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Tom Phillips Changed My Life

The summer I turned 19, in 1966, Martin Luther King came to Chicago to support the local Civil Rights movement in their fight for open housing, and for access to jobs. The Presbytery of Chicago supported this mission, and asked for college students volunteers, who would be embedded in the neighborhoods, and assist in any way asked of them. Although I was a Jew, I was accepted as a volunteer and assigned to work for Tom Phillips at Marlboro Presbyterian Church to help run a daycamp for local kids aged 7 – 11. We were asked to perform a sort of soft propaganda in an all-white blue-collar community – winning hearts and minds – to try to move away from hatred as a response to diversity.

Tom was the best manager I ever worked for. He gave our group of three volunteers guidance and direction, but left us to manage the day camp on our own. He taught me how to think outside my own narrow experience of life. We took our forty kids everywhere in Chicago, by bus and L. We had story time, music – one of our group, George Harris, knew a thousand songs and knew how to engage the kids in singing them. Some I still sing myself. We had a little cooking club. When the ringleader of the big boys learned we were making chocolate pie from scratch, he signed up. (Against my advice he tried a piece of unsweetened chocolate, and then bullied the other boys into eating some, too.)

Tom also involved us volunteers in the politics of the city, from the big stuff downtown to the power structure in our own community, including the local Catholic church, where most of the neighborhood worshiped. We met with our peers in the Catholic Youth Group, and were dismayed at their support for their drunk, racist alderman, but Tom talked us through that, as well.

The next year, when I graduated from university and was at loose ends, Tom and his wife Carolyn invited me to live with them and their two children while I looked for work. This cemented my connection/commitment to Chicago, and led, indirectly, to my meeting my husband.

Tom died yesterday. I am grieving, but I am constantly grateful for my time with him and with Carolyn.

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