Friends, colleagues remember pioneer

When he was confirmed, and was asked to name his Jewish hero, the grandson of Phil Sky, who died Friday, didn’t say Sandy Koufax or Albert Einstein or any of the other names emblazoned for posterity in the Jewish firmament.

Instead, Sam Sky named his grandfather Phil, Rabbi Josh Wohl of the Agudath Achim Congregation said.

“He said his grandfather supported him, loved him, came to all his sporting events, took him on vacations and was there when he needed to talk,” Wohl said.

Those kinds of relationships, Wohl said, are “what life’s about.”

His grandfather — his pap — proved his courage when he got cancer, but he was infinitely accommodating in his interpersonal relations, according to Sam.

“Everybody bossed him around,” Sam said.

That pliancy, his open-mindedness and his ability to see other points of view, enabled him to resolve almost any dispute and made him beloved by almost everyone, Sam said.

He was the quintessential nice guy, Sam said.

“Easy does it,” was his mantra.

It helped him become successful in family life, friendships and business, Sam said.

Phil, who died at age 76, came into his own in the family food distribution business, Sky Bros., in the mid-1960s, along with his nearly-the-same-age first cousin, Neil Port.

Phil, a “fantastic salesman” and “visionary,” helped expand the business by pioneering the food-show strategy of merchandising and by taking advantage of the growing number of national restaurant chains to solve a transport problem related to the size and location of the firm, according to Port.

Because of those efforts, the company was able to thrive, despite the remoteness of Altoona, which was not then connected with the rest of the world by I-99, according to Port.

Along with his wife Roz, Phil would set up food shows at Seven Springs, drawing about 200 of the company’s vendors to display special buys, unfamiliar products, different ways of dealing with familiar products and ways to make things look more appealing, Port said.

Representatives from Sky Bros. customers, including restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, colleges and other companies and institutions that offered food to eat away from home, would come from as far as a couple hundred miles away and enjoy fireworks and music in the evenings.

The increase in business the events generated far outstripped their cost, he said.

Sky Bros. wasn’t huge and Altoona was out of the way, and it was often difficult to obtain products from elsewhere for local buyers at reasonable prices, because orders for a particular product during a particular period of time wouldn’t create enough volume for cost-effective transport.

Moreover, the trucking company their forebears had founded was no longer able to rely on poultry deliveries to sustain it, according to Port.

So Phil began to market strategically to chains like Truckstops of America, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Howard Johnson, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut so Sky Bros. trucks could take food from Altoona on the way to Chicago, St. Louis and other faraway places, delivering as they went to those chain restaurants. On the way back, those trucks would pick up goods needed by local customers.

“The whole deal took a lot of energy,” Port said. And tenacity, he said.

“We shouldn’t have been able to do it,” he said.

One of the reasons they did was Phil’s treatment of all employees like family, according Pat Counsman, who worked for the firm.

That treatment continued beyond the time the family sold the company to Sara Lee in the mid-1980s, he said.

When one meets an old boss, “let’s get together” is a frequent cliche, but with Phil, it would actually happen, according to Counsman.

“He’d call you and do it,” he said.

And the get-togethers would include one’s spouse and children, and eventually one’s children’s spouses, he said.

He also treated customers like family, Counsman said.

Sometimes, it seemed his grandfather’s ability to smooth things involved magic, Sam said.

If a dispute threatened, he would “work it out, knead it out,” Sam said.