Raymond Phillips

[Age 75] The Western Maryland College professor regaled students with dramatizations of literary characters.

October 13, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

Raymond Clarence Phillips, a colorful and witty English professor who kept several generations of Western Maryland College students riveted with his classroom dramatizations of literary characters, died Monday of a stroke at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center in Chesapeake, Va. He was 75.

Dr. Phillips, who maintained homes in Uniontown and Williamsport, Pa., had been vacationing in Corolla, N.C., when stricken.

He was born and raised in Williamsport and graduated from Williamsport High School in 1949. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from Dickinson College in 1953 and a master's in English from Columbia University in 1959.

In 1968, he earned a doctorate in English and American literature from the University of Pennsylvania.

From 1956 to 1958, Dr. Phillips served with a quartermaster unit near Inchon, Korea, and in a 1992 English department newsletter, he wrote of his experiences and how he and his fellow soldiers escaped being recruited for "details."

"A detail is an Army word for a dirty chore. My buddies and I hated details, and we sought refuge in the library, where, once inside, we would be safe: sergeants, we believed, were afraid of libraries," he wrote, and then, "we were able to spend a glorious two hours in a world I had loved since childhood."

He concluded: "Libraries are good for the soul, especially in the United States Army. I salute them."

After his discharge, he was an instructor in English at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and a teaching fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He came to Western Maryland, now McDaniel College, in 1963.

"Ray was my mentor when I came here 30 years ago. He was always talking about books, lived to read and had an incredible passion for literature," said Kathy Mangan, English department chairwoman. "He wasn't from New England, but he inhabited that New England spirit and was really very Robert Frostian in so many ways."

Dr. Phillips, who was an expert on fiction of the American West, also taught courses on Puritan and Colonial literature and American Romanticism, focusing on the works of Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe.

"He loved Emily Dickinson and could recite many of her poems and those of Robert Frost from memory," Dr. Mangan said.

Dr. Phillips, who was gifted with a dramatic flair, enjoyed acting and performed with several theater groups. He brought those acting instincts to his classroom.

"He loved to write and get up in front of a crowd and speak. He also loved to entertain, do role-playing and performing caricatures of people," said John L. Olsh, who had been a student of Dr. Phillips' and now teaches economics at McDaniel.

One of Dr. Phillips' favorite props was a wooden window pull used to open and close windows in Memorial Hall, where he taught. "When acting as Captain Ahab, the window pull suddenly become a harpoon, or it could be Jim and Huck Finn's paddle as they slowly rowed down the Mississippi, or even Natty Bumppo's long rifle when he was teaching James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales," Dr. Mangan said.

"He certainly was able to make the material come alive with that long pole," said Pat Holford, who took every course Dr. Phillips taught and is now academic secretary to the economics and communications departments at the college. "He was just a wonderful character who had a delightful way of teaching."

Once a year, Dr. Phillips would adjourn to the grounds outside the chapel for his much-anticipated Phillips-Granger lecture, which was about daily life in Colonial Plimouth Plantation -- and focused on a degenerate named Granger, who was tried and executed after he was found guilty of bestiality.

As part of his talk, Dr. Phillips drew a life-size rendition of the Mayflower on the ground.

"A young lady happened by while I was chalking the walk," he wrote in a college publication. "I said, `Hi, I'm getting ready to play hopscotch, want to join me?' She smiled wanly and hurried down the hill."

Dr. Phillips applied his wry sense of humor to many of life's foibles, which colleagues collected and called "Phillipsisms." Examples included: "The great question: What is really in that thermos"; "Randolph [from Henry James' Daisy Miller] is the sort of child you'd like to send out to play on the median strip"; and "Man cannot live by books alone; he must golf."

Dr. Phillips, who retired in 1998, was an avid golfer and hiker, and volunteered as a trail checker at Catoctin Mountain Park in Western Maryland.

He enjoyed writing letters, and several years ago in The Hill, the college alumni magazine, wrote of the craft:

"One of the ways to slow down is to sit down. The physical act of writing with a pen or pencil can soothe the harried mind," he wrote. "The review of your life -- your activities, thoughts, concerns, fears, whatever -- that will make up much of your letter will help you to sort out, to shape, even to assess yourself."

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