James Phillips, 70, Environmentalist Who Was Called the Fox

Note from Real Life Superheroes.org admin: It has been brought to my attention that there is an inaccuracy in the following article. Mr. Martin states that “His passion for the environment persists in a local group named for him, Friends of the Fox”, however, new information indicates this to be a false statement.
This information was provided by Pat Reese, who stated, “I am the founder of “The Friends of the Fox River,” and I can assure you our group was not named after The Fox, aka Jim Philips, and that there is no other group named “Friends of the Fox” in Illinois. However, there is a “Friends of the Fox” in Green Bay, Wisconsin, 300 miles away, also not associated with Jim.” Mr. Reese also provided official documentation supporting his information, and requested that appropriate corrections be made on this site.
-The Watchman
Originally posted: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/22/us/james-phillips-70-environmentalist-who-was-called-the-fox.html
October 22, 2001
James F. Phillips, an environment advocate who used flamboyant tactics like putting metal caps on top of belching smoke stacks, then leaving a note signed ”the Fox,” died on Oct. 3 in Aurora, Ill. He was 70.
The cause was complications of diabetes, his sister Dorothy Spring said.
Mr. Phillips led a dual existence as a middle school science teacher and an ecological saboteur, using techniques later refined by Greenpeace and other environmental groups. He never acknowledged that he was the Fox, although family members and friends confirmed that Mr. Phillips was.
”He carved a peculiar niche for himself,” said his friend Ralph Frese, a blacksmith and canoe maker who accompanied Mr. Phillips on a mission or two. ”He tried to disguise himself, but it was a thin disguise.”
The Fox plugged polluting sewer outlets and left skunks on the doorsteps of the executives who owned them. He collected 50 pounds of sewage that a company had spewed into Lake Michigan and dumped it in the company’s reception room.
”I got tired of watching the smoke and the filth and the little streams dying one by one,” he said in an interview with Time magazine in October 1970. ”Finally, I decided to do something — the courts weren’t doing anything to these polluters except granting continuance after continuance.”
Much of what the Fox did was against the law, and the police were hardly amused by the fox’s face, sometimes smiling, sometimes grim, that he customarily drew inside the ”o” of ”Fox” on the notes he left behind.
Robert Kollwelter, a local police sergeant, said in an interview with Newsweek in October 1970 that the authorities would charge the Fox with trespassing and criminal damage to property if they could catch him.
But they could not. ”It’s kind of hard to lift fingerprints from the inside of a sewer,” Sergeant Kollwelter explained.
At least one government official suggested that the Fox was performing a valuable service. The official, David Dominick, commissioner of the federal Water Quality Administration, said in a speech before the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1970, ”The Fox, by his deeds, challenges us all with the question: Do we, as individuals in a technological society, have the will to control and prevent the degradation of our environment.”
James Frederick Phillips was born in Aurora on Nov. 20, 1930. His grandparents were asparagus farmers, and he grew up on a farm. He earned a degree in biology from Northern Illinois University. He later taught science in middle school for 10 years.
In the late 1960’s, he was distressed to see dead ducks on the polluted Fox River, which meanders through Aurora to the Illinois River. He decided to take direct action: He stopped up a sewer pipe that was spewing sudsy wastes into the Fox River with plywood.
”Nobody ever stuck up for that poor, mistreated stream,” he told Newsweek. ”So I decided to do something in its name.”
He moved to bigger targets like United States Steel. In a 1970 column in The Chicago Daily News, Mike Royko told of his darting about Chicago putting up signs attacking the company for polluting.
For example, he posted a sign on a coffee shop window: ”Making steel is my business, murdering your environment is my sideline.”
Mr. Phillips later was a field inspector for the Kane County Environmental Department west of Chicago before retiring in 1986 to start the Fox River Conservation Foundation. ”He got a chance to do it legally,” Mr. Frese said.
The Fox’s escapades stopped after the enactment of state and federal laws to control pollution. His passion for the environment persists in a local group named for him, Friends of the Fox.
He is survived by two brothers, Herb, of Chicago, and Albert, of Verokua, Wis.; and two sisters, Dorothy Spring of Aurora and Margaret Webb of Fayetteville, Ark.
Photo: James F. Phillips