Michael L. Phillips 1946-2007

February 1 2007

Indiana State University suffered a huge loss when Michael Phillips, student ombudsperson, passed away Jan. 18 after suffering a massive stroke and heart attack.

Phillips, a 1969 alumnus, spent his entire career at his alma mater. After graduation, he began working in the Office of Student Financial Aid, where he worked his way up from assistant director to director. In 1995, he assumed the position of student ombudsperson, assisting students in resolving issues concerning university policies, procedures or decisions. He also served as adviser to numerous student organizations.

Phillips was scheduled to retire at the end of the semester after 37 years of service to the institution he loved.

Jan Arnett, dean of students, has many memories of this gentle giant with a heart of gold, a warm smile and a sense of humor.

"Mike and I both began our careers at Indiana State in 1970. In recent years, our offices have been adjacent to each other. Mike always made you feel good; he made you feel special. I will miss him so much," she said.

Fellow Sycamores loved him as much as he loved the place where he reached out and made a difference on a daily basis.

Anita Gabbard, who works fulltime as HMSU building services manager, on top of working toward her undergraduate degree, recalled of a time Phillips helped her out.

"Throughout the years, it has been difficult to pay my tuition, purchase my books, and raise my family. There were times I was faced with the dilemma of whether to pay my household expenses or pay my past due account at ISU.

"I did not want to drop out, but I was not going to be able to pay the balance in time. I knew Mike was the student ombudsperson and I had sent countless students to see him for assistance. He had helped so many others, so I gave him a call. I explained that I might have to quit school if I couldn't find a way to pay my account. Mike told me not to do that and he would see what he could do.

"Several weeks went by and on my birthday I received a letter in my mailbox, telling me that I had been awarded a scholarship. Since I had never applied for a scholarship, I knew this assistance had come from Mike. The amount I received not only covered the current bill but the next semester's classes and books as well.

"The next day, I couldn't wait to talk to Mike and tell him how much the scholarship meant to me. In typical Mike style, he was very humble about the whole situation. Mike lived by the philosophy of 'here to help,' and what he had done was all in a day's work.

"In May, when I walk across the stage to receive my diploma, I will thank everyone who has supported me through my journey, including one very special person who helped me when I needed it the most."

No challenge was too big for Phillips, according to one Indiana State alumna. In fall 1998, LaNetra Carther came to ISU from Victoria, Tex.

"I came to ISU with no friends, no family, and no one to go to for help if I ever needed it," she recalled.

"From the start, everything that could go wrong did. I was an out-of-state student, facing a large tuition bill, and no way to pay it. I received financial aid, but it was not enough. I was left with anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 to come up with to finish paying for school. I remember that I called my mother up one day, in tears, because I had nowhere else to turn. She suggested that I go see the Dean of Students, or in this case, Mr. Phillips. I thought she was crazy, but I mustered up the courage to go and see him.

"It was a decision that I will never regret. With his assistance, I was able to get a loan within a week.

"I faced the exact same situation at the beginning of my sophomore year. I was left with a $6,500 balance, and I was not allowed to register for my classes until the balance was paid. Mr. Phillips recommended I contact the University Foundation. It was the last day to register for classes and pay off balances. I contacted them that morning, received a call before lunch, and had the balance paid off before the cashiers went home for the day.

"It was an absolute miracle, and I owe all the thanks to Mr. Phillips for pointing me in the right direction during those hard times. I recently graduated from Baylor University with my master?s degree. None of this would have been possible without his help and dedication to being there for the students. That man was truly blessed."

In addition to his knack for reaching out and helping students, Phillips possessed a great deal of athletic ability, playing on Sycamore basketball and baseball teams.

Phillips was a member of the 1967-68 men's basketball team, which finished the year 23-8 as NCAA national runners-up. Phillips and his teammates were inducted into ISU's Athletics Hall of Fame on Jan. 29, 2005.

His service knew no boundaries. The 1964 graduate of Gerstmeyer High School made an impact on lives in the Terre Haute community, a place he called home.

He was a member of Spruce Street AME Church, where he served as treasurer and trustee. He was president of Young Men's Civic Club, a member of NAACP, I-Club, 100 Concerned African American Men, and was on the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. He served as a mentor for Sarah Scott Middle School through the Vigo County School Corp. Minority Outreach Committee, and was involved with Vigo County Youth Football League and Bambino youth baseball.

