First Haymarket employee helped others transform their lives
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter October 23, 2013 7:42PM
Luther Phillips was down on his luck and drinking when the legendary Father Ignatius McDermott, an angel to many on Skid Row, gave Mr. Phillips a job as "chief cook and bottlewasher." Mr. Phillips not only dried out and went on to become a longtime staffer at Haymarket Center, he was often the first person who greeted those who came to Haymarket to seek help.
Updated: November 26, 2013 6:20AM
Luther Phillips spent bitter cold nights on the rooftop of Haymarket Center ministering to its faltering furnace. He could MacGyver a wonky washing machine, bail out a flooded basement and counsel men fresh off of Skid Row.
And if things got heated because they were delirious from drink, he’d use his 6-foot, 300-pound body to block any punches thrown at Monsignor Ignatius McDermott, dubbed the Angel of Skid Row.
The priest got him off the street — and the booze — when he hired Mr. Phillips to be the first employee at what would become Haymarket Center, a nationally recognized Chicago alcohol- and drug-treatment facility.
Haymarket became Mr. Phillips’ life. He worked there 38 years, right until his death on Sunday at 77.
The Calumet City resident had been sober ever since he met “Father Mac” in 1975, when the priest asked him to help pick up an alcoholic who’d been robbed and left bleeding on the street.
It’s hard to imagine now, but a seething demimonde once surrounded the Claes Oldenburg “Batcolumn” at 600 W. Madison. Filled with pawnshops, flophouses with chicken-wire ceilings and bars that sold a shot and a beer for 75 cents, it was Chicago’s own Pottersville, complete with down-on-their-luck strippers on their last tassel. The pavement glittered with glass from discarded bottles of Wild Irish Rose and “Mad Dog” (Mogen David) wine. Men slept off benders on park benches and the street.
In the days before alcoholism was viewed as a disease, this was a place where addiction and shame braided together.
It was Skid Row.
The late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Thomas J. Roeser described Mr. Phillips’ first encounter with McDermott outside a Madison Street bar in the book “Father Mac.”
“There was a guy laying down on the sidewalk. He had been jack-rolled….This guy’s head was bleeding. I pulled him up and took my handkerchief to his head and he said, ‘That’s all right. Father Mac will be by here.’ . . . .After a while a guy pulls up in a black car. He had a white collar and he says to this guy, ‘Hey, George, what’s happened to you?’ The guys says ‘Oh, Father!’ This guy with the white priest’s collar looks up at me and says, ‘Give me a hand, we’ll put him in the car and take him to the hospital.”
Mr. Phillips grew up in Coldwater, Miss., Roeser said, and moved to Chicago at 14. By 16, he was married. Children soon followed. He worked plucking chickens; at a laundry; and in a meatpacking plant, said his grandson, David Walker, assistant facilities director at Haymarket.
He made extra money singing with a traveling group, the Gospel Clouds. They toured the South so often, he was rarely home. His marriage broke up. Mr. Phillips was on Skid Row by his mid-30s, Roeser wrote.
With the help of some friendly maids and house detectives, he survived by squatting in unused hotel rooms. He was usually dressed in a suit, but he carried a bottle in his briefcase, Roeser said.
“Father [McDermott] told him one day when they met, he said he had a way for him to make up for all his past mistakes and showed him alcoholism was the key to all of the issues he was having,” said Walker.
Once sober, Mr. Phillips rose to become director of facilities at Haymarket, 932 W. Washington. He made sure the plumbing, heating and cooling, and elevators were in working order. “He knew every valve in this building,” said Don Musil, Haymarket’s executive vice president.
“There wasn’t a problem he couldn’t solve. He learned by watching. He [would] watch a contractor see how they do it — drywall, painting,” Walker said.
Often, he was the first to greet new arrivals. If they were hungry, he fed them. If they were downhearted, he tried to uplift them. “I understand,” he told them. “There is a way out.”
“While he was not a counselor, he was a confidant to many people who were addicted,” said Ray Soucek, president of Haymarket Center.
He also lent them money and drove them to treatment.
Sometimes, addicts had been on the street for so long, they were covered in vermin. Their clothing stuck to them. And even though no one wanted to get within a nose of them, they didn’t want a shower.
That’s where Mr. Phillips’ length and width came in handy. He’d put on rubber fishing waders and wrestle them into the shower.
“I brought a guy in, and Luther greeted me at the door. The man was filled with lice,” said Soucek. “We were both in the shower, wrestling this guy down with green soap for delousing.”
About 12 years ago, when he was already a senior citizen, his grandson and three other men were struggling to get a refrigerator into a dumpster at Haymarket Center.
“We kept picking it up and dropping it,” Walker said. “Here he comes, walks over and he picks it up by himself and throws it in the dumpster.”
He was a sharp dresser, down to his matching pocket hankies and fedoras. He liked playing the horses, fishing and going to Chicago’s Gospel Music Festival, said Leo Miller, Haymarket’s vice president of support services.
He was a softie, except maybe on the subject of singer Sam Cooke, whom he knew from the gospel circuit. “Luther was talking to some girl at their bar, and Sam pulled out his wad of money,” said Jesse Taylor, Haymarket’s manager of administrative services. “The young lady got impressed by the money and immediately went over to Sam Cooke’s side and left Luther sitting there.”
He talked about it “quite often,” Miller said.
“That was the end of that friendship,” said his grandson.
Mr. Phillips is also survived by his wife, Donna Phillips; his children, Diane Brown, Netta Phillips, Luther Phillips Jr., William Phillips, Christina Fair, Charles Phillips and Mary Phillips; his sister and brothers, Dorothy Cookbey-Drew, George Phillips and Clinton Phillips, and 32 grandchildren.
Services will be Saturday at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 1252 S. Wolcott. A wake is scheduled from 10 to 11 a.m., with a funeral service immediately following.