Memory eternal: The faith and times of McCandlish Phillips

If you wanted to know who John McCandlish Phillips was, as a New York Times journalist, all you really needed to do was listen to the words of other journalists. Here are two of my favorite quotes along those lines, drawn from a classic profile in The New Yorker (which is now behind a firewall, unfortunately).

“He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural,” the legendary reporter Gay Talese once said, describing a staff that included the likes of David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas. “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

Anyone who knows anything about Talese will find those words very revealing. And there was more:

“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese told The New Yorker. “He is not interested in demeaning people. … He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”

The headline on that New Yorker piece said, bluntly, “The Man Who Disappeared.”

I guess that was true, journalistically speaking, but it was totally wrong from a Christian point of view and, for Pastor John, the eternal point of view was what really mattered. That’s why I called my response to The New Yorker, “The man who didn’t disappear.” Here are a few key paragraphs from that:

Phillips arrived in 1952 and landed a copy-boy job a day after, he said, God ordered him off the train he was riding home to Boston. A year later, he looked around the Times newsroom and realized he was the only conservative Christian there. So he stayed. He walked away in 1973, at the peak of his writing powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher with a small urban flock.

A lengthy New Yorker profile of Phillips called him “The Man Who Disappeared.” But the man didn’t disappear. The reporter did. …

Phillips has disappeared in the same way that a seed disappears in the soil. Friends on New York sidewalks know that “Pastor John” has invested his life in new believers, including more than a few journalists.

That’s the one note that is missing from the excellent Margalit Fox obituary for Phillips in The New York Times, but I do not blame here for that one hole in the narrative. There are journalists in some interesting newsrooms who would love to talk about the influence he had on their lives, but they really cannot afford to do so. Phillips knew what it was like to be the rare traditional, conservative Christian in a major newsroom and that gave him special insights — private, discreet insights — into how to mentor those living in that world.

I, for one, will treasure some of the kind notes he wrote to me in response to my weekly Scripps Howard News Service columns and regret that his health — which was fragile for more than a decade — never allowed him to catch a train down to Washington, D.C., to speak to my Washington Journalism Center students. We both wanted that to happen and it never did.

So how did he end up as a street preacher on Manhattan’s upper west side? The Times obituary hits the high points of his professional career, with the thread of his faith running through the whole narrative — even the lede.

McCandlish Phillips, a former reporter for The New York Times who wrote one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history — exposing the Orthodox Jewish background of a senior Ku Klux Klan official — before forsaking journalism to spread the Gospel, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Jaan Vaino, a friend.

Even in a newsroom that employed Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and Ada Louise Huxtable, Mr. Phillips, who was with The Times from 1952 to 1973, stood out. He stood out as a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist — an all-too-rare marriage on newspapers then — and in his hands even a routine news article seldom failed to delight. …

In his 2003 memoir, “City Room,” Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The Times, called Mr. Phillips “the most original stylist I’d ever edited.”

Pastor John was certainly an original when it came to his personal style, as well. For starters, he was an Army man without a college degree. And then there was that worn-out book on his desk, near his well-thumbed dictionary:

An evangelical Christian, he kept a Bible on his desk and led prayer meetings for like-minded colleagues (there were none when he joined the paper, he noted ruefully) in a conference room off the newsroom.

He refrained from smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling, each of which had been refined to a high, exuberant art in the Times newsroom — the last of these to such a degree that at midcentury the newspaper employed two bookmakers-in-residence, nominally on the payroll as news clerks.

Read it all, but make sure you get all the way to the shattering final Phillips quote, which offers his personal benediction on his famous encounter with that KKK leader with a stunning secret, a visit to a Queens diner that included a death threat that Times leaders took very seriously.

Memory eternal, Pastor John. Your work will not disappear.

PHOTO: By Annie Levy of New York City. From the United Nations exhibit, “How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know How Old You Were?”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Ira Rifkin

    As a young journalism student oh so many years ago in New York, Phillips was someone I hoped to emulate. I did not know back then about his deep Christian faith, but I did know that I wanted to write as he could. He was a prime reason I fell in love with newspapering.


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