Nelson: So Long To Artisan, Musician, Soccer Coach & Kind Soul : Phillip Kerl

BlueRidgeLife™2008-2013 : Photo By Tommy Stafford : Phillip Kerl poses for photo in August 2008 for our then Nelson County Life Magazine. This was just before he left for Africa.
BlueRidgeLife™2008-2013 : Photo By Tommy Stafford : Phillip Kerl poses for photo in August 2008 for our then Nelson County Life Magazine. This was just before he left for Kenya. He was helping kids at an orphanage play sports.

Wheeler’s Cove
Nelson County, VA

How do you describe Phillip Kerl of Wheeler’s Cove? For me, two words come to mind: family man.

For others, he was a soccer coach. An artisan. A musician. He was no doubt a character. And a kind soul.

We did a story on him in the August 2008 of Nelson County Life. He was raising money to go to Kenya so that children at an orphanage could play sports. Maybe basketball. Or if there was enough money for goals, then soccer.

A couple of years later in 2010, Kerl was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four, throat cancer. He hung on until passing away Friday, March 15. He was “comfortable and peaceful when he slipped away,” according to a post on his family’s Facebook page.

Shortly before Kerl’s passing, Karen Ratzlaff, Director of Advancement at Hospice of the Piedmont, interviewed him. With his family’s blessing, we print her story below:

Choose the Light

On a sunny day in 2010 shortly after his fifty-sixth birthday, Phillip Kerl scored two goals in a pick-up soccer game with his sons and their friends.

One week later, he was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four, throat cancer and his life changed forever.

Seven months later, following unimaginably difficult but successful treatments at the University of Virginia, Kerl was dubbed “the miracle man” after beating enormous odds.

“Cancer is a coward,” Kerl reflects. “It’s a worthy nemesis that shows up when you aren’t watching. I’d never judge anyone else’s response or reaction to its unexpected arrival; this is just my story.”

A lifelong artist and musician – and a much-beloved soccer coach in Nelson County for more than 25-years—Phillip Kerl found his voice after treatment by writing songs about his experience. Vikki Bravo, a social worker at the Cancer Center, wanted others traveling a similar road to hear his work. One of his physicians quietly financed the creation of a music CD. One week after the completion of the CD—a year after he completed treatment—the cancer returned with a vengeance.

The first reaction by the medical community when the cancer returned was that nothing more could be done for Kerl who had “maxed out” the amount of chemo and radiation his body could handle in the first round of treatment. But familiar with Kerl’s strength and resilience, it wasn’t long before a radiation oncologist suggested a new round of therapies followed by a different type of chemo.

“Cancer literally had me by the throat but lying there in the dark during radiation therapy I would meditate and try to breathe out the cancer and breathe in love.” A deeply spiritual person who does not identify with any one religion, Kerl felt bolstered by the support he received from his family and community. In the darkness and quiet he would focus on sending his love and prayers to others on their own cancer journey who didn’t have the support he enjoyed.

Through it all, Kerl did his best to reflect on the best in his life. “Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow,” he points out. “The projections we are given for our longevity mean nothing. All we can do is get up every morning and see what we can accomplish.”

“Everyone has dreams—you just never know if you’ll get to see them realized.”

Kerl had already been fortunate to live out one very special dream. In 2008 he organized the donation of sports equipment from friends and colleagues in Nelson County who also helped fund a trip to an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. He lived with boys and girls in squalor for three weeks, but it’s clear when he relives those memories that the trip was like going home, and that those were three of the most miraculous weeks of his life. He helped build basketball goals for children who had never played the game, and coached all ages in soccer. Remembering the beauty of their souls and the respect afforded him as their coach and mentor, he smiles when he says, “That was the greatest game I ever coached.”

By the time he left Nairobi, the children called him Babu, Swahili for “grandfather.”

Another dream came true three weeks into his second round of treatment. Staff from the Emily Couric Cancer Center found funding to make it possible for Phillip and his beloved wife, Peggy, to travel to New York City to perform at a convention of cancer survivors and physicians.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure my message was still valid. How could I still be called a ‘miracle man’?”

