and told the story about Gene. A Sister asked if the children were in a Catholic school and invited Mom and Dad to send the girls to the Academy. Now, in a very unusual response, Mom said: “Yes, maybe the Nuns can make ladies of them!” The usual procedure would have been for them to discuss the pros and cons of this decision and make it together. The most unusual part was for Mom to have such a mind set!!! So Mom and Dad came home from that little trip with yards of materials to make uniforms for the three girls and in the Fall all three of us went off to Albuquerque to school. Later that year, Dad got transferred to Albuquerque and moved the family with him. For me, this was not the best year of my school life! However, God seemed to have capitalized on it.


  1. admin says:

    His last days were spent at the Beverly Manor Convalescent Home in Escondido. He had been visiting his eldest (my Aunt Emily) in Sacramento and gone out for a walk when it happened. He fell and had a stroke – or had a stroke and fell … down the church steps. “That” was the deal breaker for me – I was really angry with God over that for the longest time.
    To turn this larger than life man into a weak cripple, curled in a fetal position and needing help with every move … was more than I could bare. And to have it happen at church of all places, just seemed very very wrong (even though my Aunt Em would smile and say he only went in to find a bathroom – didn’t make a difference!). I was still mad and was going to stay mad for very long time.

    They brought him home and settled him in the Manor, where my grandma faithfully took him supper each day for months. It wasn’t the best place, but we felt fairly good about it since my mom’s neighbor Linda worked there and looked in on him daily, so we felt he was in good hands.

    Room 103 was pleasant enough, but was a long walk from the front door … which meant you had to go down several hallways walking thru wheelchair lined corridors of vacant eyes, with of folks who either look at you with fear, or anger, or pleading for company. I felt obligated to offer a smile whether they invited or wanted it, in hopes another visitor might offer my grandfather the same. Some looked away, others would try to speak … all were a haunting premonition of future residency.

    Once an old gentleman eagerly wheeled out to meet me in the middle motioning that he had something to tell me. As I leaned down to listen, he grabbed my arm pulling me close to plant a kiss right square on my lips. I was so stunned not knowing just how to react but laughed when I saw the twinkle in his eye and merriment on his face, so I decided to play along spinning his chair in a dance before leaving him.

    Grandpa seemed in good spirits when I walked in and really perked up when I suggested we go out for a ride – which ended up being a cruel reminder of pastimes he so loved, when it was only meant to be a spin down the hall. So, as I tried to make light of my oversite by chatting with him and others we wheeled by, he suddenly pointed to the Exit sign, trying to motion – that way, saying “Home”. Well I all but broke down crying realizing how I’d gotten his hopes up, crouching down to his level trying to explain but not really having the words to tell him why we couldn’t go. I didn’t see understanding or disappointment – what I saw was anger … real anger in his eyes. It made me feel so bad to see how this hero to us kids, who used to wear a badge and carry a gun, was left to take his last ride. There were no more stories, no more soft smiles or winks. Just the waiting was left … for all of us not just him.

    My Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily were visiting on that last day, hoping to give my grandma both physical but mostly, some emotional support as well. They were taking my grandma to church that evening, gathering around granddad as grandma gave him a kiss and told him that they’d be back in an hour – saying “now you wait for us”. When they walked back in after mass Grandma exclaimed “Oh you did wait!” He was sitting up with a big smile on his face, tilted his face up for a kiss – said I love you … and then closed his eyes for the last time. It was the most beautiful passing I’d ever heard of.

    Now his stories are no more, and my questions go unanswered. You might think this a sweet and fitting ending to my story … but it’s really just the beginning – My Grandpa died and the little girl grew-up. Stories quieted, life got busy and ancestors were put on hold. But then the magic happened – and many more stories came out of the clouds …


  2. szterrell says:

    Today I talked with Gene’s eldest, my Aunt Emily who is 96 this year and she told me a story I want to share. She said when she was in the 6th grade, she had a teacher who taught her typing after school on her father’s old Remington typewriter. She learned so well that she started typing his reports for him and the one thing that always struck her, was his way of describing situations and the men (not ‘the prisoner’). As one person once describe Emily’s father to her … that he was always ‘Man to Man’, never being above or beneath each other, and was definitely always about the Truth of the situation.


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