Mayor retiring from office, pharmacy

Friday, May 29, 2009
Tribune photo by Clint Confehr Bob Phillips' 12-year tenure as Lewisburg mayor will end Monday when Barbara Woods is sworn in as the city's first woman mayor on Monday.

On Monday, Lewisburg Mayor Bob Phillips will step aside and after 12 years - three terms in office - he won't be mayor anymore.

That's been known well before this city's recent election campaign began, but it may not be as well known that he's also retiring from his career as a pharmacist.

Phillips owns a little more than a third share of H&S Pharmacies and he's selling it to his partners Mike Keny and Franklin Crigger on Monday, June 1.

"I'll still work for them whenever they want me to," he said during a lengthy interview over lunch this month when he explained that his partners are bringing in another pharmacist, Jon Maxwell.

Maxwell is substantially doing the same thing Phillips did in 1965 after he graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy. Phillips found 4-5 job opportunities on a bulletin board and Lewisburg was between his parents in Newport, Tenn., and his wife's family from Alabama.

"This is really the only real job I've had after pharmacy school - 44 years in the same job without a promotion," Phillips said in his typical wry humor that sometimes includes him describing himself as a pill pusher.

While he had to take plenty of chemistry classes in school, he says, "A retail pharmacy is not a chemical business. It's a people business."

His "main skill" is talking to people and he tells the young staff hired at the drug store that they'll be doing a lot of filing and computer work, "But we're hiring you to be an actor." The lines are that they're happy to see a customer.

Being able to talk with people proved to be a skill that applied to Phillips' public life. H served two terms, eight years, as a Marshall County commissioner.

"So 20 of my 44 years here have been in public service," he noted.

His most recent work as mayor has included refinancing utility debt to escape one of the failings of Wall Street that's hit Main Street. A separate story in today's edition explains that, but having been in city and county government, Phillips has seen both sides.

"Municipalities are among the few safe investments because if they go broke, the courts can force them to raise taxes," he said.

However, he's "very worried for the county's financial security," Phillips said. "In the 1980s, when I was on the commission, a decision was subtly made to have three high schools, but we are a small, rural county."

Duplication of services such as cafeterias, janitorial and administrative staffs are factors he mentioned when emphasizing his comparison of Marshall County to Lincoln County that has one high school.

Leaders in other counties and municipalities in Middle Tennessee have acknowledged the plain fact of life and money that schools are the largest part of any county budget and education is a major expense when a municipality takes on that responsibility.

Another aspect of city government is the mayor's relationship with senior staff. Counties, typically, have a full-time mayor.

"For example," Phillips said, "the purchase of Murray Farm; We would never have attempted that if Connie (Edde, the city treasurer) hadn't said it was possible. Eddie (Fuller, the city manager) is the operator. He has, for better or worse, allowed me to be the communicator."

Those three can meet at a moment's notice, he said. The mayor should be better informed to be the communicator.

It hasn't been easy, and there have been obstacles. Six years ago, Phillips had a heart attack. He was playing tennis. He won the long match and thought he'd be sore later, but he left with a feeling that he was not well. He thought it was an upper respiratory infection.

His wife, Faris, was out of town with relatives, so he spent the night at Marshall Medical enter and went to St. Thomas the next day. he had two occluded arteries that were treated with stints.

Phillips celebrated his 67th birthday on May 1 and has been able to look back on accomplishments and some things he wants to finish even though he will not be mayor.

He's proud of the greenway along Rock Creek. It's a "linear park" providing a walking path that's proved to be popular here as similar greenways are popular in Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, Franklin, Brentwood, Nashville and, among other cities beyond the state line, San Antonio.

The Recreation Center is another city accomplishment during Phillips' terms as mayor.

It was something the city wanted to do for a long time and just as it seemed to be coming true, ICP, the heating and air conditioning business here, announced it was closing.

"At that time it would have been real east for five men who had lived through the Depression to draw in," Phillips recalled, explaining he argued that the city should provide a reason for people to stay here so the town doesn't shrink.

"Those five old gentlemen bought into it and we didn't have a negative vote," Phillips said.

Lewisburg also took over operation and ownership of what's now the city golf course, and it cooperated with the county for construction of the Columbia State Community College campus here.

"I'm not saying I caused all this," Phillips said.

However he was there when communications were needed between the two governments, and he believes they're better as a result of the state mandated 20-year growth plan that brought leaders from all across the county together to deal with growth issues.

The 2000 census counted 10,413 people in Lewisburg, the mayor says with immediate certainty on the number. He estimates it's now about 11,000, but adds, "Everybody says we had a serious undercount of Hispanics."

Now, with five children who live here, Phillips has eight grandchildren - soon to be eight - and he says, "All of my children went off to college and all of them came back."

He doesn't plan to move anywhere else for his retirement, but he does have some plans.

This town continues to revolve around a public square with a courthouse and other centers of civic life. This sense of place will probably continue to be part of Phillips' life.

He owns what some folks call Phillips' hole on the square. It's an empty lot on the south side of Commerce Street.

"I still hope to put a building there. It's a hope during retirement. It'll be a losing venture," Phillips said.

But his "hole" is not his biggest disappointment.

"My biggest disappointment... and this is kind of dangerous because of the loss of jobs at ICP and Sanford, is the burning of Deborah's. It was a restaurant and she catered events."

The restaurant was in an old house that was built as a mirror image of what's now the Victorian Melody, a business with curios and flowers, well enough known to Lewisburg residents, many of whom still remember the story behind the houses.

Decades ago, Phillips said, "One sister got mad at another and built an identical house.

"Deborah Huber bought it and people had wedding receptions there. It was sort of up-scale.

"Four years ago, I had my election party there," the mayor said.

The fire didn't represent just the loss of a business; "Something else can be built back, but it will never be the same with the charm.

"The house was 10-12 feet from the Victorian Melody," he continued. "How it didn't catch on fire was due to the wonderful work of the Fire Department. Flames were visible from the (Little League) field and people were taking things from the store" because they were afraid the fire would spread from the restaurant.

"The Minnick Hotel also burned before I moved here in 1965," Phillips said.

So, it shouldn't be a surprise that sometime after he leaves office, Phillips will want to be a member of the Lewisburg Downtown Alliance, a group formed to advocate improvements for that part of town.

Beyond the historic aspect of that, there's an industrial development factor. For years, officials in various municipalities and development groups have noticed that prospective industrial developers look at a town's public square. It's a way to measure the town's self image.

Phillips' successor, retired educator Barbara Woods has expressed an interest in public square improvements, having worked on the landscaping on the traffic islands and nearby public places.

Woods is to be sworn in at 10 a.m. on Monday in City Hall. It would appear that her predecessor could be one of the first people she turns to once she assumes her new responsibilities.