Joseph B. Phillips: An Appreciation

Brett Phillips, a journalist and publisher who told Loudoun’s stories for more than five decades, died early Sunday. His long career included service as editor of two Loudoun newspapers—first the Loudoun Times-Mirror in the 1960s and 1970s, then Leesburg Today, which he founded in 1988.

It was in Leesburg Todaythat Phillips found his mature voice. He outlined clearly where the county was heading, combining his knowledge with the ability to present complex issues in understandable but eloquent terms. A natural leader, he combined intelligence and practicality, deep knowledge of the county, journalistic excellence and a talent for friendship.

Those interviewed for this article remembered him with affection, citing his curiosity, integrity and sense of humor. Even when he disagreed with them—or they with him—he never let it get in the way of friendship. Above all, he had a passion for the truth, particularly for holding those in power to their word. Like a dog sniffing a buried bone, Phillips was good at uncovering sometimes unpalatable truths and in disseminating the facts.

 

A Daring Venture

In 1988, not everyone was convinced by Phillips’ plan to start a newspaper dedicated to covering local government.

“I had my doubts,” attorney Bob Sevila recalled. “But he was the energy and force behind what became the very successful Leesburg Today.

Nor was Sevila, who was Leesburg’s mayor during the paper’s early years, spared from censure. “He was my harshest critic; he set the standard for local government.”

Former Loudoun Valley High School Principal and Leesburg Councilman George Atwell treasured the friendship that grew between the two men. He had joined the newspaper’s board to provide some business acumen. “If Brett was the accelerator, I was the brakes—we didn’t always agree, but we never argued, we seemed to understand each other.”

Leesburg businessman and former Virginia Delegate Joe T. May recalled being struck by Phillips’ “unrelenting need to speak the truth.” While May was in the General Assembly, he wryly noted that, “Brett gave me bouquets and brickbats in equal numbers—but I thought of his tenure that he was [responsible] for what makes Loudoun today.”

Longtime state Senator Charlie Waddell knew Phillips when he was editor of Loudoun Times-Mirror and Waddell was an upstart eastern Loudoun supervisor on the county board.

“He had a good grasp of what was going on in the county … and supported my efforts in the east,” Waddell said, calling him an outstanding journalist. “I admired what he pulled off at Leesburg Today.” More than anything, Phillips “did so much to keep the county informed about changing times.”

Longtime friend Hilary Cooley supported his newspaper idea from the beginning. She called Phillips a “consummate journalist—who researched every detail before writing a ‘razor sharp’ story with his distinctive wit, style and truth.”

Town and Country

         While coverage of county government was his foremost focus, Phillips also did

Leesburg Today Editor and Publisher Brett Phillips with Gov. Douglas Wilder.

much to support the small towns of rural western Loudoun. Former Lovettsville Mayor Elaine Walker said, “I always appreciated his support for the town, and he did so much to acknowledge the town and its growing pains.”

Middleburg Town Manager Martha Semmes was the planning director in Leesburg in the 1980s and remembered Phillips’ emphasis on telling the stories that were important to the community, and in “preserving the best even as Loudoun grew.” He encouraged dialogue to give voice to public issues, Semmes said. “He was a public servant in the best way.”

Architect Beckham Dickerson called Phillips “The Rachel Maddow of his time.” In 1969, Dickerson was hired as the county’s planning director and led the development of a new comprehensive plan. At the time, everyone was pushing to stop growth—but after Dulles Airport was built and public water and sewer service came to Loudoun, there was no way to stop it by zoning alone. Phillips understood that, he said.

Later, Phillips developed his ideas for countryside preservation, working with the Country Life Center, with preservationists including Joe and Donna Rogers and Erskine Bedford. One of his “brilliant ideas” was to use service districts as a means of open space conservation, Donna Rogers said. Although the county board was not in favor, “it did pass in Fauquier,” Rogers said.

The ‘School of Brett’

         Loudoun NowEditor and Publisher Norman K. Styer was the first full-time reporter hired by Phillips for Leesburg Today, joining the small staff in early 1989.

“What we learned in those early days was that local government matters. It mattered more than anything happening in Washington or any other news hotspot of the day,” he said. “He required us to be students of government—watchdogs, budget analysts, planners and policy wonks. He expected us to dig deep into the details and then ‘report to the people’ in a context that provided value to readers, including the government leaders themselves. That’s not the type of content newspaper experts championed in the late 1980s—or now—but if formed the foundation for the newspaper’s success.”

Susan Styer, advertising manager for Loudoun Now, joined Leesburg Todayin 1995, knowing nothing about advertising or the newspaper business.

“Basically, he raised me in the business,” she said. It was Phillips in that pre-digital age who taught her how to layout the paper’s pages using pencils and erasers.

Noting Phillips’ well-known irascibility, she recalled four times she fell afoul of his ire. “Twice it was fair, but two other times I didn’t deserve it.” She also recalled the fun. One day, he came into the advertising department and said, “Come on, girls—let’s go for a ride.” She recalled being “white-knuckled” in the back seat of his red convertible Mustang.

         Loudoun NowReporter Jan Mercker’s association with Phillips began when she was a Leesburg Todayintern throughout her senior year at Loudoun County High School.

“The Leesburg Today job was the best after-school job ever.” She returned three years later as a reporter to cover the school system for the paper.

“Instead of going to journalism school—I went to the school of Brett,” she said.

He taught her to “get to the heart of a story, and how to ask the important questions.” The work was tough with high expectations, but there was “an atmosphere of humor, high energy and fun.”

After marrying and starting a family, Mercker said she is happy to “keep Brett’s legacy alive under the editorial leadership at Loudoun Now.”

mmorton@loudounnow.com

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