Farewell to The Fox

Originally posted: http://chicagowildernessmag.org/issues/spring2002/fox.html
by David Weissman
He was a teacher and friend, environmental crusader and outlaw. He dared to expose polluters when no one else would. He was Robin Hood, Zorro and Batman all rolled into one. And even though Jim Phillips died last fall at age 70, the legend he created as “The Fox” lives on.
Jim Phillips grew up on Chicago’s West Side, but it was summers spent at his grandfather’s farm in the Fox River Valley that shaped his views on the environment. He found peace in nature and embraced the clarity and solitude of the outdoors. When he turned 10, Phillips moved to the family farm for good.
He pursued science in school and earned a biology degree from Northern Illinois University. For the next 10 years he taught environmental science at middle schools in Oak Lawn and Hillside. It was there the young science teacher got called out by one of his students.
“Mr. Jim, you say that you don’t try to cause air pollution, but you drive your truck to work every day,” the student challenged. “What are you going to do about it?”
With no public transportation available, Phillips was forced to drive. So he did the next best thing: he invited students to paint their complaints on his truck. By day’s end, students had transformed the truck into a rolling billboard: GM — CLEAN UP YOUR ACT!
In the spring of 1969 Phillips plugged a sewer drain that flowed into the Fox River from the Armour-Dial soap plant in nearby Montgomery. The company unplugged the drain, but he filled it again. Two months passed. Phillips returned to check on the river, and there, in a scene like the birth of a comic book hero, had an epiphany:
“Before me lay a mini-disaster,” Phillips wrote in his autobiography, Raising Kane: The Fox Chronicles. “Bank-to-bank soap curds filled the water from the dam back to the sewer. Looking into the pool, my heart sank.
“Floating upside down, with their orange legs relaxed in death, was the mallard hen and all of her baby ducks. The shock of seeing such carnage gave way to sorrow and then rage. Wading into the glop, I saw one tiny duckling’s foot feebly kick. Scooping it up and stripping soap waste off its partly fuzzy body, I tried to open its little beak and blow breath into its lungs. The little body went limp in my hand as the final spark of life flickered out. Everything got blurry as tears of sorrow and anger rolled down my cheeks.”
In the years that followed, Phillips would harness his anger into a new brand of environmental activism — one that applied psychological pressure to achieve results. His methods were smarter than vandalism. Instead he poked fun at polluters, exposed them to the public in ways that confused, embarrassed and, ultimately, shamed them into changing their practices.
At an aluminum foundry in Aurora, he plugged the company’s septic tank, capped smokestacks and left a dead skunk at the front door. When that didn’t work, he paid a visit to the company’s corporate headquarters in Gary, Indiana.
“I have a gift for your president from the animals and people of the Fox River Valley,” Phillips said. He then dumped five gallons of sewage from the company’s own Aurora plant onto the corporate hallway.
That got the ear of Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, who used his column to champion the Fox’s cause.
“The Fox learned about the power of the media early on,” said Brock. “By getting publicity for his actions, the Fox spread the word far and wide.”
By day, he talked with reporters — incognito, from behind a bush.
The Fox’s popularity soared. He held a mock funeral for the Fox River. One article became two, then three, then four. He was featured in the pages of Time, Newsweek and Life magazines, and a television special, “Profit the Earth” — all anonymously. He spoke via telephone to the U.S. secretary of state’s Committee on Human Environment, a group preparing for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.
In time, The Fox became revered and feared, a modern-day Robin Hood who befuddled his enemies and befriended all others. His trademark signature, a small fox drawn as the “o” in Fox, accompanied his notes and signs. Bumper stickers that read, “Go Fox — Stop Pollution” were plastered on cars, signs and office windows of alleged polluters. His identity was leaked to a select few, who called themselves the Fox’s “Kindred Spirits.”
At night he clogged polluting drain pipes.
