John McCandlish Phillips, the gold standard for Christian journalists in the last half of the 20th century, has died in his beloved home, New York City, at 85. I first met Mr. Phillips in the early years of this century when WJI began its long-standing relationship with The King’s College in Manhattan. Mr. Phillips, who was 6’6” and reed thin, was exuberant in his enthusiasm for the mission of WJI and was a source of constant encouragement to Kim Collins, former Deputy Director of WJI and myself. In fact, John was only one of two teachers who taught for us at no cost! Mr. Phillips was known by some as “John,” “McCandlish,” “Long John” or even “Johnny.” The Babe Ruth of the New York Times newsroom for two decades in the mid-50s to the mid-70s, John was a friend and colleague of the great New York Times journalists during that period. While a faithful co-worker in the newsroom, he was nevertheless an outspoken and gentle evangelical Christian. The number of prominent Christian journalists who were mentored by John over the years and owe their success in part to his careful guiding and encouragement is too numerous to mention. A master teacher and teller of stories, Mr. Phillips was a fixture in our New York courses from the early 2000s until his health prohibited him from continuing his teaching and mentoring role. The institute is proud to have been his teaching home for years and was thrilled to publish his widely read monograph, “Faith in the Daily News Chase,” which was a speech he gave to one of our graduating classes. Additionally, we were able to video one of his teaching sessions to our students. The institute created a journalism chair in John’s honor several years ago and we hired top journalism instructors from around the country to hold that teaching chair for a year. A couple of years ago, the institute, fearing that John’s journalistic writing would be forgotten, purchased all of the remainder copies of his 1974 book, City Notebook. We distributed copies to any WJI grad who wanted one. I am happy to report that we went through hundreds of John’s book to discerning WJI alumni.
To demonstrate great evocative and stylistic story telling, John required his students to read the 2007 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” by Gay Talese, the 1942 critical essay “The Bear” by William Faulkner and Ernie Pyle’s long 1944 war time essay Brave Men. He always suggested that young journalists read fellow Timesman Meyer Berger’s collection of columns “About New York.”
In a memorable evening, several years ago, we co-sponsored with Geographa a sterling evening to honor him in the Great Hall of the Harvard Club in Manhattan. In attendance to honor John were luminary Timesmen Arthur Gelb and Gay Talese, as well as several hundred journalists from around the country. John has now gone to his reward across the Jordan River and Christian journalism education in America is poorer for John’s absence.