Phil Vartanian Passes Away

Phil Vartanian at Lake Valhalla

By Alison Rooney has received word of the passing of Cold Spring’s Phil Vartanian. Vartanian, a noted advocate for the environment, was found dead in his Lake Valhalla home early Thursday morning, April 7. The cause of death has not been publicly confirmed as of this writing, but was reported as resulting from a fall within his home. Vartanian’s close friend, Russ Cusick, provided this account: “Apparently, two of his workers from his tree service company had tried to contact him Thursday morning and when he failed to respond to their calls, they visited his home, [and] let themselves in. Upon entry, the two found Phil dead. They called 911 and tried resuscitation, but Phil was apparently cold, according to the workers. Apparently, he’d fallen…and had suffered major head trauma.”
       Town Councilwoman and fellow North Highlands resident Nancy Montgomery shared these thoughts after hearing the news: “I will be forever grateful for our decade-long, front porch conversation, as he shared his wisdom about holding on to the gift of Philipstown. There was nothing that gave him greater joy than his son Ben.”
       May these words from [Walt Whitman’s] Leaves of Grass help bring Phil home:

A child said What is the grass?
etching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?
I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Another Lake Valhalla friend of Vartanian’s, Jonathan Kruk writes: “We are in mourning here at Lake Valhalla. Phil was our community’s defender and advocate.”
       Vartanian’s close friend and fellow environmental activist Suzie Gilbert has written: “How do you accept so profound a loss? If only Phil were here to talk us through it. He’d probably just grin and say he’s gone from one Valhalla to another, although his spirit will always be part of the lake.”
       Russ Cusick, forwarded these thoughts: “Back in February, I was working in my Beacon Gallery, until the wee hours of the morning. At around 3:45 a.m., I decided that I’d close up shop and head home. At the hour I left, there was a fairly significant amount of snow accumulation, and the roads were frozen. I tried like hell, to get my little Honda Accord up East Mountain, where my partner and I live, but to no avail; it wasn’t happening. What to do? … I know… I’ll call Phil, perhaps I can conk out on his couch?!
       Somewhat reluctantly, and because I didn’t want to sleep in my car, or the floor of my place of business…. I called my good friend at around 4 a.m. He groggily said absolutely… come on over. I did … we had a cup of herbal tea … listened to a little music and then I proceeded to crash, and sleep like a baby on his large old comfy sofa ….with Phil’s extraordinary dog Sasha, snoring away on the floor below me. That morning, Phil and I decided to visit of one of the great loves of his life … Lake Valhalla, which was conveniently in his own backyard. Rest In Peace, my dear friend. You were a TREASURED and RESPECTED friend to many, and I for one, will never forget you!”

After sending the above thoughts to, Cusick followed up with this story:

“Tuesday (April 5) afternoon, I called Phil and asked him if he’d like to join me for dinner at Cafe Maya. Phil had his usual: taco salad and a frozen margarita with salt. Phil and I talked about a lot of things, including how proud of his son Ben who is in his first year of college, up in Boston… and also, the fact that he’d just had an INCREDIBLE experience…he was driving along the dirt road that leads to his home in the North Highlands and he spotted a red fox. The fox appeared to elderly, and had a limp. Phil told me he got out of his car, and sat on a rock along side the dirt road. The fox did not flee, he just stood at a distance from Phil and they “eyed,” one another. Phil thought to himself, ‘Do I have anything to feed the fox?’ and, as fortune would have it, he happened to have a box of crackers in his car. Phil took some crackers out of the box, put them in his hand, and the fox slowly came up to Phil, ate the crackers, looked into Phil’s eyes, and then slowly limped away. When Phil was telling me this story, I just couldn’t believe that a wild fox would trust a human being in that manner, but Phil was perhaps the most gentle soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, so this encounter was actually pretty easy to visualize. After dinner we told one another, as we always did, that we loved one another. Yesterday, I received a call from Nancy Montgomery, who was a very close and dear neighbor and friend to Phil; Nancy sadly let me know that Phil had died.”
Photo by R. Cusick

A memorial service is planned for the future.

10 thoughts on “Phil Vartanian Passes Away

  1. I have known Phil since I was playing little league, I went to Oakwood with Ben. Words will never do but my heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends.

