Alma and Jim Phillips | September 3, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- September 3, 2021

Alma and Jim Phillips

They've changed lives through more than a dozen local organizations

by By Jocelyn Dong

When Jim Phillips met Alma Howard at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1950s, it was pretty much love at first sight, he recently recalled. But a year later, the soon-to-be graduates faced their first quandary: He was staying for graduate school at the university; she was thinking of moving to Houston to find work as an elementary school teacher since Austin's school district was so highly competitive.

But demonstrating a commitment to Jim, as she would for decades to come, Alma sought her dean's advice, and he told her to go to the district office immediately.

"You're the best graduate of your year in your field. There's no question you'll get a job teaching in Austin," he said.

So Alma did. And she got the job.

Thus began the Phillipses' partnership for life, which has taken them from Austin to New York to Palo Alto, where they and their two children set down roots in 1972.

Theirs, Jim said, has been a lifetime of joy, built on mutual support and service to others.

As Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement honorees, the Phillipses' contributions to the Palo Alto area have been broad, spanning education, diversity, housing, civic affairs and services to seniors. Their impact also has been deep, helping people in ways that have changed lives.

For Jim, the ethos of service to others was planted in him when he was young, as he observed his parents' volunteerism. His mother, a registered nurse, provided health education to the poor; his father once learned sign language to communicate with a deaf and mute couple in their town.

"I thought it was really remarkable," Jim said. "That kind of stuck with me through all of my years."

When he was 5, his family moved to New York, where he witnessed stark economic inequality.

"I was exposed for the first time to African American people, and I could see ... how they were living differently, and that gave me thoughts way back then: 'Why is this difference going on?'" Jim said.

For Alma, her desire to help others grew as she discovered her talent for relating to kids of all kinds, including those who were disadvantaged and others who were considered trouble-makers.

"They're responsive. They're willing to learn — and they do, so it's rewarding," she said, her voice still carrying a faint Texas drawl.

Once the family moved to Palo Alto, Alma gave up teaching but tutored students over many decades. Witnessing their progress was deeply satisfying, she said. She's even saved a note from a teacher she respected, who'd written: "You are amazing. I wish you knew how many children are better readers because of you."

"The kids love Alma," Jim said, sitting at the kitchen table of their Eichler home recently as birds chirped outside. "I think it's her strong understanding of education and her way of connecting with children that makes such a beautiful combination."

Alma also lent her teaching skills to nonprofits including Environmental Volunteers and Deer Hollow Farm. She made an impact on civic affairs, too. Concerned about nuclear arms proliferation, she wrote educational mailers for Physicians for Social Responsibility in the 1970s. Closer to home, she chaired the successful City Council campaign of Ellen Fletcher, who won a seat in 1977. She got involved with Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing and League of Women Voters along the way.

For his part, Jim pursued a career in the aerospace and defense industry. During his career, he was a development engineer, adjunct professor, technical manager and managing executive responsible for a third of the business in Lockheed's Space Systems Division.

It was as a Lockheed line executive that he started taking an interest in employees' well-being, noticing in his daily walkabouts that many people were unhappy and disgruntled, he said.

Groups formed in the company to support gay and lesbian workers, mentor Black staff members and advocate for Hispanic employees.

When Jim saw an opportunity in the 1980s, he invited a diversity speaker from Apple to talk to the management, and afterward, Lockheed's president decided to form a president's advisory committee for diversity.

"I said, 'That's a great idea. I'll form one in my department,'" Jim said.

Jim then decided that the diversity movement was so powerful, it should be shared with the broader community. He spoke with Kay Phillips, the head of the YWCA in Palo Alto, and with fellow Palo Altan Ray Bachetti launched "Commitment to Diversity" annual conferences in the 1990s, which were well-received. Next came "study circles" — discussion groups in which members actively listened to one another talk about difficult issues of race.

He and other diversity advocates then turned to supporting young people through a school district program called Camp Anytown, donating thousands of dollars to enable youth to attend. Jim and Alma went to one of those camps and recalled an activity in which students stood in a line.

"Everybody is asked a question: Did you ever get into a fight to prove your manhood? Were you ever attacked with a knife? Did you ever lose a family member to violence? That kind of stuff," Jim said. "And the kids could see what was going on with the other kids, and they really did develop a lot of empathy across racial and economic lines. It really was worthwhile."

Beyond diversity work, Jim's commitment to lifting others up led him to the nonprofits Avenidas, Palo Alto Kiwanis Club, Peninsula Habitat for Humanity, YMCA and YWCA, Palo Alto Community Child Care, Foundation for a College Education and The Global Uplift Project (formerly One Dollar for Life) — including serving in leadership roles.

The decades of coming alongside others have made him humbler, Jim said, and taught him that the key to living a life of achievement, meaning and joy lies in serving others.

"Don't just concentrate on your own success and appearance. Put a lot of effort into doing things for others, and you will realize a richer life," he said.

Alma offered her own words of wisdom: "Follow your talents and where your interests lie."

"That sort of says, 'Be yourself,'" Jim said to Alma, "'and don't try to be somebody else!'"

Now silver-haired and decades from their coed days, they looked at one another and laughed.

Email Editor Jocelyn Dong at [email protected]


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