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Chicagoan Jon Phillips reflects at 91 on a life well-lived
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

This article shared 7769 times since Wed Jan 16, 2013
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His small, quaint, well-kept, one-bedroom Evanston apartment is filled with a first-hand view of world history, including photos, business and legal documents, handwritten notes, books and the still-sharp memory of 91-year-old Jon Phillips, who talks openly and certainly knowingly about World War II, President Truman, Queen Elizabeth II and Mayor Richard J. Daley, and celebrities such as Bette Midler, Rod Stewart and Steve Winwood.

"I've had a wonderful life," said Phillips who was, coincidentally, born on Christmas Eve 1921. He celebrated his 91st birthday at a dinner with about 30 other people, then went to a nearby Methodist Church service, and then back to his assisted-living residence.

He even had a cake in 2012, which isn't too common for Phillips, who often has had, instead, to simply enjoy Christmas cookies.

"Walking down the halls [in this apartment complex], I often meditate, thanking God for a fantastic life," he said. "I've met wonderful people—some famous, some not so famous—but wonderful people overall."

Phillips has lived in Evanston for the past two years, moving to his current home from Lakeview. He's endured a bladder infection recently and has had a double hernia, which he speculates was caused from lifting the moving boxes of his worldly mementos. He also has had chronic emphysema.

Still, he said, "basically, I'm fairly healthy. As I said to someone the other day, when you live to be 91, parts begin to wear out; they're not going to last forever."

But his memory is still razor-sharp.

Phillips' stories from World War II are part of a new gay musical, Under A Rainbow Flag, written by Leo Schwartz and produced by Pride Films and Plays. It will run March 23-April 21; see .

The early years

Born to an unmarried woman, Phillips was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandparents in suburban Streator, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago. When they got ill, he moved in an aunt and uncle who lived nearby, along with their two daughters.

His grandparents died when Phillips was 13.

Shortly after moving in with his aunt and uncle, the man across the street died. "I was watching them bring in the casket and I turned to my aunt and said, 'Who was Frank Farrell?'" Phillips said.

Flustered, she replied, "Why are you asking me that? You know who he was; he would come home drunk and lived across the street."

He explained to her that, as a child, he found a sheet of paper inside some sheet music and he asked his grandmother what it meant because it had his name as Francis John Farrell, not Francis Jon Phillips.

"I remember, [my grandmother] snatched [the sheet of paper] out of my hand and just said that someone was taking a typing class and just playing around [with names]," Phillips said.

His aunt then told her daughters to play outside so she could talk to Phillips privately.

His aunt said, "To the best of my knowledge, he was your father. Your mother's story was, she was on her way home from her job as a ticket-taker, late at night. She met him on the street and he was drunk, and he attacked and raped her. So she wanted to have nothing to do with him."

Phillips now admits, "I think the whole thing colored my whole outlook on marriage, who I was, my identity, etc."

Phillips' aunt told him that the neighbor often used to stand and watch him play with others, but was always staring at Phillips. Plus, the neighbor carried a baby picture of Phillips in his wallet, his aunt told him.

"She believed the story and I believe the story," Phillips said, decades later.

Phillips said that, when he heard the tale at 13, he ran into the basement, crying, wondering how this could happen to him.

He regrouped himself quickly.

"I remember thinking, 'Jon, you have to pull yourself together; maybe God has a purpose, so just accept it,'" he said. "I also remember thinking, my relatives are just too much for me, so I'm going to make friends—and I made thousands of friends in my life."

Friends would take the place of relatives, he determined that day.

"I'd had it with my family," he said, "and so I made an art of making friends … and now am just flooded with friends."

Phillips graduated from Streator Township High School in 1940 and has never returned for a reunion. "I guess I moved on in life and that [period in my life] is over," he said.

Most of his high school friends were upperclassmen. "I was a social-climber from the beginning, and as I once told a girl friend of mine, 'You too would be if you came from my family," he said.

After graduating, he opted against going to college and started working at Montgomery Ward. He then went to work in a factory that manufactured milk bottles because it paid more.

"I was a big shot because I had money," Phillips said, laughing.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, Phillips and a friend decided to enlist in the military before they got drafted because, he said, if you enlisted, as opposed to getting drafted, you could choose which branch of the U.S. Armed Forces you wanted to join. Otherwise, it was direct to the Army.

Phillips opted for the Navy and became a medic in 1942, although he eventually was transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps.

His military stint, which ended in 1945, included time in Okinawa, Japan.

"That was just one more miracle that I went through in my life. I learned a lot [while in the service,]" said Phillips, who worked for a division psychiatrist in combat, the first time a psychiatrist served on the front line. "I was glad I had the experience; I learned a lot, especially that I could get things done because I always was in charge of things."

He spent three months in Okinawa.

"I remember sitting and watching kamikaze planes, the [thick smoke] in the air from gunfire, and more," Phillips said.

Phillips still recalls when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, and his first reaction at the time was that the vice president would become the president—but Phillips wasn't even sure who the VP was.

"In those days, they didn't push the vice president [as they do now,]" Phillips said. Harry S. Truman succeeded Roosevelt.

