NEW YORK—John McCandlish Phillips, who died April 9 in New York at age 85, was a New York Times reporter who won the respect of world-renowned authors like Gay Talese and served as a mentor to generations of Christian journalists.
In two decades at the Times, Phillips became a chronicler of the city’s forgotten people: He wrote articles about a high school principal skilled at ragtime piano and a young man who won a bricklaying contest. At the Port Authority bus terminal near Times Square, he discovered a group of elderly people who came to the terminal’s waiting room every day to sit and talk for hours. “Some are waiting for buses,” he wrote. “Others are waiting for death.”
Phillips, a towering string bean, became a Christian through a Baptist church shortly after his high school graduation. He never went to college, instead joining the Army. In 1952, a few weeks from getting out of the Army and on a train from Boston to Baltimore, he sensed God telling him to get off the train in New York City, so he did. He picked up a newspaper and noticed an ad for a copyboy position at The New York Times. Again he prayed and felt he should apply for the job, which he did with success. His sparkling writing soon grabbed editors’ attention, and he became a full-time metro reporter.
Phillips, who never married, rarely left New York City, even on vacations. “I am not awed by the city—so much of it is like plain pieces of Buffalo or Pawtucket stretched out to excess—nor am I in dazzled love with it, but I hold it in a certain respect and affection, and I find it a fabulous subject,” Phillips wrote later. Talese called him “the Ted Williams of the young reporters.”
Phillips was never secretive about his faith in the newsroom: He kept a Bible on his desk and abstained from the established newsroom practices at the time of drinking and gambling. But straight reporting characterized his articles, not sermonizing.
After 21 years at the Times, Phillips quit to focus on the small Pentecostal church he helped found in Manhattan, New Testament Missionary Fellowship. At the time the evangelical community in New York was tiny, but it has multiplied in the decades since. “What everyone in this city needs, with scarcely anyone knowing of it, is the one salvation that God has provided in His son, Jesus Christ,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2009, explaining his decision to quit.
Phillips continued to mentor many prominent Christian journalists, including David Cho of The Washington Post and Russell Pulliam (a WORLD board member) of the Indianapolis Star. Pulliam was a police beat reporter for the Associated Press in New York in the 1970s and recalled a question on his mind at the time: “What does the Bible have to do with the police beat?”
“I didn’t even know how to say, ‘How do we bring a Christian worldview to our work?’” Pulliam said. “[Phillips] could go write a story and he would bring biblical principles to bear in it, and in such a subtle way. And The New York Times editors would love it. His Christian faith was so much who he was.”
For six years in the 2000s, until his health deteriorated, Phillips taught courses on journalism basics at the World Journalism Institute, part of World News Group. I was a student in his class in 2006, where he used as curriculum the famous magazine piece “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by his former colleague Talese. Ever the metro reporter, Phillips sent students on assignments into the city, telling one class to watch city buses and figure out why they didn’t show up at the posted times. His journalistic ethics class was very basic: Don’t lie. His advice for finding good sources: Pray.
“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese said in a 1997 profile in The New Yorker. “He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer! Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”