Dickson Phillips was deeply admired for being a sharp jurist with a keen intellect throughout a law career that gained him a seat on a federal appeals court and included a 10-year stint as dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school.
This week, as news of the 94-year-old’s death spread, former colleagues, students and friends recalled an accomplished man whose greatness was embedded more in his goodness, his humbleness and ability to put things in the perspective of the average person.
“He was just one who exuded grace and gentility coupled with great scholarship,” Judge James A. Wynn, who succeeded Phillips as a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, said in a telephone interview. “He was a role model.”
James Dickson Phillips Jr. died Sunday in his Chapel Hill home surrounded by family. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 4 at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, where Phillips was a longtime member and held many leadership roles.
“He lived a long and singular life, rich with duty and accomplishment, devotion to family, friends and country, and embrace of the eternal verities,” his son Dickson Phillips wrote in the obituary posted by the family. “A man of great intellect and personal strength, he was soldier, lawyer, teacher, judge, churchman, outdoorsman, and music lover, but was defined by none of these – he thought of himself as a fellow pilgrim with all he met, and was beloved in return.”
Born in Scotland County on September 23, 1922, Phillips’ son said his father “was shaped in his childhood by the close-knit community of Scots descendants, the traditional faith, and the hardships of the Depression around him.”
He went to Davidson College, where the graduate of Laurinburg public schools was the captain of the baseball team, a ROTC member and a top-notch student inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society before his graduation in 1943.
From there, Phillips went into the Army and became a lieutenant in the 17th Airborne Division and the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment that fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. In March 1945, Phillips parachuted into Germany as part of the Operation Varsity operation undertaken by Allied troops toward the end of the war and suffered injuries that put him in an English hospital until it ended. Phillips was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service.
After the war, Phillips returned to Laurinburg and married his high school sweetheart, who died in a 1957 car wreck.
He caught a ride to Chapel Hill with Terry Sanford, a childhood friend who became a North Carolina governor, a U.S. senator and president of Duke University, that sent him down the path of law.
“Dickson Phillips, Terry Sanford’s childhood buddy from Laurinburg, didn’t set out to be a lawyer. But after earning a Purple Heart in the war, Sanford talked him into coming to Chapel Hill, the law school admitted him on the spot, and he became the greatest dean in the school’s long history and the greatest judge produced in North Carolina since Justice (James) Iredell,” said Gene Nichol, a former UNC-Chapel Hill law school dean and frequent contributor to The News & Observer’s opinion pages.
While at law school, Phillips became part of a study group that included Bill Friday, who later became president of the UNC system, Bill Aycock, a former UNC-CH chancellor, and John Jordan Jr., a three-term state senator who was a champion of higher education, who all preceded him in death. Sanford, too, sometimes was part of the group.
“No academic institution in history ever produced such a cluster,” Nichol said. “Friday, Aycock, Sanford, and now, heartbreakingly, Judge Phillips, gone. Leaders we've never been able to replicate.”
Thomas Kelley, a UNC law professor who clerked for Phillips when he was on the appeals court bench, reminisced about the former judge this week, recalling what he described as a “fabulous experience.”
“Even though I love my job now, really it was hard to top that clerkship year,” Kelley said. “He was such a great jurist and yet everything he did was infused with great humanity. ... He had this thorough approach to the law that was consistently informed by his practical experience.”
While on the bench, Phillips weighed in on high-profile cases over minority voting rights, gerrymandering and sex discrimination.
One of the cases on redistricting is cited often in the lawsuits challenging redistricting maps from this decade.
He dissented from a 4th Circuit panel’s decision in a sex discrimination case questioning whether the Virginia Military Institute could constitutionally provide a “separate but equal” program for women, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed with Phillips that the school could not.
Phillips kept up with his former law clerks and routinely ate lunch with a group of them who lived in the Triangle area. They relished his stories about fishing, which he loved; his war experiences; his baseball days; and his legion of friends.
Though a contemplative man who sometimes would sit for long quiet spells with his eyes closed in thought, Phillips was a colorful storyteller with a quick wit and sly sense of humor.
Jack Boger, a UNC-CH law professor and former dean of the school, recounted a story from when Phillips was dean of the law school and had an office that looked out over UNC practice fields where two young men were practicing their golf swings. They sent a ball crashing through the dean’s office window, then dashed into the building, toward Phillips and a bit of wisdom they were not expecting.
The golfers told Phillips “we don’t know what to do,” Boger said.
Phillips looked at them, put his hands together and suggested how they might change their swing.
“Here’s how you fix your slice,” Phillips told the golfers expecting a tongue-lashing.
Over the course of his career, Phillips served on many community and state committees and boards, including the state Wildlife Resources Commission, a courts commission that drafted constitutional and legislative measures to reorganize the court system, the state Ethics Commission, the Davidson College board of trustees, and University Presbyterian Church.
“He was a wise man,” Boger said.
His family, friendship and Protestant faith guided him throughout his life, his son Dickson said.
Phillips is survived by his wife of 57 years, Jean, daughters Lyn, Elizabeth and Ida, and son Dickson, five grandchildren, brother Robert Phillips, and cousins, nieces and nephews.