After working with troubled children all week, Dr. Phil Okun loved nothing more than to read the newspaper and comics with own children Sunday mornings.
Often, his young daughter, Sherry, would sit in his lap.
“I was Daddy’s little girl,” Sherry Rudnak, now 40, recalled of her youth. “He carried me around until I was nine.”
Then there’d be a trip to Boychik’s for bagels. His son Joel would come along, and there’d be afternoons spent listening to NPR or playing chess.
On Mondays, it was back to work at the Atlanta area child mental health facilities as a child psychiatrist. His dedication to helping children who had been abused or victims of trauma was unmatched, said those who worked with him over his 40-year career.
“There’d be times when he’d already worked a ten- or twelve-hour day, but someone would need him, and he’d say, ‘OK, I’ll come back in,’” recalled Sherry Kollmeyer, who first met Okun in the early 1980s when she had just become a registered nurse.
“All his patients loved him.”
Okun, still working full-time at age 72, was scheduled to see patients on Friday, March 25. When he missed two appointments, staff members knew something must be wrong. He had passed away peacefully at his Douglasville home from undetermined causes.
Philip Okun was born Oct. 13, 1943, in Richmond, Va., to Morris and Helen Katchko Okun. The family had a long tradition of cantoring — acting as prayer leader in Jewish services. His grandfather, Adolph Katchko, was a composer and also a cantor, as was his father, and the family instilled in the young Phil the values of Conservative Judaism.
For High Holiday services, he returned each year to the Temple of his youth in Richmond, Temple Beth-El, and was cantor in the “overflow” part of the synagogue, his daughter said.
He graduated from the University of Richmond and then the Medical College of Virginia. Okun came to Atlanta to complete his medical residency at Emory University and settled in the area. He was a member at Congregation Ahavath Achim.
Those who knew and worked with him said that he seldom spoke of his deep faith. Instead, he lived it deeply, taking as much time as necessary to care for abused and traumatized children.
“He went above and beyond at every turn,” said Emily Acker, CEO of Hillside, an Atlanta treatment center for children and teens. Acker, who worked with Okun at Youth Villages-Harbor Campuses in Douglasville, explained that only children who had very serious problems would be admitted for treatment in a facility.
Okun took meticulous care in developing treatment plans, Acker said.
“He was very methodical. He took his time. He was always willing to help the other psychiatrists and techs,” Acker said. “And I know he touched the lives of thousands and thousands of children over the years.”
His daughter experienced his laser-focus to detail when her husband Derek Rudnak was critically ill just a few years ago.
“He was on the phone with me every hour, between patients, telling me how to advocate and ask questions. He was very calm and collected. I saw that he wore that doctor hat very well.”
Joel Okun, of St. Louis, said he has been receiving emails in the past week from strangers with a story to share about his father’s kindness or help. One came from a fellow medical student of Okun’s at Emory.
“He said my dad was the reason he stayed in medical school,” Joel said.
He passed those values on.
“He told us, ‘whatever you can do to help others, you do it.’ It was unreal and wonderful to see,” Joel said.
In addition to his children, Okun is survived by his sister, Judith Belinkie of Richmond, Va., and granddaughter Maggie Okun.
The funeral for Okun was March 28, 2016 in Richmond at Temple Beth-El in Richmond.
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