John McCandlish Phillips' eyes rolled open as I stood silently by his bedside with my wife Darilyn Saturday night. He raised his brow upward in greeting. His eyes cleared and his left hand moved up in a weak wave.
The legendary reporter for the New York Times was laid low by failing lungs, but he ministered to the very end. He encouraged, mentored, and prayed. John was a genius in giving deft encouragement to everyone who visited him with those wrinkles on his forehead rising and eyes growing large with warmth and encouragement.
A few days earlier he was still able write, though unable to speak through the breathing apparatus (he laughed with pleasure when I called it his astronaut mask). In wobbly block letters he would write bedside orders for the visitor to continue their calling in the Lord. His friends collected a whole book of these "marching orders of the Lord via John." You always felt that it was such a privilege, such a joy, and such an encouragement.
Weaving his writing up and down the page, he wrote a large bedside order to me. "Your Story, the photographer Jacob Riis, must be fully told." Riis was the outstanding Christian reporter in his day 100 years ago, just as Phillips was in his. In 2007, Phillips won the Jacob Riis award for lifetime achievement in journalism from the Christian journalist group Gegrapha. The group thanked Phillips for "exemplifying the values, integrity and journalistic excellence practiced by New York reporter and photojournalist Jacob Riis."
Phillips was born in Glen Cove, New York, on Long Island on December 4, 1927. He was known as Johnny, though later he warned people that he didn't like to be called that. Directly from high school, he started work as a reporter. While in the army, he attended a church service at which he was born again.
After getting out of the Army, Phillips worked for the Times from 1952 to 1973, mostly as a reporter in the Metro section. He kept a big Bible on his desk, which he frequently consulted. He also had a way of praying stories into being.
One time Phillips was stumped on how to do a breaking news story from his desk on a train derailment in New Jersey. He didn't have much time; I believe it was something like 40 minutes before he had to file the story. He walked to the water cooler, all the while praying. He took a drink, and walked back praying. At his desk he realized that he could try to call businesses that were situated along the area of the railway crash. He quickly found a businessman who said he saw the whole crash from his store. "God answers prayer! He sure does!" John told me. He scooped everyone with his story and its eyewitness account.
His most famous story was a front page profile in 1965 of the New York leader of the Klu Klux Klan. Headlined "State Klan Leader Hides Secret of Jewish Origins," the story was a terrifically reported profile of Daniel Burros, a 28-year-old Queens man who was the Grand Dragon. The reporting was dangerous and the Times offered to assign bodyguards to Phillips, an offer that he waved away before the article was printed. Phillips went personally to Burros to confront him with the story and in effect to give him a chance to repent. Burros didn't change his views but later committed suicide. After publication, the Times insisted on security for Phillips.
He also wrote the About New York column. He wrote of missionaries coming home, ne'er do wells in Times Square, and a dramatic skit about monks and their bells. Phillips described the action on stage: "The time has come to ring the bells, And, O, how those bells are pealed that morning! Around and around the monks go in widening circles, running, skipping, leaping, twining their ropes together! Into the air they go, denying their last inhibition, greeting the new, the hilarious morning!"