Hillsdale College would not be the same without the contributions of former College President J. Donald Phillips, Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn said Tuesday.
At the dedication of the bust of Phillips, created by alumnus and sculptor Isaac Dell ’18, several spoke of Phillips’ immense contribution to the college, specifically how those contributions still benefit students today. Two of Phillips’ sons, as well as the chairman of the board of trustees, William J. Brodbeck, and a member of the board of trustees, S. Gunnar Klarr, recounted memories of working with Phillips.
Arnn said when Phillips took over as president in 1951, he stepped in at a turbulent time. The college had experienced 50 years of turmoil with two world wars and the Great Depression.
“They saved the college. It wasn’t rich when they finished. It was alive, and it was better,” Arnn said. “And it was reminding itself of why it existed, which is the condition of people sacrificing to keep it going. It was a college then just like the nation. It was founded according to a perfect principle, which of course perfection can never be fully realized.”
According to Arnn, Phillips serves as a reminder and source of guidance for the college in the struggles it faces today. Phillips’ story can be used to inspire future generations and encourage them to emulate his pursuits.
“Hillsdale College has gotten through this mess so far,” Arnn said “And just think how long ago it began. It began when J. Donald Phillips came here.”
Brodbeck, a colleague of Phillips, said his tenacious commitment to free enterprise during a time when federal control of education was growing made a monumental impact on the college’s future. In the early 1960s, when the secretary of education determined that if students received federal aid to enroll in institutions of higher education they had to comply with federal education regulations, Phillips and his colleagues led the way to reject the aid and maintain the college’s financial independence, according to Brodbeck. Other colleges followed suit.
“That resolution is a phenomenally important part of this college, it’s part of our DNA, and was a very, very important,” Brodbeck said. “I would never belittle all that Larry Arnn, and his folks have done here it is absolutely phenomenal, it almost defies belief that just over 20 years all that he has done he and they have done here hasn’t been accomplished. I would point out that none of that would have been possible if not for J. Donald Phillips saving the school back in the early ’50s.”
Beyond his work as college president, Phillips inspired his sons as a father and outdoorsman. Among stories of growing up at Broadlawn and heading up North to fish on family vacations, Jim and Scott Phillips described from their familial perspective how Phillips impacted so many lives.
“He was just a phenomenal guy,” he said. “I think one of his favorite things during the week was taking, he knows who took care of this couch, outside the grounds. He went down to the maintenance department with doughnuts every Friday morning, and he talked with them about their life, about hunting, about everything. And I think that says a lot about him.
James Phillips described his view of the college’s pursuit of freedom while his father served as president and its connection to today. His memory told how Phillips paved the way for the future outreach of the college.
“I think it really helped the college here being with the marketing person and working with organizations of all sides, all over the country and so on, was this idea about getting Hillsdale connected to free enterprise,” James Phillips said. “These folks know the story about being independent, and they applauded it. And I can’t believe how well, Larry, you guys have taken this niche of connecting with this independence across this country you’ve done such a beautiful job that I know my father very softly proud of what you’ve done.”