Those who know Dick Phillips well call him “fearless.” Not because as a soldier in World War II he parachuted over the Rhine River in March of 1945 and battled the Germans on the ground. Not because as dean of the law school from 1964 to 1974 he handled racial tensions and Vietnam War protests with balance and without overreacting. Not because at age 90 he still walks up and down stairs without grasping the handrail.
People call Dick Phillips fearless because he acts with integrity, unafraid of criticism. Throughout his four-profession career — lawyer, teacher, dean and judge — Dick earned a reputation for good judgment, ethical decisions and reliable responsibility.
Having grown up in Laurinburg, where he says he got an excellent education in public schools, he enrolled in Davidson College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa before going off to war. Upon returning with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, he went to law school at Carolina, where he joined a study group of war veterans who became lifelong friends. He was a Law Review editor and belonged to Order of the Coif and Golden Fleece.
“Dick was the most scholarly,” said former Chancellor Bill Aycock ’48, “and he continued to be outstanding.”
His honors from UNC include the Thomas Jefferson Award and Alumni Distinguished Professor, both in 1977; the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1993; and the law school’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Dick brought his law degree back to Laurinburg, where he went into private practice with Terry Sanford ’39. The two later moved their practice to Fayetteville. The Carolina law school recruited Dick to the faculty in 1960. Aycock, who was chancellor then, appointed him dean of the law school in 1964, a post he held for a decade. During the cafeteria workers’ strike, during the chancellorship of Carlyle Sitterson ’31, Dick chaired a committee to decide a course of action and establish guidelines to address racial tensions on campus in general.
“What motivates him is doing what is right,” said Gerry Hancock ’65, who served with Dick on the state ethics commission. “He has character, one of the strongest I have known. Dick served as the conscience of the law school and maintained the University as a beacon for decency and progressive politics.”
Dick continued teaching at the law school until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Dick served on the N.C. Courts Commission that reorganized the state judicial system in 1963. In 1976, Gov. Jim Hunt ’64 created the ethics commission and tapped Dick as its chair and Gerry Hancock as vice chair. Together they reviewed financial interests of state employees in the executive branch and established rules for dealing with conflicts of interest.
“Our job was to make sure the government remained honest and people had confidence in it,” Gerry said. “Without exception, Dick could see every side of an issue and find the path through to an honest conclusion.”
The cases Dick heard during his 20 years on the federal appellate court bench presented tough questions, including some about the rights of minorities and women. “Things had been done a certain way for a couple hundred years,” Dick said, “so our decisions were sometimes monumental upsettings of long-established ways of doing business.”
Tom Kelley, director of clinical programs at the law school, clerked for Dick in 1991 and came away with an impression of him as a jurist who could boil down a complex issue into a simple, common sense statement. In a complicated 4th Amendment question about qualified immunity of a county sheriff, Dick summarized: “If you’re going to take a man out of the field and strap a gun to his waist and tell him to keep the peace, you’re going to have to keep an eye on him.”
Dick had a habit of leaning his head back and closing his eyes as he listened to arguments in court. But when one of the parties came to a make-or-break point that one of the clerks had emphasized in a bench memo, Dick would open his eyes long enough to wink at that clerk.
Dick’s scrupulous insistence on impartiality with those who argued cases before him meant friends stopped coming by for lunch. When Tom Kelley and the other clerks realized Dick was so capable and knowledgeable that they slowed him down more than helped him, they asked why he even bothered hiring clerks. They expected to hear him say something about training the next generation of lawyers. Instead, Tom said, “He told us he liked our enthusiasm, and he enjoyed us as lunchtime companions.”
Dick still enjoys the lunch company of young law students and can be seen with them regularly at The Carolina Club.
The Faculty Service Award is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.