COLUMBIA — Imagine the incredible feeling of meeting a long-lost relative. That is exactly the phenomenon Barb Phillips and D. Joe Phillips experienced at the Philips/Phillips family reunion Friday.
The two both live in Columbia but had never met until being introduced during dinner Friday evening at the Stoney Creek Inn.
“It’s just really neat to meet family you didn’t know you had,” Barb Phillips said.
This year marks the 139th consecutive annual reunion of the Philips/Phillips family. The reunion was held for the first time west of the Mississippi River and will last through Sunday. Joseph and Mary Philips moved from Wales, U.K., to Chester County, Pa., in 1755, and about 50 of their descendants, hailing from California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas, attended the 2010 reunion.
Coordinator Thomas O. Philips of Massachusetts has kept track of his genealogy and said he has records of 20,000 descendants of Joseph and Mary Philips. Members of the family live in a couple different countries and every state except North Dakota. Thomas Philips sends out a free, detailed newsletter to 1,000 of his "kindred cousins" and said he meets relatives for the first time every year.
“Because my grandparents sort of took responsibility for this and then my father until his death at age 94, I sort of feel a commitment to keeping it going that is probably stronger than even the enjoyment of it," he said.
Some of the clan spells their last name with one "l," though others use two. Thomas Philips said the name stems from four grandsons of Joseph and Mary Philips who moved to Tennessee.
"For reasons we don't really know, they changed the family name from Philips with one 'l' to Phillips with two 'l's,'" Thomas Philips said.
The spelling difference frustrated D. Joe Phillips, who organized this year's event, as he traced his lineage a few years ago. With the help of a genealogist and Thomas Philips' father, D. Joe Phillips eventually connected the dots back to the original Joseph and Mary Philips.
"I was really excited about that because that was just like opening up a new world for me," D. Joe Phillips said.
Thomas Philips said he first met D. Joe Phillips in 2006, and their conversation just flowed. Once family members break the ice, their conversations become easy because everyone has something in common.
Rod Everhart drove 1,100 miles from New Jersey with his wife, Aldena, for the reunion. He said he enjoys remembering his history and his ancestors.
"We all believe the Philips family holds the record for the most number of consecutive annual reunions in the United States," Everhart said. "We're part of something that's really unique, and that's another reason we like to see it continue on."
Because the record would be continually broken, Everhart said the Guinness Book of World Records refuses to give the reunion recognition until it stops, but "that's not going to happen."
Everhart's father, Jim Everhart of Columbia, has attended at least 20 reunions and, at 94, was the reunion's oldest attendee. He cannot get out much anymore but was thankful to be part of this reunion. Rod Everhart said his father's presence makes the event "really special."
Tammy Niemeyer never went to a reunion before. She traveled from Cyprus, Texas, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.
"It's just really a great opportunity to meet people and cousins I've never known," Niemeyer said, and on Saturday, she met people who live near her family in Houston.
Christy Watson was born and raised in Columbia and said it made sense to come to this reunion from her home in San Diego. She and her mother, Barb Phillips, have not been to a reunion since their first time in 1983.
"For me, I didn't realize this family existed," Barb Phillips said. "It was an introduction to a part of my heritage."
Some family members have descendants on both the Philips and Phillips sides. Thomas Philips said intermarriage occurred within members of the fourth generation.
"Joseph and Mary had 240 great-grandchildren. Can you imagine having that many great-grandchildren?" he said, laughing.
D. Joe Phillips spoke Saturday about his ancestor Josiah Phillips, who fought in the Civil War. Josiah Phillips was conscripted into the Confederate Army in 1861 but escaped to fight with the Union Army. A few years later, he was wounded, leaving his right arm immobile and forcing him to walk with a cane. D. Joe Phillips still has the walking stick. It's that sense of history that motivated him to organize the event.
"I enjoyed doing it because I feel that it's worthwhile to continue the legacy of our name, and I want my son and my grandchildren to have the privilege of reading about their forefathers," D. Joe Phillips said.