A tribute to a good man
a good journalist

West Quebec Post

Posted 07.03.03

Many readers of the West Quebec Post--and the Ottawa Citizen--will notice a large hole where Bob Phillips' columns have regularily appeared. After 65 years of writing, ill-health has persuaded Bob to switch off his computer and take it easy for the summer.

Bob Phillips is a man of many parts: in the late '20s he was a copy boy at the Toronto Star, where his mastery of language made itself evident. This stood him in good stead later, as the author of six books and hundreds of magazine articles across more than half a century.

He served with the Canadian Army in northwest Europe, and after the war he joined the then Department of External Affairs, and was promptly posted to Moscow, 1947-49. On one occasion, Bob met and shook the hand of Joseph Stalin. On his return - as was the order of the day - he went to the National Defense College.

There followed 22 more years in the public service, in External (latterly Foreign Affairs), in the Privy Council Office, a decade in Northern Affairs as Director of Northern Administration, then Assistant Secretary of the Cabinet, Director of the "War on Poverty", and in Information Canada. He retired with the rank of Assistant Deputy Minister.

As a professor of Political Science and Writing at Carleton University, for 12 years, he was able to impart to his students his love and respect for the English language.

When Heritage was a questionable affair

While most of us consider our heritage important, Bob did something about it. In 1967, he and his late wife Mary Anne were part of a small committee charged with beautifying the capital for centennial year; it rapidily became a committee to prevent the razing of the centre of the city. The plans included a scheme to fill in the Rideau Canal to create a road into the centre of town, and tearing down the Union Station to make way for a parking lot.. Both daft ideas were scrapped, thanks to Bob's hard lobbying as to the folly of the scheme. In 1970 Bob chaired the heritage committee of "A Capital for Canadians," that was instrumental in saving the Chapel of the Rideau Street Convent, Billings House, The Nicholas Street Gaol, and even the East Block on Parliament Hill that was, incredibly, slated to be gutted and modernized for government offices.

He wrote a scholarly book on its architecture, which, although out of print for years, it is still consulted the reference work on the building. For saving these important heritage structures, Bob was awarded the City of Ottawa Heritage Officiation Award in May, 2002.

He established Heritage Canada - not to be confused with the government department of the same name -- in April, 1973. In addition to founding Heritage Canada, he saved the 1875 Grant House at 150 Elgin Street that became its first headquarters.

A year earlier, Bob Phillips undertook, again with Mary Anne, the monumental project of reconstructing an 1819 barn on his Cantley property. The reconstruction took from 1972 to 1976 to fully realize the dream. It became known as "The Grange", the crown jewel of their collection of five other rescued heritage log buildings that were erected on the property over the years. The Grange was the most ambitious log restoration ever attempted in Canada.

As fate would have it, the great structure caught fire on April 25, 1992, with a loss of Bob Phillip's many treasures and his personal library, including a collection of 16th-century maps, and a life-time of photo albums. At first the building was considered a total loss; but, on close examination it was determined that the logs suffered only charring an inch deep. Bob determined it would be rebuilt, and, indeed, rebuild it he did in time to move in for Christmas, 1992.

The Grange became one of the most celebrated meeting places of West Quebec, where Bob's hospitality welcomed thousands for events which ranged from fund-raisers to his grand Dominion Day parties.

The Order of Canada

Certainly the most significant honour of his many was his appointment to the Order of Canada on December 1987 : The Citation reads:

A former soldier, diplomat, and public servant, this writer and lecturer has laboured for many years, personally and through organizations at the local and national level, to increase public awareness of our Canadian heritage. His pioneering work in this field was acknowledged by his appointment as the founding President of Heritage Canada

He served as President of the Historical Society of the Gatineau 1984-88 and is an Honorary Life Member. He left an indelible mark on the Society, especially in promoting its annual auction, of which he was its best customer, with a knowing eye for valuable antiques. Bob's many contacts aided the Society's work immeasurably.

Community newspapers

Someone once said that ink runs in the veins of the true newpaper man. In the case of Bob, after years away from a regular beat he, with friend Scott Stevenson jumped in feet-first to buy, not just one community paper, but two, The West Quebec Post and The Aylmer Bulletin., in 1991. In the former case, Willy Assad, a respected Gatineau businessman, ran the paper for years as a successful hands-off publisher. He only agreed to sell on the understanding the The Post would see its second century in competent hands. In the latter, publisher Art Mantell was sufficiently disillusioned with the Aylmer market to retreat to his first love, The Low Down to Hull and Back News in Wakefield.

Bob took on The Post, while Scott oversaw The Bulletin, and for nearly six years they ran the papers, until Scott returned to the Eastern Townships for family reasons. Bob served as president of the Quebec Community Newspaper Association for many of these years, and his papers won a great many newspaper awards, thanks to his writing and editing skills.

Both papers were sold to the Pontiac Journal publisher, Fred Ryan, in July, 1996. Certainly, Bob put his heart and soul into what he believes is one of the lifelines of a community - the local newspaper.

Even after selling the papers he continued on as Publisher Emeritus, and carried on a regular column, until this spring.

Bob is a great believer in the power and the economy of well-chosen words, and that good words should give as much pleasure to the writer as to the reader. We hope he returns to these pages soon with good words for all of us.

Ernie Mahoney writes for the West Quebec Post.

Copyright © 2003 Ernie Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/07.03