It is a sad day for the Santa Maria Elks.
The Elks are mourning the loss of Phil Harwick, the President of the Elks Recreation Committee.
Harwick, 73, died early Friday morning, losing a months-long battle with cancer. The cancer was diagnosed shortly after last year’s rodeo wrapped up.
“We knew it was coming but my heart is still in a million pieces,” said the Elks Rodeo’s Chief Operations Officer, Tina Tonascia. “He was such an incredible man and leader of our team these last few years.”
Elks Rec – as the Recreation Committee is known – is the organization within the Santa Maria Elks Lodge that stages the annual Santa Maria Elks Rodeo.
Harwick became Elks Rec President in January of 2013.
That began a sprint to get Elks Rec reorganized in time to put on the 2013 event.
“It takes a year to generate the money you need to put this rodeo together,” Harwick said at the time.
But by the time the Rodeo kicked off on May 30 of that year, Harwick and his dedicated team had accomplished the impossible.
“We had 4 1/2 months, but we got a rodeo,” Harwick said.
Since then, Elks Rodeo has undergone an amazing transformation.
Attendance is up and sellout crowds have become the new norm.
Harwick oversaw the renovation of the Unocal Event Center grounds which included expanding the VIP tent and turning the on-site dance hall into a second VIP tent while also adding a third VIP tent.
The Rec Committee brought in new acts, brought back Hall of Fame announcer Bob Tallman, upgraded the video boards and renovated the grounds with a new paint job and landscaping and got the Rodeo Clown School off the ground.
Harwick also convinced Peter Sterling to re-start once disbanded the Rodeo Queen program.
Harwick was a Central Coast native.
He grew up in a family of Arroyo Grande ranchers.
He left the Central Coast and settled in San Diego where he was an engineer for the San Diego City Fire Department.
Within a week of his 2002 retirement, Harwick was back on the Central Coast, settling in Nipomo.
“It’s where I grew up. It felt like home. It is home,” Harwick said in that 2013 interview with the Times.
And he didn’t exactly retire from the firefighting business.
He immediately began teaching at Hancock College’s Fire Academy and continued teaching there for more than 10 years.
As a youngster, he loved going to the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo.
After his return to the area, he got involved with the Santa Maria Elks.
“I joined the Elks club specifically to become part of the rodeo,” Harwick said when he became Elks Rec President. “I was content helping out, just pushing cows around down in the roping chutes.”
When the Elks Rec President’s position came open, Harwick – who said he never expected something like that to happen – got out his cowboy hat and devoted most of his time to restoring Elks Rodeo to its former greatness.
It didn’t take Harwick and his dedicated team long to achieve that goal.
After the 2015 rodeo, the Elks were named the Best Medium Rodeo of the Year by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association on Dec. 12, 2015, during the annual National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
“Phil was unique,” said Tonascia. “For him, it was all about community – what’s best for the community. He always said ‘it’s not about the rodeo, it’s about the community.’ He was so passionate about his job and he inspired all of us to create a top-notch, world class rodeo. He would tell me that no accolades can beat seeing those stands full, seeing all those happy people every night. It will be tough filling his boots.”
The Elks will take some time out of their preparations for this year’s 75th anniversary rodeo to honor Harwick.
A celebration of his life is being planned and is expected to take place in about two weeks.