WESTERLY — Drug addiction was such a small part of the big life led by the late Phil Agins that his mother prefers not to dwell on it.
Paula Agins, a social worker with the Stonington School system, says she’d rather talk about the upcoming fundraiser she’s in the throes of planning for the Philip B. Agins Scholarship Fund — the one she started in her son’s name shortly after he died in 2008 from an overdose of heroin.
Sitting on one of several large chairs arranged neatly in the living room of her Victorian home, and holding a photograph of her late son — wearing a wide bandanna and a big smile — Agins says she’d much rather talk about the fact that her son was a talented, much-loved musician with a big heart and a big following. She would rather spend time discussing the fact that this will be sixth anniversary of the annual event that raises funds to send a young musician to a summer camp at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
She’d also rather talk about the generosity of the people and businesses in the Westerly area who have so generously helped her raise the nearly $50,000 needed to make the scholarship sustainable. She’s eager also to talk about her plans to establish a new program for her fundrasing skills — “PHIL-anthropy.” She wants to create a nonprofit, she says, one that will pay for programs or music-related expenses for needy young people from the Westerly-Pawcatuck area.
“It will be for the kid who broke his reed at school or the kid who can’t afford the trip to Disney with the school band,” says Agins.
But it’s impossible to talk about the scholarship fundraiser — a wine tasting and silent auction scheduled for March 14 at the Westerly Yacht Club — or her son, without at least mentioning what killed him. It’s impossible to gloss over the fact that Agins, a young musician with a zest for life — a Westerly High School graduate who called Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead among his heroes — died from an addiction.
Its especially difficult to ignore a death from heroin these days when stories of heroin overdoses and addictions along with warnings from health officials and law enforcement experts have become commonplace.
Earlier this month, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his Manhattan apartment with a syringe in his arm and bags of heroin nearby, the victim of an apparent overdose. Last week state health officials and the Rhode Island State Police issued a renewed warning on a second wave of overdose drug deaths: 38 so far in the first six weeks of 2014.
Many of the deaths were from drugs sold illegally on the street, according to Michael Fine, health department director. “Drug addiction is a chronic serious disease with a significant mortality,” said Fine. “Too many people are doing drugs.”
Craig Stenning, director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, called the rash of deaths from heroin overdoses “a public health crisis.”
Fine said that the 38 deaths cut a swath “all across Rhode Island.”
“This is something that affects everyone in Rhode Island, and frankly in the United States,” he said. “Since New Year, we have lost too many.”
Agins said, “Drug addiction has such a negative stigma. It was such a small part of my Phil.”
When Phil Agins was a student at Westerly High School, he played for Ted Collins in the high school jazz band and was recruited to play bass for Stonington High School’s performance of “Grease.” It was there that he met Thor Jensen, a Stonington High musician.
“We played in the pit together and became fast friends,” said Jensen. They became “real tight, real quick.”
“It was all music and laughs and listening to Stevie Wonder,” said Jensen, a full time musician who lives in Pawcatuck.
After high school the two taught guitar and bass at Frets and eventually became roommates.
“Phil was incredible,” said Jensen, “He was one of my best friends. My musical bond with him was beyond description, and it will never be matched. I think about him every time I pick up my guitar.”
“I knew about Phil’s struggles,” said Jensen. “I didn’t know how much he was struggling at the end, though.”
After high school, Agins went to the Community College of Rhode Island for a year, then headed to Austin, Texas, with the first band he played with, The Big Nasty.
It was in Austin, says Paula, that Phil discovered heroin. He came home to get straight and enter rehab. Soon after, he helped form The Royale Bros., a band that became regulars in the New London music scene and played throughout New England and New York, released an album and building a decent reputation. Then Phil overdosed and died.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Agins. “It’s part of our painful history. But life goes on.”
“It will be nice to know that there will always be a Phil Agins Scholarship,” she said.
The Phil Agins Scholarship Benefit Wine Tasting and Silent Auction will be held on Friday, March 14, at the Westerly Yacht Club from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person and $40 per couple.