Tommy Phillips

Tommy Phillips

CHAMPAIGN — Tommy Lee "Tom" Phillips of Champaign died Saturday (July 14, 2018) at home.

Tom was born Dec. 6, 1931, in Kingsport, Tenn., to Hal Haynes and Willie Belle Rutherford Phillips. After graduating from Dobyns-Bennett High School, he attended Tennessee Wesleyan College and then the University of Tennessee, where he received a B.S. in science education. He served from 1954 to 1956 with the counter intelligence corps of the U.S. Army, receiving a special award for his accomplishments upon completion of the CIC course at Fort Holabird, Baltimore. He then re-entered UT, received a B.A. in botany/geology, moved on to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied paleobotany, received a Ph.D. in 1961, and then came to the University of Illinois, where he spent his long and distinguished career.

In April 1967, Tom married Mary Patricia "Pat" Paden, whom he met at biological sciences meetings. They had two sons, Thomas Rutherford and Andrew Robb Phillips.

He was predeceased by his son, Thomas; brother, Haynes Phillips; sister, Sue Carroll; and parents.

He is survived by Pat, his wife of 51 years; son, Drew (Cristina Berretta) of Portland, Ore.; daughter, Mary (Bill Schopp) of Rogers, Ark.; granddaughters, Taylor and Elizabeth; sister-in-law, Carolyn Phillips; and nine nieces and nephews.

As part of a three-man team of paleobotanists, he went on trips lasting two months to Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in North America, in the summers of 1962 and 1963. There, he and his colleagues collected plant fossils of the Devonian period, indicators of a temperate climate 400 million years ago. His subsequent research focused on the Carboniferous period, the Coal Age, over 300 million years ago.

Many collecting trips to coal mines, searching for “coal balls,” limestone masses densely packed with anatomically preserved plant fossils, resulted in the largest coal ball collection in the world, some 40,000 specimens. These represent 80 different coal seams from around the world that collectively document plant life spanning some 12 million years. He and his graduate students sometimes chased halfway around the world after specimens from coal seams that filled missing time slots — chiseling them from a mine or outcrop with sledge hammers and crowbars. The collection is housed in the Paleobotanical Research Facility on the south campus of the University of Illinois.

In the early 1970s, while other paleobotanists were reconstructing individual plants, Tom proposed the then-radical idea of reconstructing entire paleoenvironments. His pioneering research led him to investigate the connections between coal properties and source vegetation, paleoclimates, extinction dynamics, even the role of ancient arthropods. His work is the largest primary, empirically generated database in paleobotany.

In 1975, he received a Guggenheim fellowship, enabling him to do comparative research on late Carboniferous coal-swamp floras in Great Britain, France and Russia, where coals have a botanical composition much like that of coals in the Illinois Basin. Similar tropical swamps existed when the continents were once joined and located close to the equator. He was a National Academy of Sciences exchange scientist to the USSR in 1976 and a guest of the Russian National Academy. In 1982, with National Science Foundation support, he was a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Mining, Peoples Republic of China.

In 1992, Tom was given the Gilbert H. Cady Award by the Geological Society of America for meritorious work in coal geology, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999.

Living plants were very important interests, as well. For most of his years, he planted and tended vegetable gardens, as well as trees. Perhaps not surprisingly, he planted so called “living fossils,” including ginkgo and dawn redwood, but also many others, including a beech to honor 25 years of marriage. It’s pretty big now.

Tom had a passion for teaching, from the time he student taught in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to his many years at the U of I. He shared his enthusiasm with classes on field trips, took them to the best truck stops for food in Illinois and northern Kentucky, and engaged them in sometimes unexpected adventures. Serving as mentor and role model for many graduate students was so important; he said he learned a great deal from research discussions and enjoyed their camaraderie.

To the end, Tom was an enthusiast for the study of Coal Age plants, and he worked with many artists to bring the past to life for his colleagues, students and the public. He never worked for recognition and advised against it: His advice was to work hard, love your work and be thankful that you get to do something so interesting.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 21, at First Presbyterian Church, 302 W. Church St., Champaign, with access to parking on Hill Street, one block north.

In lieu of other expressions of sympathy, donations to the U. of I. Foundation Phillips Lecture Fund was his request.

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