Survivors include his wife, Rita; four children, Marla, Clarenda "Missy," Michael and Marc; his mother, Erneita; two sisters, Barbara Anderson and Karen; three brothers, David, Ken and Curt; three grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; seven nieces; four nephews; and numerous other relatives and cherished friends.

Phillips' legacy will be one of caring - for his family, his community, and anyone who came to him in need of assistance.

As the Rev. George Rush said in his eulogy - "We all need to be like Mike."

Well done, good and faithful servant.

We remember Mike

"He was the very first man that I met when I arrived here at ISU last year at this time. He told me if there was anything that I ever needed, to get in contact with him. When I would see him on campus, he would stop me and give me words of encouragement, and he always had a smile on his face. There were days when I was feeling low, and I would see his smile, and it would just make me feel so much better. He was such a role model, and someone I want to mold myself after." - Keith Smith, freshman

"I remember the first time I met him. He was randomly walking around the financial aid office catching up with co-workers. I will never forget him walking in with that darn snake. One never knew when they would see Mr. Phillips, but it was a treat when we did - not knowing what costume he would be wearing next for Halloween or just brightening the day as Santa at Christmas. This is a man that will be greatly missed." - Mandy VanLannen, financial aid student worker

"From my first semester at Indiana State, he has been in my corner. In fall 2001, I felt as if my life was in turmoil after loosing best friend and my grandmother, and due to choices I made, I was not supposed to return to school. In spring 2004, Mr. Phillips helped me get classes and room and board, but due to financial aid problems, I could not return until spring 2006. During fall 2005, while visiting old roommates, I had no hope, determination or ambitions, but every time I would see Mr. Phillips, he would tell me to hold on and hang in there. Because of him working with me and telling me not to give up, I will be graduating in December of this year. The drive that Mr. Phillips possessed is immeasurable. There will never be another individual who touches the hearts and minds of students like Mr. Phillips. I thank you for everything you did for me and for believing in me when I didn?t believe in myself!" - Phelecia Johnson, senior


"Mike was particularly well-suited for his role as university ombudsperson. He dedicated his entire career to serving our students in a way that went above and beyond dealing with the specific issues at hand, to serve as a caring mentor who helped hundreds of students reach their goals. The best tribute we could pay to Mike's memory is to rededicate ourselves to serving students as our top priority." - President Lloyd W. Benjamin III

"Mike Phillips came to my children's high school to talk about financial aid, and went through the forms line by line. I was terrified of those forms, but came away from that meeting feeling like the forms really were do-able.

"I would see him across campus after I came to work here, and he was always making students feel at ease. How fortunate ISU was to have him as an alumni and employee." - Becky Bailey, office of registration and records

"The very first time I met Mike was when I interviewed for an accountant position here at ISU in the summer of 1990. He was one of a group of seven on the panel that was interviewing me. You can imagine what an interview is like with a room full of mostly accountants. Every time I would start getting drilled with accounting questions, Mike would just smile at me and ask questions like, 'Enough about accounting, what do you like to do outside of work?'

It was just recently that I had the opportunity to thank Mike and to tell him how after all this time I still remember how he put me at ease during that interview. I will never forget the infamous Mike Phillips Fish Frys that he used to have out the back door of the old Financial Aid office - that was some good eatin'!" - Hope Waldbieser, asst. dir. financial accounting

"Even though I only ever spoke to him on the telephone, Mike Phillips made a difference in my life as a teacher, and in the lives of several of my students over the years who came to me with what seemed like insurmountable life problems: divorce, abuse, and child custody battles, to legal troubles of other kinds, and it was always reassuring to know that Mike was available to help. He always projected a positive attitude and an open and friendly manner. Every student I sent his way told me later that he put them at ease, and told them that their problem had a solution. Because he was so good at his job, I always had confidence, when a troubled student came to me for help, that even if I didn?t have the expertise or training, Mike did. After meeting with Mike, one of my students beamed, ?I never knew there was anybody like that in the WORLD, much less here at ISU whose job it was to help me!" - Alden Cavanaugh, assistant professor of art

