Phillips, who retired in June after nine years as superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in the San Diego area, suffered cardiac arrest Dec. 2 and died in a hospital the following day.
Kevin Skelly, Palo Alto's current superintendent and a close friend of Phillips, was in San Diego Friday with the Phillips family. Skelly had worked as an assistant superintendent under Phillips before coming to Palo Alto as superintendent in 2007.
"Don was my great friend, my mentor for nearly two decades and a constant source of inspiration and wisdom," Skelly said in a brief e-mail Friday night.
Former Palo Alto school board president Mandy Lowell credited Phillips with getting a floundering Building For Excellence, the building program from a 1995 district facilities bond measure, back on track.
"He had an audit done when he arrived and it found they wouldn't be able to complete construction on all 16 schools, so Don restructured it to create a priority system for getting schools renovated," Lowell recalled.
"He really made sure that every school in the district received benefits from the bond program."
Phillips also presided over the re-opening of Terman Middle School, and created an AVID college-readiness program in Palo Alto.
"Don was the kind of guy that when somebody walked into his office anxious or angry, they'd leave reassured," Lowell said.
"He was a very good listener and made careful comments back. He always had a bigger picture in mind."
Phillips, who graduated from Gunn High School, had served as superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District before coming to Palo Alto.
A graduate of Whitman College, he began his education career as a social studies teacher in Washington state before earning a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he wrote a dissertation titled "The Principal as Effective Leader."
He was a middle- and high-school principal in Massachusetts and California before becoming associate superintendent of the Vista (Calif.) Unified School District.
He was active in professional organizations, writing and public speaking.
"He was very local, and understood Palo Alto better than most superintendents who come into it new," Lowell said.
"PAUSD searched around the nation to find the best superintendent for us and ended up attracting a local person from a neighboring community who'd grown up in our community."
Phillips left Palo Alto after four years because he wanted to gain experience in a larger, urban school district, which Poway provided, Lowell said. Poway has an enrollment of approximately 33,000 students, nearly triple that of Palo Alto.
Phillips is survived by his wife Robyn and sons Blake and Reid.