Reassured that he still had plenty to say of value, Kerl combined his music with narrative and reflection and gratefully remembers the comments shared with him afterwards by members of the audience. Even now his music is reaching people living in uncertainty and providing them with reassurance and support.

More than four years after receiving a critical diagnosis, Kerl is still grateful. Driven forward by the strength of his will, he is a man who has experienced numerous, emotional ups-and-downs over the past four years including significant hearing loss that left him feeling isolated until his hospice social worker helped arrange the donation of hearing aids.

But he admits that the latest transition has been the most difficult. “I had an enormous mental adjustment to make when I was admitted to hospice.” This chapter has required a re-shaping of his hope and he readily admits he’s still learning that lesson. But some things are crystal clear.

One is his gratitude for the love of his wife, their eight children, and the extended community that sustains him. Peggy is amazed by his selflessness. “Phillip has made all of this easier on us. It’s wonderful to watch him teach our children how to be graceful and strong in the most difficult times.”

Their son Koda, a young musician living in Charlottesville, speaks for his siblings when he predicts, “I know I’ll be able to handle anything that happens in my life after seeing how my father has handled all this.”

Today, Kerl’s hopes look a little different than they used to.

Never anticipating the loss of his voice, he hopes for more time and the strength to keep working on a legacy project with Koda to record the hundreds of scraps of lyrics he’s written over the years.

He hopes for warm sunshine and the strength to walk in his field on good days, deep in Nelson County. Acknowledging all that she has had to bear he hopes that Peggy is sustained and supported, and he compliments the Hospice of the Piedmont team members who are working to make her life easier and his life more comfortable.

And he shares his story with others because of his hope to pass his message on to others.

“Enjoy more of each moment,” he advises. “If you have a choice, choose the light.”

“No one ever knows how much time they have. But this is your life; it’s your breath you are drawing in. Yes, it’s difficult. Certainly, it’s uncomfortable. I can understand how hopeless others feel.”

“But life is beautiful and to be treasured, and that’s what I’m focused on each day.”


Learn more about Hospice of the Piedmont and hospice services at or call (434) 817-6900 or (800) 975-5501.


To purchase a copy of Phillip Kerl’s music CD, “The Sweet Mundane: A Survivor’s Tale in Song,” email



the doctor walks in…


after a long wait the doctor walks in

i can tell by the look on him

that the news is gonna be grim

a requiem


following him into the room comes his nurse

i swear to god she even looks worse

thought she was ready to put me in a hearse

i wonder have i been cursed


the doctor clears his throat he begins to speak

totally straight forward nothing oblique

i feel my knees go weak

he said the results of your scan are in and they’re very bleak


inoperable cancer and what’s more

its already advanced to stage four

i wish i could tell you there was a cure

we could treat you but your chances are poor


i stand there completely stunned

like i’ve been hit by a brick that weighs a ton

nobody ever thinks they’ll be the one

resist the urge to scream and run


i struggle to get my head clear

understand exactly what i did hear

try to get a grip on my fear

blink back a tear


the doctor continues with his explanation

after a great deal of rumination

i could treat you with a combination

of intense chemo therapy and radiation


but understand so there’s no denial

your chances are long as the river Nile

but if you’re ready to go the extra mile

perhaps it’s cancer we can beguile


the florescent lights add to the haze

i stand there in a complete daze

until i meet my wife’s gaze

i see nothing but strength, no pity not even a trace


we step into the sunshine and blue sky

knowing we will give it our best try

not one time do we ever ask why

determined not to die


understanding the challenge we face

in this moment in time and space

and except the struggle that we embrace

to exemplify strength and grace

exemplify strength and grace



the caretaker (song for my wife)


in my time of need

you’re always there

when i can’t breathe

you are the air


when everything’s dark

you bring the light

you make everything

seem more bright


when i need sustenance

my soul you feed

you help me cope

you bring me hope

in my time of need


in my time of need

you’re by my side

you have freed

every knot that i’ve tied


when i’m so low

you are the sky

when i feel whoa

it’s your eyes that cry


when i am wounded

you also bleed

at the end of my rope

you bring me hope

in my time of need


in my time of need

you’re always there

when i can’t breathe

you are the air



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