"I first met Mike Phillips during the proceedings of a hearing held by ISU's Graduate Student Academic Integrity Committee to examine an alleged misconduct by an ISU student. I remember Mike as a person of great integrity, an ombudsman with a sense of justice, and an administrator who concerns himself with student affairs. I can say that his honest testimony before the committee and his sincere advice to the student led ultimately to a committee decision that made a big difference in the life of a student. ISU lost a truly caring person." - Mohameden Ould-Mey, associate professor of geography

"Mike was a guest in my Diversity Issues class a number of times. I approached him to lead a panel of students in a discussion about race. He thought it was a good idea, and wanted to meet with them ahead of time. A mix of male, female, black and white, six or seven students would meet him in his office and chat and plan about what they would say to the class. These discussions centered around their personal experiences with race and racism. Some of the students had difficulty talking about their experiences and Mike would gently encourage them or facilitate based on what they had discussed earlier. Mike would share some of his experiences, going back to a time when racism was more openly expressed. He emphasized to the class that just because racism is not obvious, it is still there and it needs to be dealt with. He said we need to be patient and sensitive with each other. He would often speak to the African-American males in the class, strongly telling them of the importance of completing their education and being respectful to each other and to women.

"When Mike spoke of these sensitive issues, he was parent, friend, learned elder, and advocate all in one. He was scheduled to speak in my class again this semester, to work with the student panel. He said for the last time, and I said, 'Not if I can help it.' I bribed him with a fishing trip in my boat and he said that would probably do it." - Don Rogers, associate professor of recreation & sport management

"I never saw Mike angry, but I did see his passion for ISU students flare up from time to time. Once at a meeting with Division staff, Mike seized the attention of the room by forcefully but eloquently challenging everyone there to go out of the way to make sure our students know we value them. He urged everyone to cut through any of the garbage that stands in the way of student success, like the run-around, incorrect information, or not following through on something that could result in a negative effect on a student. He told us that we're building lives here, and not to forget for a second how important that is." - Ray Veit, ISU dining services

"Working with Mike, I saw that he always greeted each visitor as if they were the most important thing in the world at that time. His sincerity was so genuine when he would come in the office every day and ask how I was doing, and he never failed to acknowledge each and every one of us. He always brought sunshine with him. I know from what I have learned from him that I should try to be the kindest and most patient person that I can be." - Lisa McDaniel, dean of students office

"I worked at HMSU for almost 12 years and Mike worked upstairs from me. I cannot remember a time he was down or said a negative word about anyone. Mike's death has taught me a lot about my faith and the type of person I want to strive to be and exit this life in the same manner. I was blown away by the number of people who waited in line for two hours in Hulman Center just to pay their last respects. I am sure Mike himself had no idea of the lives that he touched.

"His service was so moving and encouraging. I will strive to be like my brother in Christ who shined the light of Jesus to a dark world. I will try to love my neighbor, give more, care more, and encourage more.

"I will miss Mike, and this lesson will stay with me the rest of my life. The saying is so true that people don't care what you know, until they know that you care." - Lisa Stein, admissions

"My favorite Mike Phillips story involves a student who arrived on campus for the fall term, whose financial aid had not come through, so the student couldn?t afford tuition, books or housing. One morning, Mike found this kid curled up in a sleeping bag in the bushes outside Stalker Hall. He was so broke that he couldn't afford a bed to sleep in. Mike took the student home and let him crash on the Phillips' couch. That was Mike - a mountain of a man with a heart of gold. I'll miss him fiercely." - Mark Hamm, professor of criminology

"No matter when I would contact Mike about a student's problems, he would immediately set out to find a solution. He never made excuses or said he was too busy to take on a student's dilemma.

