“His career is a testament to the significance of community newspaper publishers in making the towns they serve better places to live and work.”
The first time I saw Jesse Phillips (’54), he had a handful of file folders and was walking briskly toward the Oxford Square from Rebel Press. Alma Stead, a journalism graduate student and a reporter for The Oxford Eagle, was about to introduce me to the clerks at the Oxford Courthouse when she saw Jesse.
“That’s Jesse Phillips,” she said. “He’s publisher of the ‘Eagle.’”
In 1961, Phillips, Nina Goolsby and Walter S. Featherston bought the Eagle. Phillips was the Linotype operator, Goolsby was the bookkeeper and Featherston was the shop foreman.
Later, Phillips and his wife, Jeanette, and Goolsby and her husband, J.C., bought out the Featherston family, and Phillips became publisher. Goolsby became a renowned advertising manager, and the newspaper moved from a weekly to a daily.
Jesse Phillips died Feb. 28. He was 84.
“Jesse and Jeanette Phillips have provided almost unparalleled leadership to the Ole Miss and Oxford community for nearly a half century,” said Ed Meek, publisher and owner of New Media Lab LLC, which operates HottyToddy.com.
His wife survives him. “Jeanette was a great teacher at Ole Miss,” Meek said. “She was founder of the National Food Service Management Institute while Jesse, a journalism graduate at Ole Miss, served as a mentor to many young journalists and businessmen, including me.”
The Oxford Eagle was founded in the last year of the Civil War. The Oxford Falcon, early forerunner of the Eagle, was established by Samuel More Thompson in 1865 with the motto “Truth is a weapon with which we fight.”
As publisher of The Oxford Eagle for 53 years, Phillips had been an intrepid promoter of the Oxford community. In addition to promoting business growth, Jesse helped facilitate integration of the schools.
He was a longtime member of First Baptist Church of Oxford and filled many roles in its leadership.
“Jesse probably held every leadership position in the church,” said the Rev. Robert Allen, administrative minister. “He’s been on major building programs, and he and Jeanette started a Sunday school for those at North Mississippi Regional Center more than 40 years ago. He’s been on all our major committees.”
Although Phillips had retired before Layne Bruce became executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, Bruce described his impact on the entire state.
“The newspaper industry and our association family lost a tremendous leader and patriarch with the death of Jesse Phillips,” Bruce said. “His career is a testament to the significance of community newspaper publishers in making the towns they serve better places to live and work.”
In fact, the smaller dailies and weeklies in the state did not have much say about the running of the Mississippi Press Association until Phillips became president of MPA. It seemed as though he and Gale Denley, the late director of the Student Media Center at the University of Mississippi, drove to Jackson every week and worked to make the MPA an egalitarian association in which every newspaper, large or small, participated.
For the last few years, Phillips endured failing health, and during a brief last visit with him, he didn’t speak, but his eyes told of his frustration at not being able communicate in words.
He had been a longtime friend of our family, a newspaper partner, a loyal supporter of the Meek School and a model of commitment to doing what is right.
During America’s frontier days, Phillips would be called a righteous man, a man of principle.
For example, during the late 1970s some of the younger press association board members wanted to have a cash bar to serve alcohol at the summer convention at the Broadwater Resort in Biloxi. After much discussion, a cash bar was approved by one vote. Phillips voted with the minority.
However, on the opening night of the convention, there was no cash bar. The person serving as president of the MPA had decided to override the board vote. Those who had voted for a bar were incensed and, when they learned what had happened, they made a beeline for Phillips.
“Jesse, you voted against having a bar, but you know that the majority voted for it, and you know that this is wrong.”
Every bone in Phillips’s body was against drinking, but he listened to the protesters. Then he walked over to the president and pulled him aside to discuss the matter.
Nobody knows what Phillips said, but his opposition to drinking strengthened his argument that MPA needed to do what its board had agreed to do by a majority vote and, in a few minutes, there was a cash bar at the reception.
When Danny Phillips, Jesse’s and Jeannette’s oldest son, followed his father years later as president of the Mississippi Press Association, he and his wife, Susan, visited with my wife, also Susan, and me in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I worked for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As we showed them around the capital of Nebraska, we talked about the future of the newspaper business and Danny’s vision for the Eagle.
Both Danny and his brother, Tim, graduated with degrees in journalism from Ole Miss, and I had taught each of them in Advanced Reporting. I was interested in their career objectives. Danny had become a national leader. Danny and Tim seemed destined to follow in their father’s role as community leaders.
However, not too long afterward, Danny’s health issues required him to undergo a kidney transplant, and Tim was the donor.
During Danny’s days in the hospital, I received regular reports by email from Don Whitten, the editor of the Eagle, and the news seemed positive.
Then Danny’s system abruptly rejected the kidney, and he died.
I was in Nashville for Freedom Forum meetings, and Charles Overby, chairman of the board of the Freedom Forum, asked me to represent the forum at Danny’s funeral.
I will never forget the gathering of journalists from newspapers throughout the nation and the long line of family friends who came to the visitation to express their support of the Phillips family, close friends of hundreds of Mississippians.
Jesse Phillips was a hardworking, non-whining man of integrity, and it was difficult to watch him slowly constrained by deteriorating health and then forced into solitude. Here was a man who seemed to know everybody and seemed to know how to do so many things, now needing help himself.
In recent years we had several long visits, and his mind was as focused and precise as when he was building the Eagle into a strong daily. He was stimulated by the conversation, and he always said he did not want us to leave, but it also was obvious that long visits made him tired.
When I was returning to Ole Miss in 2009, I wrote him that I did not have a place to stay. I asked if he would consider letting me stay in the old bus station, which he had converted into a downtown apartment.
He not only welcomed my staying there, he told me I could stay free.
Later, when Susan and I bought our home, I told him I needed to pay him something. He suggested that I make a donation to the scholarship fund that honors Danny.
He and Danny were two of a kind — men of principle who were devoted to their hometown.
Today, Jesse Phillips is not hurrying to the Square for business. He’s walking leisurely with Danny around the Square of heaven.
Will Norton, Jr., is dean of the Meek School.
The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).