Starbucks mystery man revealed

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Ben Philips can be seen on the bus, at the library, around Muldoon and downtown. But his favorite spot is a table in the center of Starbucks.

There he arranges three chairs: one for himself, one for his briefcase and the daily stack of mail, the other for food and computer gear.

He stays there for hours, Monday through Thursday. Sometimes over the weekend. Sometimes overnight.

He’s been doing this the last four years.

A Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, Philips spent most of the 80’s as an airplane technician in the Air Force. He was at UAA for most of the next decade, dabbling in political science, participating in student government and club council, eventually majoring in history. Last Monday, sitting in his normal spot, Philips said he was researching for his Ph.D thesis.

People tend to notice Bill.

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“He’s a nice guy, and he’s basically been a staple here for years,” said the Manager of Starbucks, Petirta Lupin.

“Yeah, nothing has changed the last four years,” said daytime janitor Robert Lipinski.

Pre-Nursing student Seen Su has had several encounters with Phillips.  Her first was one early September morning studying for an anatomy test. Four hours into her study session, Philips arrived at 12pm and sat on the couch next to his traditional chair. For a while, Su didn’t think anything of it.

“About 30 minutes, I started to hear snoring,” Su said. “Then it gets louder….it started to get a little distracting. He woke up at one point. He came back with Cheetos. He came back, went to sleep. Started snoring again. That’s when I decided I should leave.”

Most students happily tolerate Ben, but some are not so forgiving.

“He can be an interesting character, but I’m not going to lie, it was not my choice to talk to him,” said psychology major Chris Reintsma. “He has a stench to him too.”

Lipinski, who has been a janitor for as long as Philips has been at UAA, said the situation was unacceptable.

“I don’t mind cleaning after students who are studying, but most of the time, 98 percent of the time—he’s just playing video games.”

Philips will admit he is a fan of video games. He’s absent from UAA every Friday because he meets with “the group” for role-playing games. They meet at a fellow Vet’s house, who, now in a wheelchair, decides when the group will meet at his house.  Most in this group have at one point or another attended UAA.

 

Philips has a long history with UAA.

Shortly after the two year and the four year parts of the university merged into the University of Anchorage-Alaska, Philips was a USUAA senator. His major project there was to urge the newly formed university to release end of the semester course evaluations.

After three active years, he quit to work more hours as a lab monitor in the library.

“Between work, family, and school, I just couldn’t continue at the level I thought I should. When you do stuff like that you really have to devote a lot of time; you can’t half-ass it.”

He also worked with IT when it was called CATS (Computer and Technology Services).

Coming to UAA after 20 years in the military, Philips enjoyed the mix of academic and military cultures.

“You got some college kids who thought they were so much better than the technician types. Being a college kid who had been a technician, I was on both sides of the equation.”

There were some great personality clashes in USUAA–“As divisive as congress is now”—and sometimes during class.

“This one professor was telling everyone that Vietnam was an impersonal war. And I thought—what? I was on the ground for 8 years. I saw six of the people I shot. How is that impersonal?”  Philips said this during class. After a heavy silence and brief discussion, the professor changed the subject.

Philips joined the Marine Corps at 19. He served through most of the Vietnam War, and would end up shooting seven people.

“Six of them made the mistake of shooting at me and missing,” Philips said.

After Vietnam, Philips joined the Air Force for the less restrictive schedule.

“Oversea tours with the Marines were unaccompanied, meaning you couldn’t take your family. I loved Japan, but I loved my wife and kids more.”

So he switched to the Air Force, and worked there until the late 80’s as an Aircraft Electronic Technician.

Nowadays, none of Philip’s family lives in Alaska.

“He needs us. He probably doesn’t have any family around,” Lupin said.

He has three grown children. One “is seeing the world right now” in Iraq. His 35-year-old daughter is a nurse in Ohio. His 31-year-old son is in Washington State.

The snow causes Philips some inconvenience, and Lupin said that several people are concerned how he gets around town in single digit weather.

Pointing to his cane, Philips said, “My schedule is rather restrictive nowadays. I come here, I go home. That’s about it.”