"We all knew to expect to see Mike in costume for Halloween, and we even got to enjoy him this past fall at the campus-wide picnic as Romey the clown. He certainly had a way of making everyone smile. The university will go on without Mike Phillips, but his place will never be completely filled." - Kay Taylor, office of the president

"In fall 2006, one of my former graduate students called from San Francisco to report that she was being harassed by a faculty member at her new school. I gave Mike a call; he was as eager to help out with alumni as he was with current students. His advice was helpful in having my graduate student resolve the situation. Mike will be missed." - Jim Buffington, assoc. professor of MIS

"Mr. Phillips taught me to better understand people as human beings and therefore exercise patience in dealing with them. Sometimes you become jaded when interacting with students on probation or that have been dismissed. Although, I no longer work directly with these populations, when I did, it was my pleasure to work with him when students in such circumstances would come to him for guidance. Mr. Phillips never made any promises regarding the final outcome of such situations; he did lend an ear and support the student in navigating the steps necessary in their respective cases to deal effectively with their college/department. He was patient and kind, but also steadfast in his belief that with support and a second chance, it was worth his efforts to help a student embrace success." - Mary (Mebby) Griffy, program assistant, first-year programs

"Mike Philips was one of the finest individuals ever to grace the campus of Indiana State University. He truly understood what friendship, service and helping students in need was all about.

"Mike Phillips came out to make financial aid presentations for special weekends hosted by the recruitment committee for the Department of Music. On a blackboard, he would write his contact information, including his HOME telephone number. He would tell the parents that if they ever had a question pertaining to financial aid, they were to contact him direct and not to feel reserved about calling him at home because that was one of the reasons he had a phone in his house.

"I always felt that if all administrators, faculty and staff had that kind of attitude, what a much better place ISU would become. Mike Phillips was a true friend to all, a real gentleman among gentleman and a man I was privileged to be able to call my friend." - Jim Slutz, professor emeritus of music


"Mike Phillips was an extraordinary man, and an inspiration to anyone that came in contact with him. He helped me when I had some unresolved issues with student housing. He taught me how to approach school officials like a professional and that a little bit of perseverance can take someone a long way. I will continue to pray for his family as they grieve over their loss of such an exceptional man." - Tarena Daniels, '06

"When my mother called me to tell me to come home because she could not fund my first year of graduate school, I was devastated. I walked down to financial aid without an appointment and Mr. Phillips saw me immediately. I do not know what he did, but he fixed it and told me there would be no problem in getting the money, and to sign up for classes. He helped make it possible for me to get a master's degree and eventually a Ph.D. all at ISU. I am forever grateful." - Jade Miller, '74, '76, '96

"Mike Phillips' help in providing me with historical and anecdotal material for my dissertation on the history of the black student protest movement at ISU was immeasurable and invaluable. He was encouraging and helpful in my scholarly endeavor. I thank him for that, but most of all, I thank him for his friendship." - Crystal Reynolds, '98

"He was always an inspiration to me in times when I didn't want to put up with the challenge of being the leader of a student organization. He allowed me to see the importance of my presence and role that I played in men's lives who looked up to me. He kept me going with a smile, a joke, serious words of encouragement and many other things. Even after Graduation, I would still call him from time to time to check in and let him know my professional progress. He is a man among men. I know he is up smiling down on all those who loved him and who he loved. If a boy were asked the question of what type of person they would want to be like when they become a man.... Mike Phillips would be one of those named. I can only hope that I touch half the people in my life time that he did. He will be missed." - Everett Greene, '04

Former members of the Sycamore family

"I worked in the Office of Student Financial Services for 13 years, from June 1990-July 2003. Mr. Phillips was the director for five of those years until he moved to be the ombudsperson. While he was in this office, he was a fair, stern, and yet gentle person that you don?t see in a lot of people.

"I really enjoyed being around him, as he made you smile or laugh. He always asked about the family and we shared stories of fishing or mushroom hunting. He and I worked close as a team to assist students in getting their student loans, or at least help them get through the process of getting their financial aid.

"I will miss him, his fish frys, his stories, his cheery way of answering the phone, 'This is Mike Phillips, how can I help you?' Or the call just to say, 'Happy birthday' or 'anniversary.'" - Sylvia Fox, former OSFS Student Loan Division

Help continue Mike's legacy

Contributions can be made to the Young Men's Civic Club Scholarship Fund or to the Indiana State University Foundation for the Michael L. Phillips Student Emergency Loan Fund.

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Story Highlights

Sycamore leaves a legacy for us all Indiana State University suffered a huge loss when Michael Phillips, student ombudsperson, passed away Jan. 18 after suffering a massive stroke and heart attack.

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