CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign lawyer whose legal career spanned 10 U.S. presidents, 11 Illinois governors and 50 years in the same office has passed.
John Phipps died last week at age 82 after what friends described as a robust and interesting life, the last 16 months of which were marked by lung cancer.
“I don’t think he actually stopped working. He kind of slid to a halt. Lawyering and working were incredibly important to him,” said son-in-law Jim Martinkus, married to one of Mr. Phipps’ two daughters, Ann Martinkus. Mr. Phipps also had a son.
Both Jim and Ann Martinkus are also Champaign County lawyers. Ann Martinkus and her mother, Dody Phipps, were with Mr. Phipps when he died at his Champaign home.
A lawyer since 1965, the Air Force veteran, University of Illinois College of Law graduate and grandfather to many is being remembered as a patient mentor who loved the practice of law and sharing what he knew about it and many other topics.
“He could go from talking about Illinois basketball to what the Chicago Symphony was performing to every Shakespeare play he ever saw,” said retired Champaign County judge Arnold Blockman, a friend of Mr. Phipps for 45 years. “He was an interesting guy with a real zest for life.”
Mr. Phipps had a general practice but did a lot of family law in the last 15 years of his career, much of it in Blockman’s courtroom before Blockman left the bench in 2016.
“He was the father of third-party resolution, mediation and started the whole thing for the state,” Blockman said, calling his colleague and friend “amazing” and “professional” even when on the losing side.
Blockman laughed that even though Mr. Phipps had the same downtown Champaign office for just over 50 years, he ran his practice from coffee houses, including the Daily Grind, Atlanta Bread Company, Panera Bread and Harvest Market, the last place Blockman saw his friend about three weeks ago.
Urbana attorney John Thies called Mr. Phipps a “giant” in the local and state bar, where he served as chair on many Illinois State Bar Association committees.
“The common denominator for his activities was helping the ISBA serve its core membership,” Thies added.
In 2007, the ISBA showed its appreciation by naming him a “laureate” for his career service.
The Champaign County Bar Association named him a “pillar of the bar” in 2009 for his life’s work.
“His influence on the profession went well beyond Champaign County. John was the long-time president of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, which is now, by geography, the largest legal aid organization in Illinois, covering the southern 65 counties. He served as that organization’s president for 13 years.”
Both Land of Lincoln and the ISBA “were in John’s DNA,” said Thies, who called Mr. Phipps the “quintessential general practitioner.”
“His practice was broad-based, and he simply loved serving clients,” Thies said. “Aside from our interactions as bar leaders, I also had cases with John and against him. He was always a vigorous advocate for his clients.”
Martinkus said his father-in-law never tired of talking about the law.
“Ann and I would come home beat and not want to talk about our cases but we would try to indulge him the best we could,” said Martinkus. “He was just a lover of the law.”
Hannah Wince got that impression almost from the first moment she met Mr. Phipps. A 2013 graduate of the UI College of Law, Wince started as a law clerk for Mr. Phipps two years earlier. Now in a solo general practice in Villa Grove, Wince called Mr. Phipps a wonderful mentor and friend.
“He said, ‘You need to do things that make you happy or make you money, or both.’ That has guided me in a lot of decisions,” Wince said. “And one of my favorites: Once when discussing how to present our case in court, he said, ‘You need to say what you came to say and shut up.’ That’s just great advice in general.”
Wince said Mr. Phipps has been her go-to for help.
“In the last almost seven years, I have called John at least weekly and in the beginning it was probably more like daily,” she said. “He was always calming and helpful, and he never made me feel bad for a single question, even though there were probably a few dumb ones in there.”
“He was always busy, but he never hesitated to take as much time as he needed to help me. He told me many times that part of our job was to pay it forward and help out the next generation of attorneys.”