After leaving the military, Phillips accepted a job at Edward Hines, Jr. VA [Veterans Administration] Hospital.

"Now that I had seen the world [through military service], I thought I could no longer live in that small town of Streator. There was so much more to do, more to experience, more to conquer elsewhere in the world than just in Streator," he said.

Phillips worked as a technician at Hines, and often was asked to work alongside surgeons who others viewed as difficult to work with. Such as the day Phillips was in the operating room with Dr. Loyal Davis, a famous brain surgeon.

"Many years later, while working for the city [of Chicago], I met this woman named Edith Davis," Phillips said. "I remember asking her if she was related to Dr. Loyal Davis."

He was her husband. The two had a daughter and Edith told Phillips that one day he should meet her. It never happened, though. Their daughter was Nancy Reagan.

Phillips worked at Hines Hospital for only a couple of years, then furthered his education, ultimately landing at the Institute of Design in the downtown Chicago campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

"I went to the Institute of Design because I wanted the big city [experience] and its anonymity," Phillips said. "I met a lot of people through the school. I was popular in school, so our house had the biggest parties, with many famous people attending."

Their loft on Ohio Street always was the happening place, he said.

"I went from poverty to dealing with famous people," Phillips said.

He was ultimately hired by the City of Chicago in 1954, and worked in the planning department for most of his 30-year career.

My kind of town

Phillips' career within the city of Chicago spanned from Mayor Martin H. Kennelly to Mayor Jane Byrne. He also worked under Mayor Michael Bilandic.

One of his big breaks came in 1956, when Mayor Richard J. Daley was preparing for a live speech on WTTW. The mayor's office called Phillips' department, looking for someone who could do some legible hand-lettering to write cue cards for the mayor's speech.

Phillips handled the task; from then on, every time the mayor's office was going to do something that required a sign or artwork, they'd call Phillips. He worked in planning for key, high-profile weddings, meetings with kings and queens, and so much more.

In 1954, Phillips helped Chicago land the title of All-America City.

In 1959, Phillips was an integral part of Chicago's planning for a visit from Queen Elizabeth II in conjunction with the St. Lawrence Seaway, and a key component to make the dinner at the Conrad Hilton Hotel extra special.

In fact, Phillips led the queen and the mayor to their table, among secret service members.

That night remains a lifelong highlight, he said. "To know that something you did made a beautiful occasion very special, very nice and dignified, and that future dinners copied [your idea.] That meant a lot," said Phillips, who admitted he was "good at making the mayor look good."

Through his job for the city, Phillips met more celebrities than even he can remember. The walls at his Evanston home showcase an amazing life.

Yes, he is gay

On Christmas Eve 1942, Phillips was on a train, going from Chicago to San Diego with other servicemen. He celebrated his birthday in North Platte, Neb., and they even had a cake for him.

That was the first time he heard the term 'gay bars,' which he learned were popping up in large cities.

"I couldn't believe it," Phillips said.

While in the Navy, Phillips admits he had gay sex, but very limited.

And while working for the city of Chicago, he never told anyone at City Hall about his sexual orientation.

"I sublimated my sex drive my whole life. I was in denial. It wasn't tough, but it was my choice," Phillips said. "In those days, yes, it would have been tough [to be open and out]. I liked my job and my own character that it was important for me to not compromise. So I just did not have a lot of sex."

Phillips said he was dually in denial—of being gay and being straight.

"The road I chose was not easy," he said.

Still, "If the mayor had ever called me in [to his office] and asked, 'Jon, are you gay?' I think I would have said, 'Yes, I am.' But no one ever asked me; they never had any reason to [ask]. They could have been suspicious, but I gave them no reason to say I was gay in a time when it was unpopular to be gay. That was my choice. I didn't make it easy for people to label me."

Phillips will be thrust into the spotlight in March in Under A Rainbow Flag, a new musical by Leo Schwartz, based on the true story of gay men in World War II.

"At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it because that means I have to tell everyone that, yes, I am gay, but I've never been one to wave the gay flag," Phillips said. "At 91, I have nothing to gain by being gay or not being gay.

"My first reaction [to the play] was, I wasn't sure I wanted to be in the play. At this point in my life, I don't know if I want to be famously remembered as someone who did great things for the Queen [of England], or he was gay. Then I thought about it, and I don't really care. I have to live my life the way I see it.

"This play is an honor, for me and all of the [other gay people] who served."

More Jon Phillips:

—He admits he is a news and political junkie, saying he knows what's happening worldwide, and is proud of that knowledge.

—He is a Chicago Blackhawks fan and has a red Hawks T-shirt at home, adding that he admires the players' skating and skills.

—Phillips spent a lot of time going to gay bars, but has not had a drink in 31 years, "so visiting gay bars now is very [rare]," he said. Phillips hasn't been to a gay bar in two or three years.

—The quote: "Many assumed I went to college, so I quickly realized that I was quite capable."

—A 1975 book about Bette Midler tells of a party that Phillips co-hosted for her.

—He has known Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim since she was a very young girl because he was friends with her mom, Joy Darrow, and stepfather Steve Pratt.

This article shared 7769 times since Wed Jan 16, 2013
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