  2. It has been wonderful to hear how Phil was beloved by so many. His passing was too soon for all of us who knew and loved him. The coroner’s report ruled out that he died of a head injury. He died of natural causes, most likely a heart attack. He lived with a full heart and open spirit. He was an absolutely unique man who was a great teacher, friend and father. There are so many great stories of encounters of the Phil kind. Keep them coming! They will be treasured by our son, Ben and all of us who cared deeply for him. Thank you! Kathy

  3. Alison…Great piece, on our dear pal, Phil. Phil was above all, a gentle, caring, and loving, teacher. Phil was truly driven, by his need to share his gems of wisdom and insight, with anyone and everyone who would listen. Phil loved and respected our mother earth. Phil, loved, respected, and would do absolutely anything for those he considered a friend. There has never been a man, who has loved their child, as much as Phil loved his son Ben. I loved (and continue to love) you dearly my friend….you made this tired and beaten down ol’ world a little better place, and although I did not know you for my entire life…it seems as though I did. Rest in Peace, Phil…if you feel like it, that is…if not…where ever you are…raise a little hell…and keep on keepin’ on!

    your friend,

  4. Phil will definitely be missed by me; he was an integral part of my childhood and helped open my eyes to the variety of ways to see the world, and never talked down to me, always expounding on the nature of the universe and explaining philosophers’ ideas in long rambling paragraphs even when I was 8. What a great way to open a kid’s eyes!

    He was an incredibly thoughtful and passionate person, and like all thinking, caring people took it to heart when he saw greed and bullying win out over Democracy and fairness-for-all, including animals and wild places. He knew that they are valuable for the mental, physical and spiritual health of the planet and its people. When you take from, pollute or otherwise desecrate the “environment” you do those things to all of humanity. So he did his best to advocate for those who could not, and tried his best not to let the frustrations inherent to making real change set him back, or keep him from enjoying the places he loved best. That balance – between doing the work of caring and acting – and also having a good time and loving life without letting the ‘bastards get you down’ was so important to him, and as a cause-oriented person myself, this is the lesson I will take with me in my life from him.

    His brother and my father, Geri Vartan and I are both great swimmers who love the water; and I will always remember long laps around Lake Valhalla with Phil. We would swim together, and talk, then separate, and do our own swim-thing, then come together again. As fellow water-lovers (and for Phil and I, the fresh waters of the Hudson Valley were a particular favorite) my Dad, Phil and I will always share our swims, even if one of us is just now one of the many ripples on the lake instead of a splashing, corporeal body.

    Phil was very close to his mother, Doris Ross, who passed away over a decade ago now, and though I am not a believer in any formal spiritual system, I’m sure I’m not the only one who guesses they are probably having a long overdue reunion and getting into some serious discussions!

  5. It’s going to be so strange not to have Phil walking down to the lake for his early evening swim this summer. I have a feeling he’ll be there anyway, like what Starre said, he’ll be rippling across the lake, Phil’s bald head and big smile moving gently across the surface into the shadow of the ridge. I will look to see him in the twilight. He will not be forgotten.

  6. Phil was a truly good man and a generous spirit …. I am very saddened by this news

  7. I had a dream a couple weeks ago that I took a train to have dinner with Phil. It wasn’t a storybook dream with full scenes and dialogue. It was more like a strobe of images with the camera shooting pictures from overhead…Minneapolis, Chicago, Albany then Poughkeepsie passed by. Then the image showed me standing on the gravel road in front of Phil’s house at Lake Valhalla. The home where Jolyn and I had lived as his neighbors in the 1990’s was behind me. It was night and inside Phil’s house the dinner table was set up in the living room – like Kathy use to arrange it when we would come over for Thanksgiving dinner with her relatives and us all together. The table was full of plates and bowls of food. The final images were of Phil and I talking. We were just talking, as if all the miles and years that separated us since we moved away didn’t matter. Phil always welcomed me with open arms. He was always ready for a long conversation, complete with citing sources for his many ideas. I will miss Phil and I will miss having dinner with him on my next trip to Lake Valhalla.

  8. Phil was a very unique person and Lake Valhalla has lost its greatest defender of this little paradise that we ALL CALL HOME. Phil was never shy of his opinion of anything or anyone which is what made Phil the person that he was. I will always be greatful for all of my conversations with Phil in his “office” his front porch. And I will forever be lost without Phil grading me on my driving habits, this is how Phil always ended our onversations….My last grade was an “A” for driving slower. My wife paula and my daughter Jamie Catherine will always remember Phil. Phil my friend enjoy your new Valhalla you will be missed here in this Valhalla and it will never be the same without you.

  9. I met Phil a few years ago from a one-sentence ad he had in the PCNR which I can’t even paraphrase at this point — but it was something spiritual/philosophical that struck me at that moment and made me call. Longer story short, my favorite tree was sick, and I had a feeling he could help. After an initial meeting of lively and sparring conversation sitting next to that tree, Phil came over some days later with some food and medicine for the tree as a gift to us both. I thankfully watched the tree rally and survive over the next season. Sometime later, he showed me his lake and I saw the love he had for it and the land. I’m grateful to have had these experiences, now poignant memories, of his kindness and authenticity to remind me once again of what really matters in life. Godspeed Phil, and thank you!