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Life Story / Obituary
Well loved, respected, and a friend to many, Phyllis Jean (Denison) Callen was a woman of many talents, a quick wit, high intelligence, and a generous heart. At a young age her family nicknamed her “Tuffy” for her determination and ability to handle life’s challenges. As the baby of a family with six children, Tuffy kept pace with her older sisters and twin brothers as they ran through the Oakwood neighborhood growing up. The name stuck and carried her right through to the end.
Phyllis was born at a time when families struggled through the hardships of the Great Depression and impending war overseas. They learned to find joy in the little things, especially card games such as cribbage and bridge to free their minds from everyday worries. It was in the midst of these challenging times in Kalamazoo, Michigan when William and Dorothy Denison welcomed the birth of Phyllis on May 10, 1936. The older siblings, Jerilee, Robert, Ronald, Patricia, and Sheila all pitched in to raise baby Phyllis and developed a strong bond and sense of family pride that amazed future in-laws.
Throughout her youth, Phyllis excelled at school and eventually graduated at the top of her Central High School class. She enjoyed learning home making skills with the Campfire Girls and playing the clarinet for the high school band. The neighborhood and high school friendships developed at this time were so strong that they continue to this day. Monthly Oakwood breakfasts bring together ladies who go back as far as kindergarten and monthly luncheons bring together the Swinging Seventies (now the Elite Eighties) group who reminisce about old times, support each other in their current lives, and brag about their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
It was during the annual High School Band Follies when Phyllis’ future was forever changed. As excitement circled the popular event, students prepared for a variety of performances. Phyllis Denison, in addition to playing the clarinet, was in charge of getting everyone from their dressing rooms to their place in the gym where the talented gymnast Tom Callen performed on the high bar. He was quite taken with Phyllis, the young, pretty girl who stole his heart. They soon became a couple.
Deciding to further his education, Tom moved to East Lansing where he spent a year enrolled at Michigan State University. He and Phyllis continued to date, and eventually, Tom moved back to Kalamazoo. The happy couple married just a mere two months after Phyllis graduated from high school. Although Phyllis did not formally attend college, she certainly received an education reading and outlining every book Thomas was assigned during his two years taking classes at Western Michigan University… before realizing formal education wasn't his thing.
Phyllis worked briefly at the Upjohn Company before having three very wanted children, Penny Jo, Kathi Jean, and Rudy Thomas. She excelled as a homemaker and mother due to her outstanding cooking, sewing, organizational skills, and dedication to putting others needs before her own. Her homemade meals were unrivaled and family and friends alike awaited the results of her annual several day process making bread and butter pickles. She prepared the food for family gatherings, yard parties with over one hundred people, her children’s team events, and celebrations for co-workers and friends.
Her skill as a seamstress produced many matching outfits for her children as well as creative Halloween costumes year after year. When her oldest daughter, Penny, was married, she made all the bridesmaids dresses and veil for the service. School plays, team uniforms, and special events all benefitted from her handiwork. And somehow she managed to fit in playing competitive volleyball with the YMCA between her family responsibilities.
Once the children were older, Phyllis worked as a bookkeeper for Rayle Business Equipment. Her attention to detail helped the small company grow while her ability to bring the employees together helped keep the work environment enjoyable. Every employee enjoyed a special birthday cake or pie of their choice which she would make from scratch the night before. The favorites were her German chocolate cake and lemon meringue pie.
Phyllis and her family enjoyed numerous camping trips with a group of friends to the Betsy River, Nichols Lake, and the Pine River. While all the kids explored the area, the adults took turns rotating a pig by hand over a campfire. After their feast, it was time for relaxation followed by roasting marshmallows and making s'mores over the campfire. Her husband, Thomas, spoiled her with his ability to filet freshly caught blue gills without a single bone. They also made family trips to Cedar Point to enjoy the world's best roller coasters.
She and Tom continued to travel the country after the children were grown. In addition to several weekend motorcycle trips, Phyllis made the trek to Alaska on the back of Tom’s BMW motorcycle while reading several books on the way. Later they became snowbirds traveling to Florida and the Texas Coast in a classic GMC motor home outfitted to suit their needs. New friendships developed that continued for the years of travel. Tom and Phyllis would meet up with couples from previous years to play cards, explore new sites, and enjoy the southern weather during the winter.
One guilty pleasure was the annual trip to Las Vegas with her sister Pat. For over twenty years Phyllis and Pat would kiss their families goodbye to play video poker and see the likes of Johnny Mathis, Don Ho, Sigfreid and Roy, and the Osmonds. When her sister passed away, her daughter Penny continued the tradition with another nineteen years of Vegas trips. Locally, her good friend, Harriot Swanson kept her in practice visiting the casinos in the Kalamazoo area.
As a dedicated mother, Phyllis spent a great deal of time with Kathi at gymnastics meets, Rudy running cross country, and Penny in theatre and basketball. As Rudy’s daughters grew up, she and Tom enjoyed watching their soccer games, gymnastics meets, and many school events as they were the only local grandchildren. She spoiled the Texas and Canadian grandchildren with visits and packages and always kept up with their lives…to later share stories with her friends. Phyllis made two treks by herself to Canada to see the new grandchildren there as well as experience life off the grid. Her Texas grandson David describes her as a walking hug.
With the children grown, Thomas and Phyllis adopted a Siberian husky mix puppy. Sheena enjoyed better food than most people. Having trouble cooking for two, Phyllis often prepared a third plate whether it was meatloaf or steak.
Besides family, Phyllis enjoyed participation in the Red Hatters Club, many bridge groups, and reading voraciously. Her sense of humor, sarcastic wit, and empathy for others made her a welcome addition to any group. And her mind was sharp enough to answer most Jeopardy questions before the contestants. She volunteered for ten years with the Shepherd’s Center of Kalamazoo driving and completing errands for others without the ability to do for themselves. She loved movies (with a happy ending, of course) and musicals as a pleasant distraction from daily life.
In spite of her pain from an early 1960’s knee injury from a car accident, Phyllis was determined not to be a bother to others with her challenged mobility. She reluctantly accepted help as it became needed and greatly appreciated those that made her life easier. Her continued faith and membership with Zion Lutheran Church kept her spirit strong. Sadly, Phyllis struggled with heart and kidney failure for four months before passing away on July 6, 2016 at the age of 80 in the care of Rose Arbor Hospice. Her sense of humor, sharp mind, and ability to express love for family and friends remained until the end.
Phyllis is survived by her children, Penny Jo (Gary) Smeltzer of Austin, Texas and children, David, Michael, and Debbie; Kathi Jean Callen (David Doerksen) of Daufin, Manitoba, Canada and children, Jedediah, Elijah, Zephram, and Artemis; Rudy Thomas (Fawn) Callen of Vicksburg and children, Brandy and Nikki; and many nieces and nephews and great grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Thomas, in 2012 and three sisters and twin brothers.
Services for Phyllis will be held Monday, July 25th, 2016 at 11:00 AM at the Life Story Funeral Home–Betzler, 6080 Stadium Drive, 375-2900 followed by a reception in the Life Story Center. Please consider a donation to the great facility and service provided by Rose Arbor Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan, 5473 Croyden Avenue, Kalamazoo, MI 49009 or the charity of your choice. To share a favorite memory, photo and to sign Phyllis’ online guest book, please visit www.lifestorynet.com.