Retired Gazette columnist dies at 75
John Phillips, whose byline topped thousands of sports and feature stories and light and humorous weekly columns in The Indiana Gazette during a career that spanned four decades, died Wednesday at Beacon Ridge Manor, near Indiana.
He was 75.
Phillips grew up in Warren, served as a medic in the U.S. Army and was an education major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania before he came to the Gazette as a part-time night desk sports writer in 1968. He advanced to sports editor and wrote a column, “The Sports Jacket,” and was a weekly columnist and an assistant editor when he retired in 2009.
Sam Bechtel, a longtime friend and former Indiana Gazette sports editor who hired Phillips, said Phillips was extremely intelligent.
“But he didn’t flaunt it. … It wasn’t his persona,” Bechtel said. “He was very well-read. You could tell from what he wrote about that he was a very smart guy,” but to most people who knew him he was a “happy-go-lucky good-old-boy.”
“The newspaper was his life. … He just loved it,” Bechtel said.
Bechtel later served as the Gazette’s executive editor and in a 37-year newspaper career also worked at the Beaver County Times and the Pittsburgh Press.
“If I had to pick five of the best writers I worked with, John would be in that group,” Bechtel said, adding he considered Phillips one of the best “pure writers” he had worked with.
“His sentences just flowed. They were well put-together, well-constructed,” Bechtel said.
Phillips nearly always wore a visor while at his editorial room desk, and — in the days before smoke-free environments — usually had a stub of a cigar in his mouth.
“John was a valued member of the Gazette family who was with us for 40 years,” said Michael Donnelly, president and publisher of Indiana Printing and Publishing, which owns the Gazette. “I will always remember seeing John, wearing his white golf visor, digging into that day’s paper. He will be missed.”
“John was totally unassuming, never argumentative,” said Hank Minich, of White Township, who became friends with Phillips when Minich came to Indiana in the mid-1970s. The two were golfing buddies at the Indiana VFW.
“He was mediocre” as a golfer, “but that didn’t matter,” Minich said. “He was the only guy I know who’d swing a golf club with a cigar in his mouth. He had burn holes in the left shoulder of his shirts.”
Minich said Phillips sometimes carried a transistor radio while on the golf course so he could listen to oldies music while playing.
Engvard Johnson, of White Township, was an off-campus roommate of Phillips when the two were IUP students. Both had served in the Army before they enrolled and so were older than typical students.
“John was sort of a loner,” Johnson recalled. “He was a real quiet guy. He always had a job. He always worked” and was a delivery truck driver for an auto parts store before starting his newspaper career. Johnson also remembered Phillips was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at IUP, and he enjoyed golf even in his college years.
“And he was a sun-worshipper,” Johnson added. “He was always at Mack Park laying out.”
As assistant editor at the Gazette, Phillips spent much of his work day reading, critically checking newspaper stories before they went out to thousands of other readers.
“I also resolve to read more this year,” Phillips wrote one January. “I read tons of wire copy because that is what we do here at the paper, but I would like to do more recreational reading, pulp fiction, science fiction, adventure fiction, maybe even some classics.”
Phillips wrote many of the Gazette’s Monday Q&A features, but his name was probably most recognizable among Gazette readers for his weekly columns.
Those columns frequently focused on food (“To completely enjoy the Fourth of July fare, it should be eaten outside and unselfishly shared with God’s other critters — ants, flies, bees and the like”), humor (“I was going to write about the evils of procrastination, but I think I’ll hold off on that until Monday”), holidays (“It’s Valentine’s Day again. … The rumor is that a bouquet of florists got together in a secret greenhouse and planned the whole thing, but I think the chocolate lobby and the greeting card people had a hand in it, too”) and everyday situations most of his audience could relate to (“I long to be slim and agile, able to touch my toes without bending my knees — heck, I’d like to be able to see my toes. … I weighed 195 pounds when I got out of the Army and I don’t know how or why I put on 20 pounds during that time — it certainly wasn’t because the food was fantastic”).
Like the television “Seinfeld” episodes where every show was about nothing, Phillips found inspiration for columns in the routine and the mundane. “I got a letter from Kenny the other day,” Phillips wrote in one column. “He wants to know who I am and what I’m doing here. That’s Kenneth Prewitt, of course, the director of the Bureau of the Census of the United States of America. The answers that I give on the census are important, he says, for determining the amount of government money that my neighborhood will receive. This comes as a big surprise to me because, as far as I know, my neighborhood hasn’t received any government money at all (unless my neighbors have been holding out on me).”
Phillips didn’t need a breaking news event or an international incident to build a weekly column on. They sprang from almost anything that happened around him or to him.
“Having just received my annual Encyclopaedia Britannica “Book of the Year,” I was glancing through the obituaries section and was struck, as I always am, by how many of those familiar to us passed away during the year 2004,” Phillips wrote in early 2005. He then recapped some of those who had made the transition, from Tug McGraw to Bob Keeshan to Ronald Reagan. “Our names weren’t on this list, so things are looking up,” Phillips concluded that column. “Let’s hope that when we do go we’ll be worthy of mention in an encyclopedia.”