Hutchins Library
Special Collections & Archives
Guide to the John S. Phillips Papers

Accession Number: 58
John S. Phillips, 1899-
Papers: 1916-1964
Bulk Dates: 1940-1964
4.4 linear feet.
Online Catalog Record (BANC)

Series Description
Series I - Published Columns and Articles
Series II - Original Stories, Scripts, and Poems
Series III - Typescript of novel, George Samson
Series IV - Photographs and Clippings
Series V - Miscellaneous

Access and Use

Provenance: This collection was obtained from a family member. There are no restrictions placed on this collection other than federal copyright regulations.

Preferred Citation: John S. Phillips Papers, Berea College Special Collections & Archives, Berea, Ky.


This collection consists of 11 manuscript boxes containing the writings and public photographs of John Shem Phillips, who spent many years in radio, TV, and newspaper work in West Virginia. Most of the photos have to do with public occasions in broadcasting, with his organization of "Peace Week" in 1948, or with his participation in Operation Larkspur, an Air Force demonstration of long-range flight.


John Shem Phillips was born around 1900 at Hawk Run, PA, to Elizabeth Edwards and David Rocer Phillips, both of Welsh background; his parents separated when he was still young. (In some of his manuscripts, Phillips uses “David Rocer” as a pen name.) His father and his Edwards grandfather both worked in the coal industry. David Phillips, who became a mining engineer for the C & O railroad, died in 1934 of silicosis from working in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia; another son, Marcus Phillips, campaigned for a plaque memorializing the hundreds of men who died there because of the working conditions in the tunnel.

When John Phillips was about ten, he moved to Huntington, West Virginia. He enlisted in the military during WW I, and briefly took on a variety of jobs in coal and logging camps near his home. Then he studied music and drama in New York and Cincinnati, eventually touring with a vaudeville team and also with the summer opera company in Cincinnati. Phillips joined a Charleston, WV, radio station in 1929, writing, announcing, and producing shows. He married Flora Fern Poe of Elkton, WV, and the couple had one son, Frazier Malcolm Phillips, who served in the Navy during WW II. Phillips also served in WW II, and later chaired a local committee dedicated to improving understanding between military and civilian entities, most notably during “Peace Week.” This effort involved him in a trip to Alaska as part of an Air Force publicity effort called Operation Larkspur. He helped found the West Virginia Broadcasters' Association (1946) and the TriState Industrial Editors Association. For five years Phillips left radio to sell advertising for the Charleston Gazette, but then again joined a Charleston station, going rapidly from salesman to manager. By 1953 he was general manager of the Greater Huntington Radio Corporation, operating WHTN, an independent radio station which added TV broadcasting in 1957. In 1958 he went south to work at WJBF television in Augusta, GA. In 1959 he was back in Beckley, WV, writing farm-related articles and columns for the Raleigh Register and the Post Herald and Register until he retired in 1964. Some of Phillips' stories and poetry were published in newspapers, but his novel, George Samson, remained unpublished.

Series Description
10 Manuscript Boxes, 1 Oversize Box

Series I Published Columns and Articles Boxes 1-7

Phillips mounted newspaper clippings of his columns and articles on notebook paper and dated them. These were written between 1959 and 1964 for the Raleigh Register, an afternoon paper, and the Post Herald and Register, a morning paper. Besides reporting for the Post Herald farm page, Phillips regularly wrote two columns: “Bug Dust,” for the Register, and “Speaking of Neighbors,” for the Post Herald and Register.

Series II Original Stories, Scripts, and Poems Box 8

This series contains some of Phillips’ more serious writing as well as some comic sketches and poems. “The Stalker of the Big Storm” (1944) is a serial mystery, with “to be continued” at the end of each section. “A Pioneer Home” is apparently historical fiction, a story of an Indian/settler confrontation in early Virginia. “Squared Accounts” presents a betrayed moonshiner. Phillips’ memoirs include an account of a remarkable dog (“The Moon Sets in the Morning”), and a lot of stories from growing up in coal towns (“From Away Back”). “The Day I Was Alone” is a memorable short story, but may well be based on situations known to the author. One radio script is intended to present information to veterans, while the other is entertaining fiction. Also included are typescripts and copies or clippings of original poems written between 1920 and 1964—most of them between 1923 and 1944. A handwritten poem is dated 1916. The most successful are verses in dialect like “Jack’s Theory” or “Runty Pig.” Phillips collected his verse in a manuscript he entitled “Beyond the Moat.”

Series III Typescript of Novel, George Samson Box 9

Phillip’s novel follows a young man of the prohibition era from his mountain home to the state capital, where his intelligence and ambition lead him to organize the local homebrew vendors, gaining wealth and power at moral and personal cost. Finally, motivated by his interest in an attractive college girl and various crises in the city’s underworld, he exits the rackets, but when the woman he loves rejects him he sinks into alcoholism. After friends bring him back to sobriety and restored health, he invests in legitimate business, enters university, and reconnects with his family. He marries, and his future looks bright. Yet he does not escape the revenge of a mountain man in his home town.

Series IV Photographs & Clippings Box 10

This series consists largely of formal photos from Phillips’ public career, especially from the “Peace Week” celebration he organized in 1948. Among the special guests was West Virginia native Capt. Chuck Yeager, already renowned as a test pilot, and Brigadier General Anthony “Nuts” MacAuliffe. There are shots of the parade in Charleston and the special guests with city and state leaders. The loose photos range from an early portrait of young Phillips, inscribed to his parents, to clippings about a 1961 performance of The Rainmaker, in which Phillips played a role. They document WGKV-NBC events, and a farewell gathering of WHTN staff. The scrapbooks document the trip to Alaska that the Air Force arranged to publicize its long range capabilities immediately after World War II.

Series V Miscellaneous Box 11

The large artifacts consist of a framed drawing of John Shem Phillips from 1948, done by Kandall Vintroux for the Charleston Gazette’s “Guess Who” feature, a Kentucky Colonel certificate signed by Governor Lawrence Wetherby in 1954, and a scrapbook featuring articles by and about Phillips, including a regular column called “Hidden Trails” that he wrote for the Kanawha Valley Leader. The scrapbook includes a whole section about the launching of WHTN Huntington’s TV broadcasts, with John Phillips as station manager. A newspaper account of the Hawk’s Nest scandal, mentioning David Phillips, is entitled “Town of the Living Dead. ”

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