Joseph Michael Phillips
Joseph Michael Phillips, 85, former head of the English departments at Central and Edison High Schools, graduate of Philadelphia’s Girard College, and a James Joyce scholar, died Thursday April 19, 2018, from complications of Lewy Body disease.
Born in Philadelphia on January 19, 1933, to Maryellen Lynch and John Phillips, Dr. Phillips lost his father at the age of three and so grew up at Girard College, an orphanage that at the time provided shelter and education to fatherless boys. He referred to his time there as “three hots and a cot.”
He graduated from Girard in 1950, where his classmates voted him “most radical.” In 1954 he earned his B.A. in philosophy at Villanova University. In 1957 he received an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1971, a PhD. in English literature from Temple University. For his dissertation he analyzed James Joyce’s use of modern physics in the novel Finnegan’s Wake. He also wrote about the influence of Irish folk songs in Joyce’s works.
He married Bertha Ann Phillips in 1955, a nurse and political activist, with whom he had nine children.
“He was a working class intellectual,” said his daughter Susan Phillips, a reporter at Philadelphia’s NPR member station WHYY. “Although he spent most of his life exploring ideas of the mind, he could build anything – from a backyard deck to a swing set. Our home was full of books, our basement full of tools.”
He began teaching English at Central High School in 1959. In 1970 he became head of the English Department at Edison High School, then one of Philadelphia’s most challenging inner city schools. During this period he also taught English as an adjunct professor at LaSalle College. In 1982, he told the Inquirer that the resilience of students at Edison amazed him.
“If the kids have a teacher they think is for real, they are very loyal to him, their hearts go out to people that are good to them,” he said.
He returned to Philadelphia’s Central High School as English Department chair in 1986, retiring in 1995. He continued to work in public education as a consultant after retiring, primarily for Edison High School.
His daughter Patricia Phillips-Batoma called him a “tireless advocate for education.”
“He strongly believed in teaching as one of the highest callings,” said Phillips-Batoma, a French to English translator and a lecturer in translation studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “To him, the humanities were just as important as science and math.”
Dr. Phillips struggled for the last ten years with Lewy Body dementia, an illness that resembles Parkinson’s disease, and includes symptoms of dementia such as the loss of short-term memory. And although he lost the ability to read, he did recall details of books that he had studied and taught. Rathe Miller, a friend and close companion for the last five years of his life, says he spent hours with him discussing literature, theology, education, politics and philosophy.
“I learned from him to drink my coffee black and keep my intellectual processes rigorous,” said Miller. “There was never a false note with him he was a totally authentic man.”
In 1980, Dr. Phillips served President Jimmy Carter cookies and coffee in his backyard in Lansdowne during Carter’s reelection campaign.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush recognized him for his teaching at a ceremony at the White House. Subsequently he received a federal grant, which he used to travel the country by Greyhound Bus, interviewing contemporary poets over the course of a year. His daughter Susan accompanied him on part of the trip.
“He was middle-aged but had the excitement and curiosity of a young man,” said Phillips. “After years of long hours teaching and raising nine kids, he finally got to do what he loved most – speaking with working poets about their art. And traveling cross country for the first time.”
Dr. Phillips also received a federal grant to work with the Walnut Street Theater to bring Shakespeare into the Philadelphia schools.
In addition to his daughters Susan and Patricia, he is survived by his daughters Maryellen Stoykov of Chicago, Monica Cook of Blue Bell, Pa., Angela Phillips of Asheville, N.C., and Rachel Phillips of Brooklyn; and sons Joseph Jr. of Seattle, Frank of Lansdowne, Pa., and Al of East Orange N.J. He is also survived by 16 grandchildren including Michael, Lizz, Greg, Emily, Frank Jr., Anna, Samantha, and Alyson Phillips; Joe and Daniel Cook; Rosaline Stoykov; Ntchana, Mahatom and Asana Batoma; and Aislinn and Sophia Nash. He is also survived by his brother Thomas Phillips of Park City, Utah. He is pre-deceased by his sister Elizabeth, and his brothers John, Bill and James.
Six of Dr. Phillips’ nine children entered the education field as teachers and academics including Joe Jr., Maryellen, Monica, Patricia, Al and Angela. He referred to his children, and his students, as his legacy.
A funeral mass will be held Thursday April 26 at Our Mother of Consolation Catholic Church in Chestnut Hill, 9 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. A visitation begins at 9:00 AM followed by a Mass at 10:00 AM.
During Presentation of Gifts there will also be a Presentation for the Poor. Family asks that school supplies be offered in his name as donations to Holy Name School in Camden, NJ.