Phillips’ brand of civil disobedience made so much sense even the local cops started helping him out. They tipped him off to stakeouts and surveillance. They left notes for him in the knothole of a nearby tree, and kept him one step ahead of their own police chief, a man they nicknamed the Sheriff of Nottingham.
In the summer of 1971, Phillips turned to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plan to build an airport on an island in Lake Michigan. A friend drew a cartoon depicting an outhouse in the lake, with Daley standing on the nearby Chicago shore. A U.S. Steel executive standing on the Gary side pointed to the outhouse, and said to Daley, “Feel free to use the lake, Dick — we always did.” Phillips stuck the poster-sized cartoon on the Picasso sculpture in what is now Daley Plaza, in broad daylight. And neither the Sheriff of Nottingham, nor anyone else, could catch him.
“He never wanted to be in the spotlight,” said Gary Gordon, a longtime friend. “It was his deeds he wanted to speak loud and clear.”
Phillips was no eco-terrorist. He was careful to make sure no one got hurt. When he dumped sewage at American Reduction’s headquarters, Phillips felt so bad about the shocked receptionist he sent her a half dozen roses. Another time, Phillips threw a stink bomb through the front office window of Cargill, a company that had dumped leaking cans of paint into the Fox River. Along with his trademark signature, Phillips left a money order for $36.48 to replace the glass.
“The Fox was never about violence,” said Gary Swick, another science teacher and one of the Kindred Spirits. “He chose to work at a grassroots level, to build an ethic of stewardship for the land. He took action before laws and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency even existed. That took a lot of guts.”
In 1973 Phillips took on another role. He became Pierre Porteret, a member of the Joillet-Marquette expedition that led to the discovery of the key Chicago portage 300 years ago. Phillips and six other men, dressed in 1673 period costumes, reenacted the journey in two replica birchbark canoes. The group paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from the Straits of Mackinac to Green Bay, up the Fox River of Wisconsin to the Wisconsin River, then down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas. On the return journey, they paddled up the Illinois River and up Lake Michigan to Mackinac. Along the 3,000-mile trip, the expedition stopped at more than 180 communities along the route and Phillips, as the environmentalist, talked about the changes in the land.
“It was grassroots theater; overt and guerrilla; a show for the folks in the heartland with a profound and provocative message at its core,” recalled Gordon, then a young reporter who became a member of the shore party.
At Starved Rock, Illinois, on the return journey, Phillips delivered a memorable speech to a room full of high-ranking state officials:
“Three hundred years ago I came down these rivers with the rest of these men. But something has happened since the time we saw the river. The flowers came in such profusion that I cannot even describe their beauty. The five feet of topsoil, that was so rich you could turn it under and grow crops to save the starvation of the world, how did you lose it? There is not one foot of it left. What have you done with it?
“I have fished in the rivers, and I have taken the pickerel and the pike; I’ve seen the walleye and the bass. And now I cannot even drink the water. What have you done to it?
“I breathed the air that was as clear and as pure as the morning breeze, and now my eyes water as I travel past your civilized cities. Why do you do this to yourselves? … Why don’t you allow your children, that you give life to, to grow up with the type of beauty that I once saw? There is precious little of it left.”
That kind of childhood logic made Phillips hard to ignore, and inspired legions of followers to carry on his most poignant message: this land belongs to all Creation. Cherish and protect it, or it will die. When Phillips himself died last fall at age 70, his ashes were scattered in his beloved Fox River by the voyageurs from his expedition canoe. They broke his paddle signifying the end of his voyage on Earth.
“The Fox was larger than life, and his actions spoke to a higher set of laws,” said Brock. “Setbacks didn’t discourage him. They only strengthened his resolve.”
Ralph Frese, another lifelong friend, agreed. “In his lifetime, The Fox became a legend,” he said. “The legacy he left is the challenge that we carry on the work he started.”
Copies of The Fox’s manifesto, Raising Kane: The Fox Chronicles, are available from Friends of the Fox River.
E-mail [email protected] $20.