I can never think of the late Clarence "Pete" Phillips without thinking of Doris O'Neil.
Mrs. O'Neil, who I think lived in Nashville, was the secretary-receptionist for Rep. Phillips and two other state representatives at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville. Whenever I would go to the Plaza, either by myself or as part of a delegation Pete had invited up from Shelbyville, Doris was there, keeping the office running smoothly. I sometimes had to call her for information and she was always a delight to deal with, and always found whatever it was I was looking for. I often joked that if Doris told me something and Pete told me something different, I was going with Doris.
Pete Phillips, a man of great humor, would probably have been the first to agree with me.
Most of those trips to Nashville had to do with highway projects or the like. A group of dignitaries would travel to Nashville, meet Rep. Phillips at his office, and then head across the street to a state office building to talk to Tennessee Department of Transportation officials about whatever it is the local delegation wanted.
On one such visit, he introduced Doris to the delegation as "a Yankee from New York."
"Pete," she said in protest, "I moved here 20 years ago."
In 2002, after Rep. Phillips had announced that he would not run for re-election, I went up and spent a morning with him at his office and in committee meetings, writing a two-part story which I've been trying to track down a copy of since Rep. Phillips' passing on Wednesday. It was fun to see the lobbyists stop by first thing in the morning, to try to bend his ear on this issue or that one. Rep. Phillips chaired the House calendar committee, and that committee had a say in how and when proposed legislation made it to the floor of the house.
I still remember him telling me, and telling some of those visiting delegations, the story of how president James K. Polk had, much earlier in his political career, been a state legislator from Columbia whose district included Bedford County -- and Polk, according to letters or diaries Phillips had read, wasn't happy about that. I forget the exact reason -- perhaps we hadn't voted for him in the election, or perhaps we put too many demands on him.
Pete Phillips, on the other hand, seemed to relish representing Bedford and Lincoln counties. And he was re-elected time and time again over 30 years, often with no opposition. One year, he had a challenge from a man who told me later that he ran against Phillips, not so much because he had any strong objection to Phillips, but just because it annoyed him that anyone at that level would run without opposition.
Whatever you thought of him, Phillips was a colorful, larger-than-life figure. His hard work yielded benefits for Bedford County, and he'll be remembered and missed.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.